There was an increase of almost $4,000 in the cost of health benefits for City Council members in the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to information requested by Albany Patch from the city.
Last week, Albany Patch reported that in the 2010-11 fiscal year. New information shows that number jumped to just over $60,000 last fiscal year, with all five members' costs going up. (See the document to the right.)
Since three members of the council to ignore a recommendation, by the city's Social & Economic Justice Commission, to maintain access to better health benefits—at no cost—than city staff, there has been a fair amount of community debate over how much the city pays for council members' health insurance.
( and voted against a motion by to keep the better benefits.)
Though city staff and council members alike can choose from the Kaiser and Blue Shield plans, the city will only pay the cost of the Kaiser premium for staff members. If city staff want the more expensive Blue Shield plan, they must pay the difference. On the other hand, the city covers council members' entire premium, regardless of which plan they choose.
Here is the breakdown for each council member's costs in the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to the city.
- : $9,677.52
- : $8,652.00
- : $8,652.00
- : $15,278.04
- : $17,764.20
Javandel's and Lieber's costs are the same because, since 2010, both men have opted to receive "in-lieu contributions" instead of health benefits.
The city began offering council members these "in-lieu contributions" during the summer of 2010 to encourage council members to select health plans through employers or spouses.
According to Albany's Human Resources Manager Aaron Walker, these monthly contributions, which go into a deferred retirement account, are equivalent to the monthly premium for a Kaiser single employee plan.
From 2010-11 to 2011-12, the costs for Javandel and Lieber increased by about $500 each because of corresponding increases in the Kaiser premium.
Walker said these health insurance premiums increase by about 6 to 10 percent every year, putting greater strain on the city budget.
But changing the council's benefit plan is no easy process.
“If there’s going to be a change in the council package it would probably need to come from the charter review commission who works on the charter, or the city council itself,” Walker said.
While he acknowledged that many Albany residents believe council members should have the same benefits package as all other city employees, Walker noted the fact that council members only receive $300 a month.
If they were to pay the difference between the Blue Shield and Kaiser premiums, council members would use up most of that monthly stipend, he said.
While Walker gave no opinion as to whether the council should keep its better benefits package, one city official who has taken a clear stand on the matter is Councilwoman Peggy Thomsen.
Last Thursday, a reader reported that Thomsen pays the "staff difference" for her Blue Shield coverage, and Thomsen confirmed it later that day.
Thomsen said she does so "because I think council should be doing as all the employees do."
When the issue of council benefits was brought up in September 2010, Lieber led a motion to, essentially, ignore a recommendation from a city advisory body that the council receive the same benefits as city staff. His motion passed 3-2, but the issue has not been forgotten by some residents.
In May 2011, Brian Parsley, a former member of the Social & Economic Justice Commission, that, of 12 California cities with populations less than 26,000, Albany is the only one to give its council better benefits than city staff.
Parsley's speech was in response to some council member's earlier argument that the compensation given to Albany's City Council was below average when compared to other cities.
In 2010, Councilwoman Joanne Wile , among which Albany ranks in the bottom 25 percent in terms of overall council compensation (which includes salaries, pensions, and other benefits).
At the time, Wile said "definitely we should revisit" the issue in 2011. When asked recently if the issue of council health benefits would be discussed again, she referenced the findings of the earlier 55-city survey.
"I'm not recommending any changes this year, either increases or decreases," said Wile, who has the highest health benefit cost of the five council members.
Currently, there are no plans to discuss the issue at future council meetings.
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