Council discusses insurance payments

March 12, 2013

Frank Lewis

PDT Staff Writer

City Council discussed bringing itself in line with current and future union negotiated insurance premium payments at Monday night’s conference session.

“My first point is that I think it behooves Council to adopt the same policies regarding health payments that we have negotiated with our unions,” First Ward City Councilman Kevin Johnson said. “The second point is that I think the city could save money by including Council. Council is included in the language related to receiving health insurance. That is clearly in the ordinance. Council is not in the language of being eligible for the $3,000 cash payment, should they desire not to take the health insurance.”

Johnson, this past year, voluntarily raised the amount of his insurance premium from $25 to $80 because it was that increase that was negotiated with the unions by the city.

“In my instance, I can tell you right now, I’m on Medicare,” Johnson said. “But I would take the $3,000 and simply get the secondary medical - much cheaper, much cheaper. I still maintain my 100 percent coverage, but at something like $4,000 less than what we are paying United Health Care, so just in my own instance, it’s a $4,000 savings by allowing Council to take advantage of the same program that it provides every other employee.”

Fourth Ward Councilman James Kalb said he believed it is something the City Solicitor would have to look at, as it might be considered an increase in Council salary, which, according to the City Charter calls for Council members to receive $50 a month.

“I have my thoughts,” City Solicitor John Haas said. “I don’t know if I want to share them in this public meeting because, depending on what happens, I may be in a different position down the road and forced to defend a different position down the road. I think I have related my thoughts, and I think the (City) Auditor related his take on that issue.”

Haas said there is a Charter provision that sets the compensation for members of City Council, and that could cause an issue.

“I agree with what Kevin is proposing here,” Second Ward Councilman Rich Saddler said. “Because it is for the people on Council who use the insurance, and going this route it would be a savings for the city. But, are we changing the Charter?”

Haas said he believes a Charter change would be advisable.

Also, in a response from a question from Sixth Ward Councilman and President of Council, Steve Sturgill, as to when the last time was that Council considered how much it receives in pay, Haas said - “1928 when the Charter was created.”

“Have we ever tried to get it amended?” Sturgill asked. “Have we ever put it up for a vote?”

Portsmouth Mayor David Malone said the issue came up about eight years ago, but it never went beyond the discussion stage.

“The way it is done now, it is unfair,” Sturgill said. “It’s unfair to those who don’t take advantage of it, who don’t have to, who are lucky enough to have insurance at their place of employment. I personally would like to see it ($3,000 compensation for Council members not taking the insurance) on the ballot, and take a shot at it, making a salary for Council of X-number of dollars. If you would fill out a figure of $5,000, and if each one of us had that, that’s $30,000. That’s half of what we’re spending now on health insurance.”

Haas explained that insurance is a benefit and is not considered compensation (a wage).

“Three-thousand dollars arguably would be a form of compensation or wage,” Haas said. “I’m sure that they withhold taxes on it. If Council decided to try to put something together and tried to put it on the ballot, that’s Council’s prerogative.”

Johnson said he receives a check from the city each month is the amount of $43 and then writes the city a check for $80 to cover his portion of his health insurance premium.

“It is just fair,” Johnson said. “If that is what the other employees do, I think we should do the same.”

Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at flewis@civitasmedia.com.