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South Portland City Council balks at putting health-care benefit to voters

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South Portland City Council balks at putting health-care benefit to voters

SOUTH PORTLAND — Even though there doesn't appear to be enough support to put taxpayer-financed health insurance for councilors to voters in November, the City Council on Monday, Aug. 3, will publicly discuss the benefit that costs about $70,000 a year.

At a workshop July 27 at the Community Center, four city councilors opposed putting the fate of their health-care plans voters' hands. They said the benefit encourages quality candidates, and a referendum would divide the community and create an unnecessary political issue. The remaining three councilors, however, argued that the health benefit should be explicitly defined in the City Charter, which would require a referendum.

The council two weeks ago first discussed whether voters should decide if councilors should be able to buy into the same health plans that are available to city employees. At the time, it seemed there was enough support to put the question to voters.

But Councilor Patti Smith, who is the only councilor not receiving health insurance through the city, previously said the status quo produced inequity in compensating councilors. While each councilor makes an annual stipend of $3,000, those receiving health insurance receive an extra benefit of between $7,000 and $15,500. 

Smith, a human resources specialist, had suggested setting a maximum total compensation that would allow councilors who do not take the city health plan to receive more money. The idea generated no support, so Smith said there is no reason to put the issue to voters.

"If people don't see the equity issue, then they don't see it," she said after the meeting.

Councilor Linda Boudreau said the health benefit typically surfaces around election time as an argument against incumbent councilors. Although she supports the benefit, Boudreau, who takes home more money at her day job because she uses the city's health plan rather than her employer's, said the city needs to have a public discussion to educate residents and put the matter to rest. 

"This could haunt us for the next 20 years like the (Willard Beach) dog issue," Boudreau said.

Councilor Tom Coward said there does not seem to be a huge public outcry about council health insurance and he couldn't understand why some councilors are making it an issue.

"I think this is creating a political controversy where one presently does not exist," Coward said. "I think this whole question is damaging to the long-term interest of the city."

City Attorney Sally Daggett has said the council health-insurance benefit is legal. She has also argued that the benefit has been public knowledge because it has been included in the budget for the last 30 years.

However, the cost of that benefit is not outlined as a separate item in the City Council's budget, but is lumped in with the health care costs of city employees.

Daggett presented eight different referendum questions that the council could put to voters in November. Some amendments would eliminate the council health benefit; another would increase the annual stipend to $10,000 a year, which could be used to buy their health coverage. Councilor Maxine Beecher favored a specific amendment that would limit plans to single coverage, and Boudreau favored a charter amendment that would codify the status quo, allowing councilors to receive the same benefits as full-time employees. 

Councilor Jim Soule said the benefit should be eliminated completely, so the council can share in the pain of recent city employee layoffs.

"I think the council is acting extremely hypocritical about this," Soule said. "We damaged the lives of those ... employees and we don't want to give up health care." 

Coward, however, said that health care coverage is not forced on anyone.

"If this is a move in solidarity with laid-off workers, or to indicate to folks that we feel your pain, then any individual councilor is free to give up health care," he said. "And for that matter, (that councilor) is free to donate their stipend back to the city."

Mayor Tom Blake, who said he considers the issue dead due to lack of consensus, reluctantly agreed to schedule a public discussion about health care at Monday's meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. at City Hall. After the meeting, Blake said none of the individual charter amendments would be discussed, but a "broad discussion" would take place.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net