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Gym proposal aired for county workers Lower health cost is long-term goal

The Giambra administration says it wants to spend $128,000 to create an exercise facility that county workers can use for free in the Rath County Office Building, lowering the government's health insurance costs in the long run.

"This is long-term planning to manage the long-term health of our employees, and it can have a substantial impact on the bottom line," said Personnel Commissioner John W. Greenan, one of two high-level officials pitching the idea Tuesday to the Legislature's Health Committee. "My point to the public would be that this isn't a video arcade," said Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, county health commissioner. "This is going to benefit us financially."

The $128,000 would come from a state grant that must be used to promote employee wellness. The project would involve renovating 2,440 square feet on the sixth floor, adding shower rooms and buying stationary bikes, treadmills, Bow Flex machines and other equipment. The plan also would provide refrigerators stocked with yogurt, juices and other healthy foods to buy.

However, the officials predicted the costs of maintenance and supplies in later years would fall to the general fund -- meaning the taxpayers -- perhaps renewing public complaints that government employees are better treated than their private-sector counterparts.

"$128,000 to create a workout facility in good times seems like a good idea," said Health Committee Chairwoman Cynthia Locklear, D-West Seneca. "But these are not really good times."

On the heels of the county's 2005 financial crisis, County Executive Joel A. Giambra knew he would need union concessions to balance budgets in coming years, and he asked Greenan to report on just how well county employees are treated compared with the average worker.

Greenan found that county employees work eight fewer weeks each year than the average worker nationwide. Their 15 sick days, paid lunch breaks, summer hours and a dozen paid holidays give them 332 hours of paid time off that average workers don't get.

Unlike most private-sector workers, the county's unionized employees pay no premiums for their health insurance -- a deal Giambra struck in 2003 to get them to accept one health insurer to save tens of millions of dollars. He's now trying to get workers to pay 10 percent of their premiums, as managerial confidential employees do as of this year.

The local taxpayers' group known as Free Buffalo reported in October that while the average private-sector employee in the Buffalo Niagara region earns about $25 an hour in pay and benefits, the average public-sector worker earns $35 an hour. Free Buffalo concluded that the best way for Erie County to spend within its means would be to cut wages. However, the group's founder, lawyer James Ostrowski, said the idea for a fitness center deserves some study, especially if it can reduce absenteeism and improve productivity.

Another county study found that in the year that ended in August, the average county worker used 14.9 of their 15 annual sick days, which some officials attributed to the morale that plummeted as employees faced mass layoffs.

Greenan and Billittier on Tuesday framed their proposal as a way to promote healthier lifestyles among employees and eventually save on the cost of health care and prescription drugs for heart-related ailments, arthritis and diabetes.

The officials distributed charts that show almost 65 percent of county workers are overweight, with the Western New York average at 57 percent. One in five county workers smokes, and anti-cholesterol medicines are the top drugs prescribed for employees. Eighty percent of the county's health care costs are spent for 15 percent of the work force.

Those overweight, sedentary employees who would most benefit from exercise are the ones Greenan and Billittier most want to reach with a convenient and free gym. While some employers will supplement the fees workers pay for their own health club memberships, Greenan said the county does not want to go down that road. "Then we are only paying for people who are going to the gym already," he said.

Billittier's aides also said that while Erie Community College's Flickinger Center is only blocks away from the Rath Building, many employees, especially women, are not inclined to walk there during winter months when the sun sets early.

What is the county's liability for employees who injure themselves while exercising? And how will the center be financed in coming years?

They were told that workers will be asked to sign a liability waiver. Yes, the grant will finance the facility in just the first year, not in later years. But the advocates also said a review of 73 published studies showed that for every $1 companies spent promoting health, $3.50 was recovered.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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