SALISBURY – City Council members responded on Monday to residents’ concerns that the council is politically motivated in passing an ordinance to allow elected officials to participate in the city’s health insurance program.
The proposed ordinance that approached the council in second reading states that “elected officials shall be permitted to participate in elective employee benefits programs offered by the City to its employees provided that they must pay for the full cost of their participation and the participation of any family members,” as well as, “elected officials, who are currently participating in elective employee benefits programs, will be allowed to continue to participate under the same terms and conditions presently in place until the end of their current term.”
Councilwoman Deborah Campbell felt that the second clause of the ordinance caused conflict regarding the council’s powers on voting on an ordinance that would impact their benefits while they are in office.
“It puzzles me that it is in there because it is my understanding the council is forbidden from voting on any benefits that affects them while they are in office,” Campbell said. “So it seems like that is just a restatement of fact.”
City Attorney Paul Wilber responded to Campbell’s concern that the ordinance is to allow any member of the elected official group, the mayor or any of the five council members, to essentially remain in place with their present benefit the remainder of their term, and that the clause is affirming where the elected official currently stands with their health benefit.
“My recollection is that would be dictated by the law regardless because we cannot vote on something that affects us during our term in office,” Campbell said. “Essentially by voting with that clause in here we might be doing just that.”
Council President Louise Smith and Councilwoman Eugenie Shields explained their support of the ordinance.
“I am not doing this for policy, I am doing it because of the costs it gives to the city,” Shields said.
Shields explained that when she joined the City Council it was not for the salary but what she could do in serving the community.
“Because of economics, we are asking people…to make sacrifices,” Shields said. “I do not look at it for the health benefits. I did not get elected for that.”
Smith reviewed the factors that are feeding into the reasons why the council is looking to increase funds for the city by adding elected officials to the town employee’s benefit program.
She said that in the fiscal year of 2010 there were no increases in the budgets for operating expenses. In the fiscal year of 2011, there was an approximate 8-percent decrease on those budgets, and a second request for departments to decrease an additional 2 to 3 percent.
“We’re asking employees to do this,” Smith said. “This year we’re not looking at any better time.”
She added that the city lost $1.2 million plus in highway user funds, based on the state needing to cut jurisdictional funding.
“That’s our street lighting, that’s our paving, and street sweeping,” Smith said. “So when you go around and see the street with pot holes in them that’s the money it could be used for.”
She continued to explain that in the fiscal year of 2011 income tax revenue is down $100,000, property tax is down over $257,000, and admissions and amusements tax is down over $168,000.
“The picture is still bleak,” Smith said.
Campbell asserted that the ordinance is a policy matter and the public has raised questions in its meaning. She said that for an elected official to select the city’s health benefit it is going to cost them more than their salary by paying the full cost to participate.
“I think from a policy standpoint it’s a scary thing,” Campbell said.
She looked back at the last four years of how the city has spent money to illustrate the point.
“When the majority of the members of this council have been unwilling to cut the council’s travel budget, when the majority of this council voted to sell a piece of waterfront city real estate, for petty fund dollars … then what does this appear to be,” she said. “I can understand why this appears to the public to be petty and political.”
Smith responded to Campbell by saying she would exempt her comment that her colleagues are politically motivated.
“This is not politically motivated by me,” Smith said. ‘No vote is politically motivated by me.”
Campbell clarified that her comment was not an accusation but she was repeating what she has heard as a concern from the public.
Councilwoman Terry Cohen had recused herself before the second reading of the ordinance had begun and Campbell abstained from the vote. With Council Vice President Gary Comegys absent, the ordinance passed with Smith and Shields in favor.
“I feel we also need to step up to the plate and say these are hard times,” Smith said. “We need to also respond as we’re asking the employees of the city to do.”