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Board denies sheriff's health insurance request

Outgoing Goodhue County Sheriff Dean Albers will have to do without county health insurance when he retires at the end of the year.

The 54-year-old sheriff's request for three years of individual health insurance was denied Thursday in a 3-2 vote by the County Board.

"I congratulate the sheriff on a great job, but I think this is not the time to be expanding packages," said Commissioner Ron Allen, who voted with Jim Bryant and Ted Seifert against granting the benefits.

Albers requested the benefits earlier this year after learning that a 1998 county ordinance offering health insurance to retiring elected department heads would not apply to him.

Elected department heads, who are not eligible for benefits such as paid vacation and sick leave offered to appointed department heads, were instead given one year of family health insurance for every four years served.

The 1998 law applied only to the four elected department heads serving at the time, including current Goodhue County Attorney Steve Betcher. Albers took office a year later.

The county personnel committee took up the issue at its May 11 meeting, proposing changes that would offer a health insurance plan to elected department heads serving more than eight years.

A further compromise offered jointly by Betcher and Albers, in which both would accept smaller individual health insurance plans rather than family plans upon retirement, was denied Thursday by the County Board.

The vote came after a lengthy discussion among county commissioners, who debated the merits of extending health insurance benefits in a time of strained budgets.

"To add money to our spending is not a thing to do at this time," argued Seifert, despite county staff claims that the proposal would save money in the short term through the scaled-back insurance plans. Seifert countered that the immediate extension of benefits to Albers would amount to a short-term loss.

But Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel, who voted with Commissioner Richard Samuelson in favor of granting the benefits, said that having the health insurance package in place would ensure that Goodhue County would continue to attract the "best and brightest" to its two elected department head positions.

Talented potential candidates, seeing the relative lack of benefits in an elected position, will look elsewhere, he argued.

"We want highly qualified people in those positions," he said. "It's a short-term savings to just say we're not going to do anything."

Reached after the meeting Thursday, Albers argued that the benefits would have compensated for the lack of sick leave and vacation with the sheriff's position, though he said he understood the "economics of the decision."

"Would it have been nice? Yes," he said. "But I have to respect the board's decision."