By BRUCE COLLIER
The Walton County Taxpayers Association (WCTA) has raised several questions regarding the propriety of the county’s decision to pay for health care insurance for families of several top county officials. It was reported in an area newspaper that the watchdog group had learned, during a public records request, that Walton County Human Resources Director Gary Mattison had authorized in October of 2006 that the county pay the full monthly health care insurance premium for the families of three county officials and five county commissioners.
The three officials were County Administrator Ronnie Bell, County Attorney David Hallman, and then-Director of South Walton Tourist Development Council Kriss Titus. According to Walton County benefits coordinator Karen DeBeauchamp, Bell, Hallman and Titus accepted the family premium payment in place of salary increases. The family full-premium payment went into effect in January of 2007.
Ordinarily, family benefits are available for county employees, including the above officials, with the employee paying a portion and the county paying a portion. The “Walton County Benefits Summary” states that family coverage costs $497.60 per month, with the county employee paying $344.46 and the county paying the balance of $153.14.
The WCTA questions whether Mattison had the legal authority to authorize the payment of the full amount without the involvement of the county administrator or commissioners, and whether it ought to have been presented publicly, discussed, and authorized on the record.
The Herald contacted DeBeauchamp inquiring whether Mattison was acting pursuant to a statute or administrative rule that would give him the authority to approve extending full benefit payments to families of county employees. Mattison is currently out on medical leave. DeBeauchamp responded by sending a copy of Florida Statute 112.08 (FSA 112.08) “Group insurance for public officers, employees, and certain volunteers; physical examinations.”
Section (2)(a) of that statute reads, in relevant part: “Notwithstanding any general law or special act to the contrary, every local governmental unit is authorized to provide or pay out of its available funds for all of part of the premium for life, health, accident, hospitalization, legal expense or annuity insurance, or all or any kinds of such insurance, for the officers and employees of the local governmental unit and for health, accident, hospitalization, and legal expense insurance for the dependents of such officers and employees….”
The statute authorizes entering into contracts for such insurance, and requires a competitive bidding process for such insurance. The statute does not specify or confer specific authority on who may or must act on behalf of the governmental unit (which includes counties). The statute does not contain language requiring a public meeting or public comment on such a decision.
However, as for Mattison’s authority, DeBeauchamp sent along a job description of the Human Resources Director’s essential job functions, among which is “[p]lans and directs implementation and administration of benefits program.” DeBeauchamp’s response stated, “The Commissioners were informed that their family premium was being paid for by the County as of January 2007. No group meetings were held nor were any Board action taken as it was not required.”
The WCTA is reportedly consulting legal counsel for an opinion on whether the family benefit payments can be halted, and whether the benefit payments already received should be paid back.
Contact Bruce Collier at email@example.com.