University Place Council open to reducing benefits, scuttling payout
CHRISTIAN HILL; Staff writer
The seven members of the University Place City Council will draw a higher salary this year than their peers in more than a dozen Washington cities with comparable populations.
And then there are the benefits, which exceed what full-time UP employees get.
Few cities in the 20,000-40,000 population range offer benefits to council members. But since 2002, elected leaders in University Place have received a monthly allowance toward their medical, dental and vision insurance. In eight years, that allowance has increased from $273 to $1,233 a month to keep pace with health care costs.
They also are eligible for a perk that no other comparably sized cities offer: a cash payout. If members don’t carry the city’s insurance or use only a portion of their monthly allowance, they receive the payout.
Now a remade council with four new members is open to reducing council benefits and getting rid of the payout. The council discussed those options this week as it moved toward adopting a two-year budget.
What the original ordinance described as a fringe benefit has transformed over the years into an amenity that rivals council members’ salaries. This year, each of the five council members – not including the mayor and deputy mayor, who earn more – will make $16,896 in salary. Benefits will pay out $14,803 to six council members and $18,255 to the seventh.
Some on the council and in the city of 31,000 residents have charged that elected leaders are balancing UP’s budget on the backs of employees.
Linda Bird, a former mayor who attempted to reduce the benefits before she was voted out of office last year, said council members are part time, and the only requirement under their job description is to attend two council meetings a month.
“How many part-time employees get a full range of benefits?” she said in an interview Wednesday. “They don’t.”
Bird was on the council a year ago when the city slashed positions, instituted furloughs and required employees to pay more in premiums for spouses and dependents. Meanwhile, City Council members received a 3 percent cost-of-living allowance and about a 10 percent increase in their benefit.
A vote last year to increase newly elected council members’ base salary by about 7 percent was overturned two weeks later after a community outcry.
The need to cut their own costs in a tough budget environment is not lost on UP council members. Some have donated some cash back from their health care payouts. Members also have agreed in principle to eliminate their 3 percent cost-of-living allowance starting in 2012. (Under state law, they have to wait until after the next election.)
Mayor Debbie Klosowski and Councilwoman Caroline Belleci have proposed eliminating the benefits, and new council members Denise McCluskey and Eric Choiniere have proposed reducing them.
But another reality is driving the debate: At least four council members must enroll as a group to receive benefits offered through the Association of Washington Cities. Belleci is opting out starting next year.
That means all the council members would receive a cash payout starting next year, unless the city ordinance were to change.
During the budget meeting Monday, which went until nearly midnight, a majority of council members agreed to reduce their benefits. Under the current proposal, the city will deposit into a medical reimbursement account an amount equal to the monthly premium for coverage of an employee and spouse under a group plan, estimated at about $850 a month in 2011.
The council’s benefits are estimated to cost the city more than $107,000 this year. The changes are estimated to save $41,279 in 2011 and $47,698 in 2012.
Council members Ken Grassi, Javier Figueroa, McCluskey and Belleci are enrolled in the benefits program offered by AWC. Klosowski and council members Choiniere and Gerald Gehring take the cash.
Grassi, who served on the council when the benefits were enacted, said the amounts were increased to reflect higher premiums and that the cash payouts were instituted to ensure fairness between council members who received insurance and those who didn’t.
He defended continuing benefits coverage because the change represents a significant reduction and that being a council member is “far more than part time.” He said residents have echoed that sentiment to him.
“As much as we value our staff, I think council also has a value to citizens,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Belleci, who was appointed to the council in February, said Monday night that residents see council members as citizen volunteers, not full-time staff members. While she said council members shouldn’t have to help lead the city at a personal loss, they also shouldn’t be expected “to have citizens bail us out for our decisions.”
Christian Hill: 253-274-739 firstname.lastname@example.org
HOW MID-SIZE CITIES COMPARE IN COUNCIL PAY, BENEFITS
CityPopulationAnnual Medical (2010)
Maple Valley23,130$2,400Not available
Walla Walla31,770$4,800Not available
* This number includes salary plus benefits because UP City Council members can take their benefits as a cash payout. For other cities, this number includes only salary.
Sources: City of University Place, Association of Washington Cities salary survey