published Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Chattanooga City Council plans same-sex benefits vote tonight

IF YOU GO

• What: Chattanooga City Council vote on benefits for domestic partners

• When: Agenda session 3 p.m. today; voting session 6 p.m.

• Where: City Council chambers, 1000 Lindsay St.

Poll
Should the City Council approve same-sex benefits?

Before Chattanooga City Council members vote tonight on whether to expand benefits to domestic partners of city employees, a local police union wants them to examine what benefits the current 2,700 city employees receive.

Fraternal Order of Police President Toby Hewitt said that, to rein in rising costs, the city has reduced overtime, cut benefits for most retirees and retirees' access to the wellness center at age 65 and now is studying ways to corral increasing costs of the police and firefighter pension fund.

The local union supports expanding benefits for employees' partners -- which would include gay and straight couples' partners -- but says city leaders first should weigh the cost of adding more people to the city's plan.

"There are serious issues on the table right now that adversely affect all of our members," Hewitt said in a prepared statement. "The fairness you are pursuing here should be equally applied to all the other concerns as well, rather than potentially making them worse. Please consider this before you vote."

Chattanooga Human Resources Director Todd Dockery said the comparison doesn't work because research shows expanding benefits likely will increase the city's benefit plan by only 1 percent, or $163,000.

Council members are expected to take their first public vote today on Councilman Chris Anderson's bill to expand benefits, which has been the most publicly debated piece of legislation in recent city history. At last week's public hearing, dozens of residents argued over the issue.

One city employee asked the City Council to weigh the initiative from a business perspective.

"We are opening up the doors to increased costs, from a business standpoint, for something as volatile and as unpredictable as health care," former Fraternal Order of Police President Craig Joel told the council.

Dockery said that, based on other cities such as Atlanta, Louisville and Indianapolis that allow employees' partners onto their health benefits plan, the cost is insignificant.

For example, Dockery said so far in Indianapolis, where benefits were expanded in January, only 50 of the city's 7,500 eligible employees have applied for their partner to be added to their plan. Atlanta has been offering these benefits for 10 years and has seen no significant cost increase, he said.

"The folks we're talking to are saying 1 percent is a reasonable estimate," he said.

The cost to expand benefits doesn't compare with what the city is saving from a 3-year-old decision to cut retirees' benefits, Dockery said. Three years ago, the City Council cut health benefits for retirees who are Medicare eligible after seeing those benefit costs jump from $2.44 million in 2000 to $8.69 million in 2010.

Anderson said the officers' concerns about their benefits are valid, and he plans to study how to improve benefits for all city employees.

Two councilmen, Larry Grohn and Russell Gilbert, cite rising cost as one reason they plan to vote against the bill tonight.

"To me it's a very vital financial issue," Grohn said. "The amount of money [Dockery] said it will only cost us -- it was a best guess."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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