Van Buren City Council agreed Monday night to continue to provide full coverage to city employees and their families.

The decision came after a lengthy discussion when Mayor Bob Freeman told the council of an annual rate increase of $133,000 from city healthcare provider Municipal Health Insurance beginning July 1 on top of $200,000 in hikes over the previous two years.

"I do not believe the city can continue to absorb the entire costs of the increases going forward," Freeman said. "If we did, that would be approximately $300,000 in annual rate increases for expenditures just for health benefits over the past three years and unknown for the future."

The city’s healthcare plan has 148 of the city’s 175 employees enrolled.

From Nov. 1, 2013, through April 30, the city paid $711,560.10 in premiums, according to an experience report from Municipal Health Benefit Fund. Claims paid totaled $959,112.94, the report states, for a total loss of $1,140.315.10 and a loss ratio of 160.26 percent.

Police Chief Kenneth Bell told the council he understands the city’s situation. However, he expressed his disappointment in a possible rate hike.

"We went several years without a cost-of-living increase and this year, we get one and we’ll have to give it up for health insurance," Bell said.

The five aldermen at Monday meeting (Teena Sagely was absent) were split on how the increase should be handled. Some said the city should ask employees to pay for family coverage; others said it was unfair to change midstream.

Based on the divided responses on the issue, the council agreed to continue full coverage and seek out a second quote from Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Freeman said he will call a special meeting to discuss the matter before the 2015 budget process.

Aldermen also voted 5-0 to continue with an economic strategy to develop future business in the city, appropriating $7,500 for the city’s portion of an economic feasibility study. The council authorized a partnership with the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce to provide financial assistance for a community economic assessment in December.

The city and the chamber contracted with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to conduct an assessment to gauge community economic activity and readiness efforts in anticipation of economic development. This agreement was the next step in the process, Freeman said.

The mayor tabled approval of the final payment of $7,030 to Goodwin & Goodwin for the improvement projects around the tennis courts on the corner of 16th Street and Pointer Trail after Alderman Max Blake said he was dissatisfied with a retaining wall.

"I would not want the wall at my home," Blake said. "There are gaps in it and it leans back. It is not what we should pay for."

Freeman tabled the matter to the June meeting to allow City Engineer Brad Baldwin, who oversees the project, to be present for the discussion. Baldwin was sick and could not attend Monday’s meeting.

In other action, the council:

• Voted to trade a used tractor and loader as partial payment for a utility vehicle.

• Accepted the bid of $24,898.69 from Municipal Property Program of North Little Rock for property insurance.

• Voted to acquire adjacent property forfeited for non-payment of taxes for the new senior inn.

• Amended the guidelines for indoor firing ranges within city limits.

• Accepted the bid of $71,394.42 from Heartland Park and Recreation LCC for playground equipment and pavilions at the Field of Dreams, utilizing a 50-50 matching grant from Arkansas Parks and Recreation. Aldermen Mary Ann Dodd and Max Blake voted against the ordinance, stating they would rather have the equipment at a park open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.