BY MICHAEL WALTON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Officials are delaying Grand Traverse County's annual budget process as they grapple with a $52 million bond proposal that one elected official equated to possibly the biggest financial decision that's confronted county officials in years.
"This probably is the single most important, magnitude-wise, decision that the last 20 years of boards of commissioners could make," Commissioner Larry Inman said during a commission meeting this week.
Inman referred to a proposal under which the county would issue $52 million worth of bonds in an effort to pay off unfunded employee retirement and health care costs.
Last week, board members approved publishing a notice of intent to issue the bonds. They reversed course on Wednesday amid concerns that a 45-day referendum petition window won’t give officials or the public enough time to fully understand the bond plan.
“We don’t even know what the numbers are yet,” Commissioner Christine Maxbauer said. “We can’t supply the public with any information to make this decision.”
Some officials said the bonding could save the county millions -- possibly $17 million over 15 years by one estimate -- while fully paying for its unfunded accrued retirement and health care liabilities.
Commissioners, though, said they want to see more analysis of the plan before they decide whether to support it.
Officials expect to get more information on the bond proposal within the next month, at about the same time they receive another key piece of information needed to complete the budget: county employee health care costs for 2014 from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
County Administrator Dave Benda said he's seen several different expectations from the insurance provider, including a 20 percent cost increase. Such an increase would mean roughly $850,000 in additional expenses on top of the county's current projected $1 million shortfall.
Benda said the health insurance costs and whether the commission decides to pursue the $52 million in bonds could significantly affect the budget.
"Because we're waiting on two big pieces of information, it just makes sense to move everything back a month," he said.
County officials will have to make several tough decisions during the budget process, regardless of the timeline. Budget requests from county departments currently total $4 million more in expenses than expected revenues, including a $1 million request for new 911 equipment.
The county's administration will recommend a budget to the county board on Oct. 16 under the revised budget schedule. The commission will then be expected to adopt the budget in November.