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Conference budget and benefit changes stir debate

Conference budget and benefit changes stir debate

LAKELAND – The Florida Conference Strategic Leadership Team report and changes to the Standing Rules, both reflecting a reorganization of conference staff and more focus on districts and local churches as chief disciple-makers, were approved Friday with only a few nay votes.

But the 2014 budget, which also reflected those changes, and a plan to reduce the costs of health insurance subsidies for future retirees and eliminate the benefit for appointed clergy who begin serving after July 1, 2014, sparked debate that at one point demanded a hand count of votes by ushers and pushed the Friday afternoon session into overtime.

Voting members ended the session by approving the recommended $17.3 million budget, about $300,000 less than this year’s budget. 

Mickey Wilson gives budget report at AC2013
Conference treasurer Mickey Wilson recommended a $17.3 million budget for 2014, which was approved by voting members of the Florida Conference. Photo by Dave Walter.

Mickey Wilson, conference treasurer, told the crowd that changes are needed to stave off staggering financial liabilities in the years to come.

The conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits has recommended phasing out the existing retiree health insurance subsidy. The move does not affect current retirees.

An initial proposal put forward early this year drew some protests, and the board later modified its recommendation. Clergy members were invited to hear details of the modified proposal at a workshop Wednesday, but some said they needed more time to study the implications for their personal situation.

Rev. Mike Loomis, senior pastor at First UMC, Punta Gorda, successfully pressed for an amendment to the retiree health insurance proposal that would “grandfather” existing benefits for ordained elders with 35 years of service in Florida who are at least age 55 by July 1, 2014, instead of 60 or older, as in the proposal on the floor.

Some members pointed out during debate that few people would have met United Methodist ordination criteria at age 20 or 21 so that they could log 35 years of service by age 55. Even so, Loomis and others said there are a handful of clergy members in the conference who will be just shy of meeting the age threshold for grandfathering.

Though some members from the floor asked to postpone the vote until the financial impact of Loomis’ amendment could be determined, Wilson said that was not possible.

He pointed out that clergy members in the age group described by Loomis likely would still be eligible for a new Health Reimbursement Account retirement benefit, even though the conference is phasing out its existing plan. Loomis said clergy nearing retirement age need more time to study the difference in benefits.

A show of hands and then a vote with members standing to be counted proved too difficult for Bishop Ken Carter to determine a majority, requiring ushers to count votes as members stood to signal for or against. The amendment passed 417 to 286, and voting members went on to approve the full retiree health insurance recommendation.

In considering the 2014 budget, some members questioned a line item that showed no money for new church starts. Wilson said new church starts will continue to be funded, but out of non-apportioned accounts that are not reflected in the budget.

“We absolutely think this will benefit new church starts,” he said.

The budget also reflects a conference staff reorganization this year that replaced two departments – Congregational Excellence and New Church Development – with a Congregational Vitality office. Some responsibilities of the former departments also will shift to a new Missional Engagement team.

“This is a giant move in the right direction,” Wilson said.

A few hands went up here and there opposing the proposed budget, but it passed easily without requiring a hand count.

-- Susan Green is the editor of the Florida Conference Connection.