Tisbury studies fairness of current practice on health benefits, stipends
In response to a complaint last month about inequities among town officials that receive stipends and benefits, the Tisbury selectmen agreed to examine the issue.
Last week they appointed selectman Geoghan Coogan, finance and advisory committee (FinCom) chairman Larry Gomez, and municipal finance director Tim McLean to review town policy regarding group health insurance for elected officials, analyzing options and associated costs, and reporting by April 1.
Five Tisbury elected officials receive health care benefits, 75 percent of which is paid by the town, while 12 do not. And among town boards, the selectmen, board of health, water department, board of public works, and assessors receive stipends.
Other elected board members do not, for example, those who serve on the planning board, Vineyard Haven Public Library, Tisbury School committee, and FinCom.
Selectman chairman Tristan Israel, who is one of the five who now receive health care benefits, suggested at the selectmen's meeting last week that one of the options to address the town policy's inequities may include eliminating the benefits altogether.
Prior to 1997, Tisbury offered members of town boards, which included the selectmen, public works commissioners, health department, water commissioners, moderator, and constable, a municipal health care policy, in addition to any stipend paid to them for serving.
In March 1997, selectmen Henry O. Burt, A. Kirk Briggs, and Mr. Israel voted to change the policy to offer group health insurance only to compensated elected officials who regularly worked more than 20 hours a week. Under those terms, only the town clerk qualified at that time.
The new policy, which is still in effect, denied benefits to board members elected later and also grandfathered the benefits for board members covered at that time by group health insurance until they left office.
The policy also allowed elected officials, regardless of compensation or number of hours regularly worked, the opportunity to subscribe to the town group health insurance plan at their own expense as long as they remained in office.
Currently, the town pays 75 percent of the cost of a family plan, $15,282 per year, for Mr. Israel, board of health member Kenneth Garde, and board of public works (BPW) commissioner Arthur Dickson, and $20,232 a year for water department commissioner David Schwab and BPW commissioner Fred Thifault.
A question of fairness
John Thayer was elected to the board of public works (BPW) a year after the selectmen changed the town policy, which meant he has received no health care benefits and an annual stipend of $240 ever since.
In a prepared statement he read at the selectmen's January 12 meeting, Mr. Thayer objected to the inequity of the town offering benefits to some and denying them to others. He asked the selectmen to consider reinstating a policy that provides health care benefits to all board members.
In addition to being unfair, Mr. Thayer argued that the current policy provides no incentives for participation in town government by younger residents. "It also has aggravated the stagnation on town boards, for those members who have to keep running to keep a health care policy for their families," he said in his statement.
Mr. Thayer also outlined the increasing responsibilities, numerous meetings, and time commitment required of the BPW commissioners. "We as a town need to provide an incentive toward re-vitalizing participation in our boards, from whom we ask so much," he said. "We need to offer a reason for participation that acknowledges the time and effort our volunteers make, and displays that we respect their participation."
In follow-up discussion at the selectmen's January 26 meeting, Mr. Israel suggested that it might be possible to give all town board members the option to buy into a health care program. Selectmen Jeff Kristal and Mr. Coogan agreed they would like to further explore the issues and costs.
Weighing the costs
In the meantime, before his appointment to a formal committee last week, Mr. McLean, along with Mr. Gomez, was asked by the selectmen to look at costs. Tisbury pays 75 percent of the cost of a family plan for the five board members who currently receive health care benefits, and they pay 25 percent.
As Mr. McLean pointed out in a phone call last week, it would be hard to predict the exact cost for the town to pay 75 percent of the other 12 board members' health insurance, because some are retired and have coverage through their former employers or spouses.
Given the variables, Mr. McLean said he based his calculations on the potential new cost for the town on a worst-case scenario, assuming the 12 board members not currently enrolled opted for coverage under a family plan.
Figuring the potential new cost at $15,282 per person, with the town's share at the current 75 percent, the total comes to $183,384.
Other options might include changing the percentage the town pays or offering individual plans instead of family plans, for which the board member could pay the difference, Mr. McLean said. He has also calculated the costs for a few of those possible approaches.
Tisbury Fire Department lieutenant Joe Tierney told the selectmen at their January 26 meeting that several of the town's volunteer fire fighters had asked him about health insurance. He suggested that Tisbury might follow Chilmark's lead, and allow fire fighter and emergency medical technicians to get into the municipal group plan, provided they pay their own costs.
After looking into Mr. Tierney's suggestion, Mr. McLean said in a recent phone call that state law does allow emergency responders, even those who are volunteers, to pay 100 percent of the premium cost and join a municipal health care group plan, if approved by town meeting. "It's really expensive at 100 percent, but it's part of the whole discussion the selectmen will be having," he added.
When it comes to board members, however, only paid elected officials are eligible for municipal group health care coverage under Massachusetts law, Mr. McLean said.
The question of why some town boards were singled out for stipends and not others remains a murky mystery.
"The stipends were in place long before I got here; I don't know how they picked these boards," Mr. McLean said, in reference to the selectmen, assessors, water department, BPW, and board of health. Mr. Israel, who has served almost 15 years as a selectman, said he could not recall anything about how the stipends were determined.