Council lukewarm on paying premiums

Vancouver officials have authority but seem to lack will

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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After a few weeks of wrangling, Vancouver’s legal staff has told the city council that they are in charge of deciding their own health benefits — but whether council members will vote to start paying for part of their premiums is still up in the air.

The council voted 5-2 last month against matching their contributions to what management and nonunion employees pay. A few councilors said they were confused — was it the council, or the independent Salary Review Commission, that could legally make that decision? Either way, the vote drew the ire of city unions, which are being asked to increase their share of health care costs.

After a series of back-and-forth e-mails, City Attorney Ted Gathe confirmed last week that a state law created in 2007 specifically gives “the council the ability to deal with their medical benefits,” to avoid being “forced into the position of saying, ‘We’d like to do something about it, but we can’t.’”

Clark County Commissioners — who set their own salaries — voted last week to freeze their salaries and car allowances after a public outcry over planned raises.

But just what may happen next in Vancouver isn’t certain. Leavitt, who, along with the city manager, puts items on the council agenda, said he’s “conflicted” about how to proceed.

“I can understand the desire to send a ‘message,’ or ‘set an example’ for city employees,” he wrote in an e-mail. “However, I also recognize that the city council are not technically ‘employees’ of the city; we are not compensated as full-time employees, although for certainly several council members, the responsibilities are in reality full-time.”

The resolution, originally proposed by Councilor Jack Burkman, said that as of Jan. 1, councilors who “receive health care benefits through the city will pay the same percentage towards their premiums or their dependent’s premiums as management and non-union employees pay.”

Four of seven councilors (including Burkman) are on the city health plan. They currently pay nothing toward their or their dependents’ premiums. City management and nonunion employees pay 15 percent of their dependents’ premiums.

Paying 15 percent of a policy with one dependent will cost a councilor $83.63 a month or $62.34 a month, depending on which of the city’s two health plans they are on, Human Resources Director Elizabeth Gotelli said. Those who opt out get $230 a month; well below the $1,000-plus a month cost of providing the health plan.

Burkman said he’s still mystified that five councilors voted against the resolution on Nov. 1.

In October, “the majority of council said, ‘Yeah it sounds like a reasonable idea,’ and staff decided when to bring it back,” Burkman said Thursday. “(That it failed in a vote) was a large surprise, based on previous conversations with the council.”

Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilors Jeanne Stewart, Jeanne Harris, Larry Smith and Pat Campbell voted against the resolution. Councilor Bart Hansen (whose family is covered by the plan Clark Public Utilities provides him) joined Burkman in favor.

Councilor Stewart called Burkman “calculating” for bringing the topic forward the way he did.

“I’m uneasy about why it’s getting pushed the way it is now,” Stewart said Thursday.

She said she’s a fan of matching her benefits to management and nonunion workers, but said it was brought before the city council without proper time for discussion. She also talked about how many councilors don’t claim their mileage because they “feel bad,” and that she takes people to lunch “for the purposes of effective communication” and she can’t expense those fees.

“In order to get the job done, there are expenses that are incurred that right now council members are absorbing,” Stewart said. “It’s a different kind of work. I want people to understand and recognize that, I guess.”

Stewart also quibbled with the inclusion of the language saying the council would pay a percentage of “their premiums or their dependents’ premiums,” because, as of now, no employee pays a share of their own premiums, just those of dependents’.

“I do not want to be used to create a precedent that is going to take place that has not been discussed with workers,” she said. “(Burkman) is a calculating person, and whatever he put forward is exactly what he was intending it to say.”

Burkman said Stewart’s allegations don’t “make any sense to me.” The city’s human resources department drafted the resolution language, under the direction of former City Manager Pat McDonnell — not him, he said. (Gotelli confirmed that was the way the resolution was crafted). He said he also talked to each councilor before bringing the resolution up in the “new business” portion of the Oct. 18 meeting. It was discussed then, and it was discussed again before the Nov. 1 vote.

“So the idea that I surprised them or torpedoed them, I don’t see where that’s coming from,” he said. “Where’s the surprise? I did everything straight up in this.”

Councilor Campbell, who uses the health plan, said Friday that he doesn’t want the city council involved with setting its own benefits, but does want to see his health plan equal to that of city workers.

“I want to get council benefits aligned with city employees and have a process spelled out where council benefits are determined by a body separate from council,” he said.

Burkman said he’s convinced the decision is one best left to the policy makers.

“This is a policy issue for council — however we treat management and employees is how we treat council,” he said. “If something significant changes for them down the road, it changes for me too. That’s pure policy. I still believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.