SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — After discussion and debate extending over at least two years and the threat of legal action by some residents, city councilors Wednesday found a way to end their taxpayer-funded health insurance benefit.
By a 5-2 vote, with Councilors Tom Coward and Rosemarie De Angelis opposed, councilors approved an order to terminate all taxpayer-funded health care plans for councilors on Nov. 30, 2013.
The decision, based on an amendment from Councilor Gerard Jalbert to an order presented by Mayor Patti Smith, ends taxpayer-funded coverage as councilors complete their current terms and allows incoming councilors to enroll in plans for individual or family coverage at their own expense.
The discussion and vote on the order took almost 90 minutes, capping about 3½ hours of debate and discussion in two workshops last month that frustrated and exasperated councilors.
Councilors have discussed the health benefits since 2010, when residents Dan Mooers and Albert DiMillo Jr. first questioned the legality and taxpayer liability of funding health plans, because the provision is not mentioned in the City Charter.
The practice of providing health insurance began in 1977, and Mooers noted the expenses were not specific budget line items for most of that time.
The workshops happened after DiMillo dropped a lawsuit asking the court to limit council compensation to the annual $3,000 stipend listed in the charter.
On Wednesday, DiMillo initially pleaded with councilors to make a decision and threatened to refile the suit next January. He became incensed when the council reopened public discussion on the merits of Jalbert’s plan to allow new councilors to have coverage in exchange for a defined termination date.
“You have got to be crazy. We have bent over to compromise,” said DiMillo, who last month offered an amendment to the charter that would increase councilor compensation from $3,000 annually to $5,500, while allowing councilors to enroll in municipal insurance plans at their own expense.
Mooers also asked for some kind of resolution Wednesday, noting the toll the debate had taken on councilors.
“It is hurting us to continue this argument. You can see personalities boiling over,” he said.
De Angelis and Coward opposed eliminating the insurance benefits for very different reasons.
Coward rephrased his argument that eliminating the benefit was not the best course for the future of the city because it could deter people from getting involved in municipal government.
The debate over benefits “plumbed depths I was ashamed to see,” he added.
De Angelis proposed ending all taxpayer-funded health insurance benefits at the end of this year, and then eliminating family plans next year.
Her amendments to Smith’s original order drew no council seconds, and ultimately De Angelis supported Jalbert’s amendment to Smith’s order. But when it was time to vote on the actual order, she opposed it because she favored a more immediate elimination of health benefits.
“What about this is equal,” she asked, saying Smith’s order created a three-tier system protecting councilors who have health insurance.
Councilors Maxine Beecher, Tom Blake, Coward and Jalbert currently have health plans funded in majority or entirely by taxpayers, at a current annual cost of $36,000.
If all seven councilors were to accept the most expensive of full family plans available to municipal employees, it would cost taxpayers more than $100,000, according to data prepared by city Director of Finance Greg L’Heureux.
Before DiMillo filed suit last winter, former council candidate Gary Crosby presented a petition with 200 signatures asking councilors to give up the taxpayer-funded health benefit.
Crosby spoke again Wednesday, supporting the original order by Smith, despite misgivings because he preferred that taxpayers immediately stop paying for health insurance for councilors.
With his amendment to Smith’s order, Jalbert cut a year off taxpayer funding of his family health plan because his term ends in 2014. By Nov. 30, 2013, Blake’s current term will be drawing to a close.
Beecher cannot run again this fall because of local term limits laws, and Coward will likely be taking office as a Cumberland County commissioner in December.