SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday sparred over whether they should receive health-care benefits, which a new legal opinion says is not authorized by the City Charter.
The charter specifies “the annual compensation of councilmen shall be $3,000,” which councilors receive in the form of a stipend. Since 1977, they’ve had the option to receive an additional health benefit, the same as full-time city employees.
But the city’s outside attorney, William Plouffe of Drummond Woodsum, wrote in a new opinion that the health benefit qualifies as compensation, and thus is not allowed The city paid more than $50,000 this year to insure four councilors who elect the benefit; if every councilor took the full benefit available to them, the city would have to pay $99,000.
Questions about the health benefit have been raised in recent years by residents and by some councilors, but the council has repeatedly tabled the discussion.
A majority of councilors at Monday’s workshop meeting said that while they have the authority to change the policy, they’d rather see residents initiate a policy change. Predictably, opinion was split between those who receive the benefit and those who do not.
Those who receive city health insurance – Councilors Maxine Beecher, Tom Blake, Tom Coward and Jim Hughes – said that while the policy isn’t without problems, councilors should receive health benefits.
Councilors who do not take the benefit – Patti Smith, Alan Livingston and Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis – were at least willing to act, either to eliminate the benefit or to change the charter to allow the insurance.
The question was brought to the council this time by a resident, Marilyn Riley. She questioned the fairness of volunteer or elected councilors receiving the same benefits as full-time city employees.
She also said it isn’t fair to councilors who don’t take the benefit, since they’re essentially receiving less compensation.
“There is inequity among us councilors in that some of us represent a larger dollar figure to the taxpayer,” Smith said. “… That just doesn’t feel right. We all put in a lot of time, and I think equal compensation is the right thing to strive for.”
Beecher and Coward argued that the benefit is necessary to attract quality council candidates. They also said that the city health care allows councilors to devote the time necessary to the job.
“I didn’t run for council to get health insurance, but it enables me to do the job,” said Coward, an attorney. “Otherwise I’d have to work more hours, sell more real estate or send out more opinions to afford insurance. This is about recruitment and retention.”
Blake said he is concerned about the “tiered system,” in which some councilors receive more compensation than others, but also said he couldn’t be a councilor without the benefit.
“We could fix this issue ourselves,” he said. “But I think it’s better off if it comes from the citizens.”
Hughes said the councilors are “the wrong people” to make a decision, and that residents should gather signatures and get a charter change referendum on the ballot. Blake, Coward and Livingston agreed that if changes are to be made, it should be at the behest of residents.
De Angelis said it is unfair to residents and to city employees that councilors can receive the same benefits as full-time city employees.
“I have listened to us sit in council meetings and talk about contract increases for entire bargaining units that are $17,000, and heard councilors say it was too much money,” she said. “That benefited an entire bargaining unit. We have a $50,000 line item right now that benefits only four people.”
The mayor talked passionately about the benefit, which she received during her first term, before questions were raised about the charter.
She said it is unfair that part-time city employees get only half the benefit councilors do, when councilors have the option to put in fewer hours per week than employees. She said the money spent on insuring councilors could have been better spent, for example, to maintain more street lights.
De Angelis was adamant that the council should take the lead in resolving ambiguity in the charter and answering the health-care question once and for all.
“If we’re really sure that this is the right thing, let’s ask the public,” she said. She pledged to put forward either an order striking the benefit, or a charter change.
With the council divided 4-3 about whether to act, De Angelis’ proposal would likely go nowhere. But next week, Hughes will be termed out of office and replaced by Councilor-elect Gerald Jalbert.
Coward said the question isn’t whether residents or councilors should initiate a change in the policy or the charter. He cited a 2009 opinion by the city attorney, Sally Daggett, that there is nothing in the charter that “expressly prohibits” the benefit.
“There is an option to do nothing,” he said. “I’ve never had a single person call me up to say they thought it was outrageous that we’re getting health insurance.”