2012-08-31 / Front Page

Council to phase out health care

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Tensions once again ran high and the dialogue turned personal during a council workshop even after Mayor Patti Smith requested city councilors and members of the public to keep discussion about eliminating the council’s health care benefit respectful and positive.

Despite the argumentative discussion, the council did agree on Monday, Aug. 27 to ultimately move forward with a plan to phase out the health care benefit.

An order will be placed on the council’s agenda for its next meeting, to he held Wednesday, Sept. 5 because of the Labor Day holiday, that will stipulate no new city councilor will be able to receive the health care benefit. Current councilors will lose the benefit at the end of their terms.

If that plan is adopted, the benefit will be completely eliminated by December 2014. Currently, Councilors Maxine Beecher, Tom Coward, Tom Blake and Gerard Jalbert accept some form of the provision.

Beecher’s term ends this November, and she is not eligible for re-election because she has served the maximum of three consecutive terms. Blake’s term ends in December 2013, and both Coward and Jalbert are serving terms that will expire in December 2014.

However, Coward is the only candidate on the ballot this November for a position as Cumberland County Commissioner. Unless he is defeated by a write-in candidate, a special election will be held for his vacated seat some time after the general election.

A majority of the city council seemed to lean in favor of the order on Wednesday’s agenda, although a final decision will not be determined until the vote is actually held. Beecher, Blake and Smith were joined by Councilor Alan Livingston in their support of the order.

Livingston called the proposal to phase out the plan the “only fair way to go,” and added because the city council originally decided to include the provision in the 1970s, it’s up to the current council to resolve the issue.

“We’re the council. We’re charged by the city to make decisions,” Livingston said.

Both Livingston and Beecher expressed frustration with the length of the talks and the inability of the council to conclude the discussion. Beecher initially seemed to support a proposal that would create a blue ribbon committee of qualified individuals separate from the council to evaluate both council health care and compensation. But she said after the meeting she will support any proposal that puts the issue to bed.

“Something’s got to happen,” Beecher said. “We can’t keep sitting on our hands and whistling.”

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis was the most outspoken and vocal critic of the health care provision. However, De Angelis said she is not willing to support the plan to phase out council health care by the end of all councilors’ current terms because two years is too long to keep a benefit that is illegal under the current city charter. The charter sets councilors’ compensation at $3,000 under section 209, but makes no mention of the health care benefit.

“You want to give somebody a month to make a plan, that’s fine. Two months, maybe I can live with it. Eighteen months, 16 months, 14 months, absolutely not,” De Angelis said. “I will never support this idea, and I’m really outraged at even thinking about it.”

De Angelis accused the councilors who did not support eliminating the plan of voting their own interests rather than considering the interests of the public. She said Jalbert’s proposal at a workshop earlier in August to do away with both health care and councilor benefits was “a farce” and “a red herring” because the council did not have the authority to take that action.

“We’re doing what we’ve been doing for two years, dancing around the issue. Blue ribbon this, blue ribbon that, it’s a bunch of malarkey,” De Angelis said.

Jalbert spoke in support of commissioning the blueribbon committee to evaluate both compensation and the health benefit together. He said the council can’t adequately decide on the issue because the matter affects them personally and creates a conflict of interest, so a blue ribbon committee would make more sense to resolve the issue.

Jalbert added that the current cost to the average homeowner in South Portland of council representation as a whole is $3.13 a year, and that cost may drop when Beecher and Coward, two councilors who accept health care, are replaced in the coming year by councilors who may or may not take the benefit. Because there will not be an immediate cost increase, Jalbert argued, the council had the ability to take more time to evaluate the issue through a blue-ribbon committee that does not have a conflict of interest.

Coward also spoke against the immediate elimination of the provision.

He said if the order passes next week to phase out the benefit for current councilors and eliminate it for incoming councilors, he believes it will “make the situation worse than it is now by creating explicit second-class citizens on the council.”

Coward added that most members of the public he spoke to believe the council should receive the benefit. That was not the case, however, with the handful of people in the audience, all of whom came to encourage the council to end the benefit.

Albert DiMillo, who proposed a plan for the council that would eliminate the benefit but raise compensation, interrupted Coward’s comments and called the councilor a “compulsive liar.” Coward paused for a few moments before Smith interjected and the workshop continued.

Should the council vote to phase out the health care benefit in its next meeting, it will turn to the issue of compensation. Mayor Smith said City Manager Jim Gailey confirmed that Human Resources Manager Don Brewer could lead the effort to organize the blue ribbon committee to address the compensation issue.

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