SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s becoming clear that city councilors will not be able to meet publicly without being questioned about what they plan to do about their health insurance benefit.
“I’m here to tell you, based on the calls and emails I’ve been getting, this isn’t going away anytime soon,” resident Gary Crosby, told the City Council on Wednesday.
Crosby, who has unsuccessfully sought election to the council three times, last month gathered 131 signatures in a petition to make councilors stop accepting the health benefit and send the matter to voters.
The City Charter limits councilor compensation to a $3,000 per-year stipend. But since 1979, councilors have also had the option of participating in the city’s health insurance plan at no personal cost. Two dissenting legal opinions have been offered on the legality of the benefit.
Last year, health insurance for four participating councilors – Maxine Beecher, Tom Coward, Tom Blake and Jim Hughes – cost the city $55,000. If all the councilors took the full family plan, the cost would be $99,000.
The issue last came up in 2009, with councilors electing to do nothing to address the legal and ethical questions.
Crosby emailed councilors on Dec. 2 and suggested it isn’t right for a legislative body to allocate taxpayer money for its own benefit. (He contends the council does that when it approves the benefit, usually at a higher cost than the previous year, in each annual budget). He said Wednesday that only two councilors – Rosemarie De Angelis and Jerry Jalbert – responded to his message.
On Wednesday he urged the council to write a referendum to increase their stipend and strike the health benefit. He again asked the councilors to respond to his email, and was met with silence during public comment and again during council comments.
“They don’t answer the question because they know their position is indefensible,” Crosby said after the meeting.
Mayor Patti Smith, who does not participate in the city health insurance plan, has said she hopes to bring the issue to a council workshop in February. In the meantime, frequent council critic Albert DiMillo Jr. has threatened to sue the city for breaching the charter if the benefit isn’t removed.
The council is divided on the issue: those who take the insurance have resisted taking any action to change the status quo, while Smith and De Angelis have urged action.
Jalbert and Councilor Alan Livingston have taken a more nuanced stance, saying that changes should be made, but must be initiated by residents, not councilors.
In other business, the council accepted a no-match grant of $227,500 from the Department of Homeland Security to pay for training and equipment and to fund the salary and benefits package of Deputy Fire Chief Steve Fox, the city’s emergency management planner.
The city has accepted DHS funds since 2003, Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said. This year’s grant is down significantly from last year, when DHS issued more than $328,000.
“We can’t fund all of (our needs) with this, but we can fund a percentage of it which offsets the operating budget,” Guimond told councilors.
Last year, the grant paid for new security cameras and pass cards at the high school, radio upgrades, training, and replacement of outdated or worn equipment for the police and fire departments. Money from the grant also paid for the operation of emergency shelters during Hurricane Irene.
Councilors also OK’d more than $45,500 from undesignated funds for repairs to the municipal pool shell, although the move was largely for public disclosure; City Manager Jim Gailey had already authorized and paid for the work through an emergency appropriations provision of the city’s Code of Ordinance.
The city expects the pool to reopen on Jan. 10.
Councilors also approved the first reading of an amendment to its purchasing rules the increase the threshold requiring formal, written bids. If the proposal is approved, department heads will be able to spend up to $15,000 for supplies, services, equipment or improvements without having to initiate the bid process. The current ceiling is set at $10,000.
Proposed changes also up the ceiling to $40,000 from $20,000 on bids that require council approval.
The first reading passed 4-1, with Blake opposed. He said increasing the threshold of city council requirement was bad for disclosure and eroded the checks and balances of city government.