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Law relieves Board of Supervisors’ $1.6M burden

Lincoln County supervisors voted unanimously Monday to acknowledge a law that saves them $1.6 million that would have come out of their own pockets.

The five board members passed a resolution — surprisingly with little fanfare — to agree to the new statute. Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1249 into law April 18, three days after the board’s meeting that month.

HB 1249, which lists Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, as a co-author, amends state law to allow county governments to pay the total or any part of the cost of insurance coverage for employee dependents. It allows them do so retroactively for any existing group coverage plan previously adopted.

The law went into affect as soon as it was signed.

Currie said she co-authored the bill because the previous law affected many counties in the state.

“It was not just a Lincoln county problem. Most counties in the state had been doing the same thing,” she said. “The other counties were very worried about it across the state because they were doing the same thing, they just hadn’t gotten around to their audit yet.”

State Auditor Shad White had demanded the supervisors personally reimburse Lincoln County around $1.6 million for improper insurance benefits payments made on behalf of county employees.

Supervisors approved payment of insurance premium for county employees’ dependents in fiscal years 2015 through 2018. State law prior to Bryant’s signature said county employees who desired dependent coverage must request it in writing, and the entire cost of such additional coverage for dependents shall be paid by the employee.

Lincoln County appears to have begun making the improper payments in 2000 as a means of offsetting the traditionally low pay county employees receive. Supervisors say numerous state audits of the county since 2000 were completed without negative findings. County attorney Bob Allen said the county had been audited 17 times since 2000 — six by the state auditor — and no one had challenged the practice or called it to the county’s attention.

Currie said White found a statute that showed the board to be acting illegally.

“He is good at what he does. He found it and we have fixed it,” she said. “There was a state law saying they can’t, so we just changed it to say that they may. If they want to continue to do it, they can. If they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to.  We don’t want to put an unfunded mandate on anybody.”

Supervisors argued the auditor’s finding against them was improper because none of them personally benefited, no public money was embezzled or misappropriated and the dependent coverage paid for is similar to a raise or other benefit. Cities are allowed to pay for dependent coverage under existing state law.

“Nothing was ever put in their pocket,” Currie said. “If they had maliciously done anything I would have never been a part of this law.”