2012-08-17 / Front Page

Debate brings few results on health benefits

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Some South Portland city councilors said they were disappointed with the end results of a discussion on the controversial issue of council health-care benefits at a workshop on Monday, Aug. 13.

The council debated for almost three hours, and opinions ranged from keeping the status quo to an immediate move to end the benefits. In the end, the council decided to meet again in workshop to discuss more specific plans to phase out the benefit.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t do something better tonight,” said Councilor Alan Livingston, who supported an immediate council decision to phase out the health care benefit.

“We’re going round and round in circles and it’s sad,” Livingston said.

“I’m not sensing we’re getting anywhere tonight. I’m not sure we’re getting anywhere productive,” added Councilor Tom Coward, whose opinion fell on the other side of the spectrum from Livingston’s.

Coward said he is concerned with “what’s best for the city,” and he felt a change would discourage citizens from running for council positions. He said interest has already been lagging in recent years, with many councilors running unopposed.

“The status quo, while not ideal, is probably the best we’re going to get,” Coward said.

Walnut Road resident Jill Gorneau agreed, and argued the council should keep the benefit.

“I want my councilors happy. I want them to do good things for our city, and I think they do hard work,” Gorneau said. “I think it’s a small price to pay.”

Four of the seven councilors currently accept the benefit in some form. Councilors Tom Blake and Coward have received $14,418.28 in benefits over the course of 12 months on the city’s family health plan. Councilors Maxine Beecher and Gerard Jalbert have each accepted just over $3,500 in health benefits on the city’s individual plan.

Those costs, combined with $3,000 in compensation for all seven councilors, represent about .02 percent of South Portland’s municipal budget, but many members of the public and members of the council said the issue is not with the dollar figure itself, but with the inequity the plan creates and the financial uncertainty it poses for citizens.

Carl Roberts, a former professor at Iowa State University who recently moved to the city, responded to Gorneau’s argument.

“Isn’t it supposed to be a small price to pay, if the service isn’t for the price, but it’s for the service?” Roberts asked.

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis argued for the immediate repeal of the benefit to create equity not only in compensation for the seven council members, but among the council and the city employees as well. The city of South Portland pays a prorated share of individual health coverage for its parttime employees who work between 20 and 35 hours per week.

“That is unconscionable to me. It’s unacceptable. It’s just incredible behavior,” De Angelis said.

South Portland resident Al DiMillo also noted the inequity of the council health care benefits as compared to the South Portland School Board. School board members receive $1,000 a year in compensation and control a budget larger than the municipal budget the council controls, DiMillo said.

“It’s hypocritical behavior on the part of the city council. Every week we hear the council praise the work of our volunteers. We’re begging for people to volunteer, yet some city councilors say, ‘I need to make $18,000 (in combined compensation and health benefits), or I can’t do this work,” DiMillo said.

But while many of the city councilors seemed to oppose the health care benefits on principle, not all of those councilors were willing to immediately axe the provision.

Blake called the health care benefit “a monkey on our back” that he would like to avoid burdening taxpayers with in the future. If each councilor accepted the full benefit available to them, council health care would cost the city nearly $100,000. Since health care costs are not fixed, that number could change in the future.

But Blake said he also wanted to avoid having the council rush into a decision. He suggested the city formulate a blueribbon committee to look into both the health care provision and overall councilor compensation. Then the council could act in time to put a referendum in front of voters in next June’s election. That, Blake said, would solve problems of inequity and ensure that councilors are adequately compensated to attract competent people to the position.

“I want good people in the community. I am not concerned for today’s council or myself, I’m concerned about the future of the city,” Blake said. “By no means is this a part-time volunteer position. I consider this a job, and I would not want anyone to consider it a volunteer position.”

Jalbert does view city councilors as volunteers, and argued both health care benefits and the councilors’ stipends should be stripped starting in January 2013. Jalbert had the opportunity to form a majority with councilors De Angelis, Livingston and Mayor Patti Smith in favor of abolishing the health care benefit. If that majority had been formed, those councilors could have scheduled a vote at the meeting set for Monday, Aug. 20.

But Jalbert felt that move could send the council toward a decision to increase the stipend. DiMillo proposed a charter provision to eliminate the health care benefit, but increase the stipend to $5,500.

A stipend increase, Jalbert argued, “is swinging the pendulum in the other direction.”

“I can’t get past that being self-serving,” Jalbert said.

City Manager Jim Gailey said he has not set the date of the council’s workshop to discuss phasing out the provision. He will make the final decision on the date after discussions with Mayor Smith.

Want to comment on this story? Login to our website at sentry.mainelymediallc.com and leave your thoughts.

Return to top