Elected Officials’ Health Benefit Perks Questioned

OCEAN CITY — As health
care costs rise and debates over employee compensation packages continue, it
seems like it will only be a matter of time before someone questions the benefits
and salaries given to the Mayor and City Council of Ocean City.

Councilman Joe Hall and
Jim Hall have been vehemently outspoken in their quest to cut starting salaries
and benefits for new hires in the town of Ocean City, though they are two of
the biggest benefactors of the City Council’s health insurance coverage, which
is essentially paid for by the resident and non-resident taxpayers.

This week, when
questioned about potential hypocrisy in this stance, (such as proposing to cut
entry level workers both pay and benefits without changing their own
compensation or benefits), they both said that they would be willing to look at
the council’s benefits package as part of the ongoing conversation.

“I think that we
probably should talk about it openly as part of the conversation,” said Joe
Hall. “If we don’t talk about it and consider it, too, then people are going to
think that we are hiding something.”

Historically, the Mayor
and City Council have always been offered healthcare in addition to their
salaries for being an elected official in Ocean City, “at least for all of my
27 years with the town”, according to City Manager Dennis Dare, but he noted
that some council members elect to either forgo their health insurance coverage
or some of their so-called perks like city-issued cell phones and the like.

Currently, Mayor Rick
Meehan is paid approximately $30,000 per year, and he is offered a car, but
according to Ocean City Internal Auditor Susan Childs, Meehan elects to use his
own vehicle and is given a small gas stipend. Each council member pulls in
roughly $10,000 a year for their public service post, while Council President
Joe Mitrecic collects $11,000.

Each council member is
issued a city cell phone, which Childs says varies in per month packages from
$28.34 for the regular phone plan, to as much as $49.99 a month for three
council members who utilize PDA devices.

Several months ago, as
part of the cost saving or right-sizing initiative, the council members were
given the option to turn in their city issued cell phones, which would have
accrued a small savings, but to date, only Mitrecic and Councilwoman Mary
Knight turned in their phones.

As for health insurance
coverage, Jim Hall has reportedly received health care from the town during his
24-year tenure on the council, which would account for the second largest chunk
of taxpayer issued health care to an elected official, second only to Meehan,
who has served in local government since 1985.

To put it into a small
snapshot, according to town records, Hall received $45,393 worth of healthcare
coverage from taxpayers from 2005-2009.

Councilman Joe Hall, who
has called the town’s health care coverage “the best around” utilizes the most
generous of the three plans offered to the council members as he covers his
entire family. He estimates that last year, the coverage provided to he and his
family was around $18,000.

“I love the town’s
health care package and yes, I have taken advantage of it,” said Hall. “It’s a
Cadillac program and I appreciate it and I use it. I think everyone should get
healthcare, and I’m not trying to take anyone’s away from them. I just think
that we need to look at the level of healthcare that we are providing as we
head into the future. But, if we change it for them, maybe we should change it
for us, too.”

Budget Manager Jennie
Knapp told The Dispatch that council members, just like any other employee
on the town’s payroll contribute 10% towards their healthcare, which includes
vision, dental, health, and prescription coverage.

Council members can
choose between single, plus one or family coverage, which vary in price ranges
from almost $6,000 per year for single coverage, more than $15,000 annually for
plus one coverage, and as much as $19,000 a year for full family coverage
(numbers listed are total costs, prior to 10-percent contribution by council

Four council members
currently have their entire families on the full family coverage, including
Mary Knight, Lloyd Martin, Joe Hall and Mitrecic.

However, this week,
Mitrecic said that he is in the process of taking his family off the town plan
as he feels it’s the right thing to do.

“I feel guilty knowing
that we made all the cuts we did this year, and couldn’t give any raises, and
I’ve got my whole family on there,” said Mitrecic. “It’s just the right thing
to do I think and probably the right time.”

Councilman Jim Hall says
that he is so concerned with next year’s budget, that he is willing to look at
council’s compensation packages if it means that the town will pursue changes
to those of the new hires.

“I talk to people in the
business community who keep telling me to batten down the hatches for next year
cause it’s going to be worse than this year or last year,” said Hall. “We have
to get a handle on this now, which is why I’ve been fighting so hard for this
for six months. But, to cut the little bit of money the council makes is just
ridiculous, but we’ll look at it if that’s what it takes. I’m pretty sure I’m
worth my $6,000 a year.”

Benefits packages are
offered and utilized by elected officials in other municipalities in the region
including Worcester County and Berlin.

The County Commissioners
are compensated $25,000 annually, plus $3,000 for mileage and other related
fees, according to Worcester County Public Information Officer Kim Moses. The
county would not immediately disclose how many commissioners accept health

However, in comparison,
it appears that commissioners who receive benefits are paying a very similar
amount as council members in Ocean City do, as the employee contribution for
single person coverage is within $5 in the comparison ($591 in Ocean City to
$586 in the county). The county provides two tier coverage for ‘parent/child’
(which employees contribute approximately $1,170 annually) and ‘husband/wife’
coverage ($1623 annually), while that category is kind of pushed into one
option on the Ocean City plan under ‘plus one’ coverage, which sees Ocean City
employees paying in $1,524 annually).

Also, it is notable that
Ocean City employees on the family plan pay more than the county employee do
for full family coverage in comparison ($1,950 and $1,759.94 respectively).

According to Berlin
Human Resources Director Rachel Bomar, who has worked in both Wicomico and
Worcester County governments, it’s common for elected officials to take the
benefits packages offered to them.

“Some do, some don’t,”
said Bomar. “It depends on the elected officials who are employed by themselves
or other companies. I feel like our council members are very responsible with
the benefit dollars they have to spend and they are very conservative with
those personal benefit choices. I would say it’s no harm, no foul. They are
considered full-time employees. It’s a benefit that’s very enticing. I don’t
feel they do any harm to the municipality by participating in the benefit.”

Bomar says that Berlin’s
mayor gets $5,000 annually, while the council members receive $2,500 annually.
She said only two of the town’s six elected officials take any form of the
offered benefits package. She said one council member accepted full benefits
(an average of 40 percent paid by the town), while one took dental and vision
benefits (approximately 95 percent of which paid by the official).