05/19/11 — County wary of taking on GATEWAY expense

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County wary of taking on GATEWAY expense

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on May 19, 2011 1:46 PM

From the 8 a.m. work session to the commissioners' final comments, the county's proposed acceptance of GATEWAY employees into its health insurance program dominated this week's Wayne County Board of Commissioners meeting.

The board was sharply divided on what the county's role with the transportation organization should be in the future.

The commission approved the proposed measure 4-2 to allow GATEWAY full-time employees to enter the program when their benefits run out June 30 and remain for a year, with a mid-year evaluation planned to determine the county's next move. GATEWAY would pay all premiums incurred for the insurance.

County Manager Lee Smith said when the Association of County Commissioners notified GATEWAY that it would be dropping it from its insurance policy at the end of June, it left the organization fewer than 90 days to find a stop gap measure to prevent a lapse in coverage for GATEWAY's employees.

Smith said the relationship would be similar to the one between the county and the Wayne County ABC Board and provide the most benefits for GATEWAY employees while minimizing the county's liability.

Not all of the commissioners were convinced, however, as District 6 Commissioner Jack Best, one of the dissenters, spoke up about the issue during the commissioners' work session ahead of the full meeting, noting that he didn't want to "air dirty laundry" while the cameras were rolling and the public was in attendance.

"The majority of county people don't use it, don't want it and don't understand GATEWAY," he said. "We should let the board of directors stand on its own. It should be self-supporting. Otherwise, Lee will end up with this in his lap."

Best said the measure was a "short-term vision" and anticipated that this step would lead toward the county taking over the organization completely.

"Then we'll be obligated to those employees," he said. "They'll be looking to the county to provide them with employment for the rest of their lives."

District 4 Commissioner Steve Keen, the other commissioner opposed to the measure, said the GATEWAY discussion was "the taxpayers' dirty laundry" and that it should be brought up and discussed extensively after the public access cameras began recording.

When the issue came up during the full meeting, Best was just as emphatic that the transportation organization be cut off from the county.

"Their board needs to be independent, no matter what the cost is," he said.

Keen, who had reserved his comments until the full session, expressed his concern with the organization itself, noting that the past three years showed GATEWAY had been "bleeding" money.

"This system is hemorrhaging and it's too late for a tourniquet. It's time for amputation," he said, adding that he would like to see GATEWAY sold off.

Smith said the organization's fares would never pay for itself, and that it depended on supplementary funds and subsidies to survive, but Keen was adamant that the service wasn't the issue that concerned him. His concern, he said, was the cost to taxpayers and the risk that the county would eventually be forced to take over the organization completely, just as it had with the airport and the animal shelter.

"Where does it stop?" he asked. "It's a prelude to a train wreck."

District 1 Commissioner Andy Anderson, who voted for the proposal, said the benefits for taxpayers made GATEWAY an organization worth supporting.

"We are putting very little money into it and a lot of these people in the county, if they didn't have these buses to get to the doctor, would be in a nursing home," he said.

Smith added later that the ridership has also gotten younger recently, as college students wary of high gas prices were using the bus system to attend classes at Wayne Community College. Vice Chairman John Bell concurred, noting that the people who lived in the city were county citizens as well, but Best was undeterred.

"Once we take on this obligation, it will be ours," he said, adding that the city's refusal to take GATEWAY employees onto its insurance plan was evidence that the risk wasn't worth it. "They understand the long-term effect."

He referenced the city's proposed budget that cut funding for many agencies, but provided financial support for GATEWAY.

"Eventually they will cut that, too, and this will be a county project," he said. "And it does not need to be."

Keen suggested that the commissioners arrange a work session to discuss the proposal, but Smith noted that timing constraints prevented such a session.

Seemingly closing his argument, Keen asked Smith what the city of Goldsboro had done knowing that there was a time constraint before GATEWAY employees lost coverage.

"Nothing," Smith said.

Smith said after the meeting that he had brought the subject up two meetings prior in order to allow proper time for the commissioners to discuss it and that this pressing matter had not come as a surprise to the board.