Insurance the Tip of the Nielsen Iceberg
Unrest ensured as commissioner Mike Nielsen goes after after smokers and the “old boy’s network.” What’s his next target?
He rode into office on a wave of anti-government, anti-spending sentiment in the county and it’s not hard to see that Bonner County Commissioner Mike Nielsen sees himself mounted on a white steed, the appointed “savior” of the people from a government that would hold them down. “Friendship stops where the county business starts,” he thunders as he wields his sword against Blue Cross of Idaho, smokers, the county fair, popular local insurance agent Dan Taylor, fat people, longtime county clerk Marie Scott, the 4-H program, printing costs, the Bonner County Historical Society and Museum, and his fellow commissioner Lewis Rich. Reminiscent of the “band of brothers” ethos, however, this Alaskan retiree who spent almost three decades in law enforcement has stayed the sword from the sheriff’s department, approving increases in total salaries from $2.27 million to $2.56 million, an amount that includes increasing the sheriff’s salary by $13,000 a year.
This self-proclaimed fiscal conservative defends the tax increase required to raise those salaries by saying, “I was not able to solve many prior year’s problems with what we had.”
For Nielsen, those problems included positions he saw as essential that were funded outside of the regular budget. “Understand, I won the primary in May. Now I’m not a conspirator, but the commission set that budget in August... knowing there was a problem someone would have to solve.”
The salaries of the sheriff and the undersheriff were also a problem. Nielsen says former commissioners, “Lewis and Joe (former commissioner Joe Young) were trying to do an end run around... the constitution,” when it came to funding the juvenile detention center, and were successfully challenged by then-sheriff candidate Daryl Wheeler. “Darryl won the primary. What did they do?... they cut (the sheriff’s) wages. So the sheriff’s salary and the undersheriff’s salary (which is tied to it) were compressed downward. That is a problem.”
Lewis disagrees, and points out the sheriff, unlike other county department heads, has five administrative assistants to help him do his job. The salary was set with the previous sheriff in order to reflect that level of support.
As for other salaries in the sheriff’s department, Nielsen wields a familiar argument: that wages are so depressed, the county is serving as a training school for new recruits, who then go on to jobs in other communities with higher pay scales. “I was trying to stop the exodus,” he said.
In Mike Nielsen’s world, there are a lot of conspiracies working against him. Fat, smoking, couch potatoes who work for the county are against him; so is county clerk Marie Scott; and so is fellow commissioner Lewis Rich.
When Rich, who had repeatedly stated his objections to the budget increases, voted against the final budget, Nielsen characterized his action (in an email to Tom Dillen for distribution to the Republican constituency) as “self-serving claptrap by Lewis so Cornel and I would take the political heat from fiscal conservatives.”
Of Rich he has also said (in that same email to Tom Dillen), “Lewis’ recent shenanigans trying to sabotage the health insurance RFP process were less than helpful, and very unethical in my opinion... This is the type of skullduggery and cronyism that has plagued Bonner County for years, which must be exposed and eliminated.”
Rich is not the only one Nielsen thinks is working against him. “There’s been two different attempts at character assasination on me,” he said. “Marie (Scott) just sent one out,” he said, regarding an assessment of printer usage in the county. “She sent (an email) out to all the department heads, ‘What’s Nielsen’s relationship to these people?’... She didn’t come to me and ask me anything; she just shotgunned it. So it’s pretty clear it was another attempt at character assassination.”
The printer assessment, by the way, along with a eduction in paper waste, was initially suggested by the Association of Bonner County Employees at a presentation in July as a way to save the county money. Nielsen has run with the suggestion, and brought in a proposal by a private company (Copiers Northwest) to take over leases for copiers and printers, standardizing the expense for all departments. Scott says she wasn’t able to attend the presentation, and her email was simply to state her understanding that there was to be some type of disclosure at the presentation about Nielsen’s connections with the company, and to find out what it was. Nielsen wrote in an email that the question was a, “false implication (and) nothing more than another attempt at character assassination.” He adds that he has no connection with the company.
To the consternation of many employees, the county also changed their health insurance plan this year, adopting a new agent and a new insurance provider. Responding to those concerns, Nielsen says they represent, “... a jaded point of view from some very fringe employees.” Nielsen says insurance costs are driven by claims and that 70-plus percent of the claims by county employees “come from four main areas; most of those are choices we as individuals make.” He lists those choices as smoking, drinking too much, being overweight and not following a doctor’s instructions. “Now if you want to smoke, and you want to eat deep-fried food, and you want to be a couch potato, and you don’t want to exercise, absolutely you’re not going to like my plan. I’m trying to make people responsible,” he said, inadvertently highlighting another concern with his management style: since when is it the a county commissioner’s job to make county employees responsible for their personal choices outside of work?
Nielsen avers, “I have had a certain group of employees fighting this... the vast majority of them come out of one department... the clerk’s office.” Nielsen believes county clerk Marie Scott is the impetus for those employee concerns. After explaining his plan to her, he says she told him, “Mike, you know they don’t call me slim and you know I smoke. Get the hell out of my office.” Their relationship, he says, “went downhill since then.” He adds, “Her employees are the ones that have been stirring up and trying to kill the wellness program.” Employees who express concern, he says, represent “a small group of employees who are worried about the wellness program.”
Chris Quayle, jury commissioner for Bonner County and the President of the Association of Bonner County Employees, which represents about a quarter of the county’s employees, disagrees with that characterization. “Based on the feedback from employees that many of (our) officers have received, the concern is significantly greater (than that). The discontent is more widespread than commissioners might be aware of.” Quayle says that employee concerns range from employee costs to which doctors they’ll be able to see to whether they will even be able to obtain some medical services locally. “For example, ABCE recently learned that the new broker did not adequately convey information regarding processing fees during the new insurance orientation presentations to county employees and many employees who have chosen the Health Savings Account option are finding that out after the fact.”
For those who ask why the contract as insurance broker went to Wells Fargo, instead of to a local business as it was previously, and who worry about being able to find a local medical provider under the new plan, Nielsen suggests that concerns about doing business locally can be taken too far. “I can’t have every service in little Sandpoint,” he said. He mentioned his personal dentist is located in Spokane, and that he “consider(s) that (Spokane) pretty local. I can drive there and back in the same day.”
He adds, however, that “we have been working hard” to sign up local medical providers under the new plan.
As for that change in insurance providers, many in the county were surprised when the long-time (12 years) insurance agent for the county, Dan Taylor and Taylor Insurance, were replaced by mega-bank Wells Fargo. They had received glowing reviews from throughout the county, and even Nielsen says,“I didn’t find any fault with what (Taylor Insurance was) doing.” He then, however, went on to list areas where he did find fault. Dan Taylor, it seems, is part of an “old-boy network” that Nielsen says had been operating under Nielsen’s radar in the county. “I was taken aback by Dan,” Nielsen said. After the county put the insurance out for bid Taylor, according to Nielsen, didn’t feel like he was required to actually submit a proposal. “He’s had it for 12 years,” Nielsen said. “He was that comfortable. It was very clear (that he had to submit a proposal).” When Taylor asked if he was required to submit a proposal, Nielsen says, “That tells me that maybe there was a good old boy system I didn’t see.”
In that email to the Republican membership, Nielsen wrote, “The former broker had held the position without bid or competition for 12 years. The County had used the same insurance provider for 64 years. Their relationship with the County had become so cozy they both felt they had special privileges, including being given the last opportunity to bid, rather than compete in open competition.”
According to Dan Taylor, Nielsen’s statements are simply not true. “The commissioners were asked each year if they wanted bids from other insurance companies, he said, “and in ‘07/’08 the benefits did go out to bid.” As for that meeting, “He (Nielsen) told me I didn’t have to submit a proposal. Then as I was leaving the office, I talked to Pam (Allen, in risk management) and she said yes I did. So I walked back into Nielsen’s office and asked him and he said yes, I did need to submit one.” Taylor said his question simply had to do with the process, and had nothing to do with any “old boy network” expectations.
But that’s just the beginning of Nielsen’s concerns about Taylor Insurance as the county’s insurance broker, along with Blue Cross as the insurance provider. Nielsen says, “Under the previous (health) program, the insurance broker got all the rebates... You can call it kickbacks, you can call it rebates, but under the previous program, the insurance broker got all the rebates.” He says that Wells Fargo, in contrast, will be turning over rebates to the county.
Both Taylor and Jerry Dworak, a Vice President with Blue Cross, have no idea what Nielsen is talking about. “That’s simply not true,” Taylor said. “I don’t, and never did, get any ‘rebates’ from anyone. I got a commission—period.”
Dworak agreed. “I don’t know exactly what (Nielsen’s) talking about,” he said, “but I can state categorically that Taylor Insurance never got any kind of “rebate” from the insurance.”
More damning, however, is another Nielsen statement, when explaining why he felt the insurance needed to be put up for bid in the first place. “We did an audit. We couldn’t account for almost a million dollars. It wasn’t in claims and it wasn’t in benefits.” He added, “When we got in and did the analysis we found out we’ve got a savings account but we really can’t account for a large section of the money we’ve taken in over the years. That was an issue.” Nielsen denies thinking that Blue Cross was in any way fraudulent, and says only that their “profit margin was pretty substantial.” He charges that when it comes to the county’s savings account, Blue Cross “has refused to provide that information to our broker” (which is now Wells Fargo).
That audit, analysis and even the “we” Nielsen refers to is another mystery. Marie Scott, as county clerk, is not aware of any audit done of the insurance program. Commissioner Lewis Rich is also in the dark. “To my knowledge,” he said, “there has been no audit done and there’s no missing money.” Dworak and Taylor are likewise baffled. “I’m certainly not aware of any audit done of Blue Cross,” said Dworak as he waited on a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. “We would cooperate fully (if the county) wants one. We have nothing to hide. All (Nielsen) has to do is call us and we will open our books.” As for Taylor, he says of allegations of an audit showing close to a million dollars unaccounted for, “I don’t believe that for a minute!”
When asked to clarify, Nielsen would only write, “I do not have anymore details at this time. You asked what else I am working on, this is one of my projects. I cannot discuss it any further at this time.”
Nonetheless, Nielsen insists, “I’m not here to bad mouth Taylors in any way.”
Dan Taylor is beginning to question the validity of that statement, based on the information he’s been given.
The insurance question is over and done. Just days after a meeting where the new insurance was questioned, the commissioners voted to sign the contract with Wells Fargo as their broker, and Pacific Source as their insurance provider. Mike Nielsen has moved on, and has made some limited national news for his newest proposal—that the county refuse to hire anyone who smokes, likening it to “insuring a burning building.”
Mike Nielsen, of course, is just one member of a three-person board of commissioners, and as one member really has no power or authority at all. But that doesn’t seem to be how things are working out in practice, with Nielsen often opposed by one commissioner, Lewis Rich, and supported by another, Cornel Rasor.
Rasor, who has long been known in the community for his conservative-leaning-toward-libertarian viewpoints, should not be seen as a mere adjunct to Nielsen, submissively following wherever his more vocal partner follows. Rasor has his own reputation, which fellow conservatives say embraces both honesty and integrity. Rich, for example, despite the occasional dissent on votes, says Rasor, “is an honest man. He makes his decisions based on what he truly believes is the right choice.”
While Rasor has voted in conjunction with Nielsen on areas that fit his own paradigm on how government should operate, future agreement should not be taken for granted. For example, Rasor stated he felt the commission had done a poor job of including employees in the process. “I admit that we did not do this as well with employee participation as we could have in this process but frankly we could not have 20 employees in the process of choosing every provider the county has. It was not a deliberate exclusion but rather a response to the exigencies of the time we had to spend and the processes we had to follow,” he wrote.
Chris Quayle takes heart at that, and hopes that employees will be included in future decisions that have an impact on their lives. “The commissioners assurred the ABCE health and wellness committee they would be included in the review of the health insurance programs being considered for employees,” she said, “and that didn’t happen. Over a quarter of the employees belong to our association, and more are joining every day. We have several working committees to address issues of concern, and we believe our input and our perspective will benefit the commissioners as they work on county issues. We would like to be able to provide a representative that is a formal part of these types of deliberative processes.”
For his part, Mike Nielsen believes employees are already a part of the process. He says he has an “open-door policy” to employees, and that he “reads every email” sent to him. Nonetheless, he says his job is to “represent the taxpayer,” not the employee, and that he will continue to do that regardless of how his actions are perceived, even if it means he has no hope of re-election.
It’s possible that Nielsen may not have to look so far forward as re-election. Although no names have been given, and no one has stepped up to take action, Scott has confirmed that her office has been queried about the recall process.
So what’s in the future for Bonner County? Recall speculations aside, Mike Nielsen has lots of plans as he continues forward. He says he’s currently at work on an evaluation of county employee pay rates and how those could be improved. Unlike the sheriff’s office, he believes there’s no concern that employees are paid at such a low rate that Bonner County government is serving as a training ground. But he says he has questions as to whether current pay rates are commiserate with the responsibilities expected and training required for the position held.
The inference is that changes may be coming to pay rates, and those changes may not be to the employees’ liking. If Rasor joins with Nielsen on this process as he has on some others, and if employees once again feel excluded from the decision-making, then continued controversy is likely to remain a feature of our county government.
This is not really anything new in Bonner County. We’ve endured controversial government in all manner of elected offices. And in a sad return to some practices of the past, there were a large number of employees who refused to talk on the record about what they think of their newest commissioner, despite, as one put it, feeling he is recommending changes so fast, “it’s making our heads spin!”
As Nielsen said, he serves the taxpayer, and it’s the taxpayer who will ultimately determine whether Nielsen is creating the county government they want, or whether he’s not quite the knight they were looking for. Until that is clear, county employees might want to shorten their stirrups and hang on tight. It’s looking like a wild ride.