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South Portland council poised to eliminate its health-care benefit

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South Portland council poised to eliminate its health-care benefit

SOUTH PORTLAND — The exact wording remains open to debate and amendment, but South Portland city councilors next week will act on an order to phase out taxpayer-funded health-care plans.

Mayor Patti Smith found support for the action from Councilors Al Livingston, Rosemarie De Angelis, Tom Blake and Maxine Beecher at a council workshop Monday night, even if there is not full consensus on how to phase out the coverage that costs the city about $36,000 a year.

Smith's order, which will be considered on Sept. 5, would terminate coverage for councilors at the end of their current terms of office, a time period De Angelis opposed in efforts to eliminate the benefit as quickly as possible. Livingston said the council needs to act.

"It's time. I'm tired of listening to the same arguments," he said after the hour-long discussion that followed a 2 1/2-hour Aug. 13 council workshop.

Blake continued to call for of a "blue-ribbon commission" to discuss councilor compensation, but tying a ribbon around both health insurance coverage and the annual $3,000 stipend exasperated De Angelis and Livingston.

"The public never voted on it. There was never any public intent to pay health insurance," De Angelis said.

Councilors can vote to eliminate the health-care provision, but amending the annual council stipends allowed by the City Charter will require a popular vote.

Beecher, Blake and Councilors Tom Coward and Gerard Jalbert are the current recipients of the health insurance provision first enacted by the council in 1977.

If each councilor enrolled in the most expensive family plan at taxpayer cost, the city would pay $101,000 in premiums. Documents prepared by City Manager James Gailey and Finance Director Greg L'Heureux show the current taxpayer cost is $3.13 of the current tax bill on a home with the median city value of $180,000.

There were fewer public comments on the benefit plan this week than on Aug. 13, but frequent critics Albert DiMillo Jr. and Gary Crosby both spoke in opposition to taxpayer-supplied health benefits.

DiMillo last month withdrew a lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court seeking an end to the health benefits. Crosby presented councilors with a petition signed by about 200 residents seeking the end to taxpayer-funded health insurance for councilors.

"It's their job to get rid of it," Crosby said, adding he could understand why a future council would seek a referendum adding health benefits to their compensation.

DiMillo has suggested amending the charter to increase councilor pay to $5,500 annually and allowing the option for them to buy into available municipal health plans.

His proposal was included in the workshop packet on Monday, and its presence led to verbal sparring between De Angelis and Jalbert on what the council should have been discussing Monday night.

On Aug. 13, Jalbert suggested getting rid of all compensation and letting the public determine how the council should be paid, on the grounds that council discussion on its compensation are a conflict of interest.

On Monday, he conceded his proposal lacked council support, but said establishing a commission is still the best course of action.

Jalbert said costs could decrease in the near future as the council seats new members. Beecher cannot seek re-election in November because of local term limits laws and Coward will resign if elected as a Cumberland County commissioner; he is the only candidate on the Nov. 6 ballot for the District 4 commissioner's seat.

Of the remaining councilors receiving insurance, Blake's current term ends next year, and Jalbert's ends in 2014. 

De Angelis said the conflict of interest argument was "just a farce, just a red herring. It's not really mysterious how we are splitting down this council."

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.