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July 14, 2004

Oswego County Officials React to Silver Star Association Lawsuit

County Legislature Chairman Russ Johnson hosted a news conference Thursday, July 8 to assure county taxpayers and Oswego County employees that no member of the Legislature or county staff "has acted in any way that is contrary to law."

The press conference explained the county health insurance plan and addressed statements made by representatives of the Silver Star Association, a collective bargaining unit that represents employees at the Oswego County Correctional Facility. The union has issued statements that "completely misrepresent the manner in which the County's health plan is funded and how it operates," said Chairman Johnson. "We want the Oswego County taxpayers and all County employees to know the truth.

"For about a week now, the people of Oswego County have heard and read the assertions and allegations made by representatives of the Silver Star Association and its lawyer about how our county administrator has stolen money, how legislators have been misled by staff, and that the other employee unions are free loaders if they don't join in" the Silver Star Association's lawsuit against the county, said Chairman Johnson. "This is the lowest form of collective bargaining that I have ever seen in my nearly 20 years in public service. And this legislature sees that."

The health insurance plan is funded by annual appropriations in the budget. It would be against the law to fund it through a specified reserve fund, as alleged in the lawsuit by the Silver Star Association.

"Contrary to the inaccurate public assertions and allegations made, there is no 'Health Insurance Reserve Fund' - in fact, such funds are not allowed under New York State Law," said Chairman Johnson. "Each year, an estimate of anticipated costs is made for the coming year, and that is the basis of the budget request. As legislators, our goal is to ensure that enough money is put into the budget to meet anticipated employee health insurance expenses, but not to tax property owners more than is necessary to accomplish this purpose."

If budgeted amounts are below actual costs, the County has to amend the budget to add to the appropriation. If actual costs are less than budgeted amounts, the difference is re-appropriated and used for the plan's costs in the next year.

County Treasurer John Kruk explained that reserve funds are created through legislative resolution, not through the budget. Any expenditure of reserve funds is also done through legislative resolution.

"As Treasurer, I cannot and will not ever permit the use of a reserve fund without proper authorization by a majority of the County Legislature," said Kruk. He added that an independent auditor audits the county every year.

Chairman Johnson said that all county employees covered under the county's health insurance plan have excellent coverage at very reasonable rates. "In every case, the County bears full responsibility for ensuring that all covered services are paid for in full. No county employee or retiree needs to be concerned that his or her coverage is in any risk at any time," he said.

Members of the Silver Star Association pay $2.50 per month for individual health insurance coverage. "This employee contribution has not increased in 23 years -- over two decades," noted County Personnel Director Maureen Sullivan. "The county's share of the cost in this time period has increased from $20.44/month to $351.50/month-an increase of 1,619 percent."

Interim County Attorney Richard Mitchell also spoke at the news conference. He explained that health insurance couldn't be placed in a "6n" reserve fund as charged by the Silver Star Association. He said he will seek dismissal of the lawsuit because "it has no basis in law or fact," adding that the proper forum for negotiating employee benefits is the negotiating table.

"This legislature will continue to make the difficult decisions to hold the line on property taxes," added Chairman Johnson. "We will need all the unions to help in that regard with real 'good faith' collective bargaining practices. Personal attacks in the form of public defamation of alleged criminal wrongdoing on the part of a good man who has absolutely no control over the movement of any public funds is the wrong approach. The bullying tactics demonstrated thus far serve no legitimate purpose and won't prevail. This legislature doesn't stand behind our county administrator; it stands with him, especially in support of his hard work for all of us."

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