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Wednesday, July 24,2013

City gets big payout from state workers compensation bureau

By David DeWitt

The city of Athens received a check for $215,401 recently from the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation through its "A Billion Back" rebate program, money city Auditor Kathy Hecht says will help cushion the blow of large cuts from the state in recent years.

This spring, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio BWC announced they would begin printing rebate checks this June and July after the organization's board of directors authorized a one-time dividend of $1 billion for private employers and public-taxing districts.

This means that nearly 210,000 businesses, local governments and schools have been receiving rebate checks over the past couple months. According to the Associated Press, checks range from $5 to more than $3 million.

The money stems from solid investments by the agency, which has reported net assets having grown to $8.3 billion. The Ohio BWC provides workers' compensation insurance for Ohio employers and covers about two-thirds of the state's workforce.

In Athens County, in addition to the city of Athens itself, according to the BWC, the city of Nelsonville was slated to get over $25,000, and the county was projected to receive slightly over $120,000.

Meanwhile, public school districts in the county all are supposed to have money coming back to them as well. The Alexander Local School District was slated for around $32,000, Athens City Schools $94,000, Federal Hocking $36,000, Nelsonville-York $28,000, Trimble Local $30,000, Hocking College $94,000, and Tri-County Career Center $11,000.

Ohio public schools overall were projected to receive almost $113 million in rebates, according to Kasich's administration But not all local governments or schools were eligible for rebates, as some are self-insured and don't pay into the bureau's system.

Meanwhile, private employers in Athens County were expected to receive around $3.5 million in rebates according to information supplied by the Ohio BWC.

Hecht said Tuesday that the rebate money was distributed to the various city agencies in Athens that contribute to the BWC, including departments under the general fund, water, sewer, streets and garbage.

"Each department was paid back based on the number of employees," she said. "So it was divided percentage-wise between the departments."

From there, she said, the departments have the money available in their accounts but Athens City Council would have to allocate funds for expenditures by the various departments.

"It does help," she said. "We've had a lot of hits (to our budget from the state-level), especially to our general fund."

The city of Athens received $709,374 from the state's local government fund in 2010. In 2011, after Gov. Kasich got his first budget passed that slashed the funds, the figure went down to $658,246.

City Auditor Hecht said in May that she had projected the city to receive $366,705 in local government funds from the state this year.

So the one-time windfall from the BWC amounts to over half the amount the city has seen in cuts since 2010. Hecht did note, however, that this is indeed a one-time payment.

She said that city departments have yet to approach the city administration about how they'd like to use the funds, though she noted that they are intended by the BWC to be spent on improving worker safety and training.

The money set aside to improve safety and how it will be used, she said, is discussed during safety meetings held by the city.

"They can encourage certain purchases or training," she said. "We're pretty good about doing regular training for our employees, especially for safety."

Any expenditure has to first go through her office, or if it's over $500, through the mayor, Hecht said.

"It is up to the department heads on some level, but it still has to be approved," she said.

Meanwhile, in March a Cuyahoga County judge ordered the Ohio BWC to refund an additional $859 million to about 264,000 employers after charging them excessive insurance premiums over eight years.

That money is separate from the "Billion Back" rebate program and has not been released yet pending the results of an appeal of the decision by the BWC.

That ruling is the latest round in a six-year legal battle that started with a Woodmere restaurant owner contending that the state bureau's rating system to determine premiums violated the law, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.


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