Health insurance perk for Northampton elected officials in spotlight
NORTHAMPTON — As the city takes steps to rein in health care costs, a long-standing health insurance perk offered to elected officials is being thrust into the spotlight.
For 35 years elected officials, including members of the City Council and School Committee, have had the option to sign up for the city’s health insurance plan as if they were full-time employees.
Through that plan, the city pays 80 percent of an employee’s premiums, with the employee paying the balance.
Currently, Mayor David J. Narkewicz said 11 of the 23 elected officials eligible to use the city’s health insurance are doing so: six city councilors, two School Committee members and one member of the Smith Vocational and Agricultural School Committee.
The mayor and city clerk, both of whom work full-time but aren’t technically city employees because they are elected, also participate in the city’s health insurance plan.
Employees who choose the family plan pay about $3,287 a year, with the city on the hook for about $13,150. Individuals on the plan pay $1,200 a year, with the city’s portion at $4,900.
That means the city is paying $58,800 to $157,800 for the 11 employees on its plan, depending on the breakdown of employees on family and individual plans.
Narkewicz said the benefit has been around for more than three decades and is something that will likely be examined in the city’s new charter, should voters ratify it next month.
“This has been a long-standing practice and over time it varies as to who actually avails themselves of the city’s health insurance,” Narkewicz said.
The city began offering health insurance to elected officials in 1977 after it adopted a larger group of health insurance laws written by the state.
The laws include a section that defines employees for the purposes of health insurance, noting that elected officials are considered employees regardless of how many hours they work.
While not a new practice, the health insurance benefit offered to elected officials came up at the City Council’s Sept. 20 meeting during a discussion about whether the mayor should have the power to change health insurance benefits offered to the city’s 900 employees.
Before the council could begin its discussion, six members who use the city’s health insurance had to invoke a so-called “rule of necessity” in order to vote on the measure.
The rule states that in cases when a decision can only be made by a governmental body that lacks a quorum, councilors with a conflict of interest can identify themselves and then participate and vote on the measure.
The six councilors on the city’s health insurance are William H. Dwight, Paul D. Spector, Owen Freeman-Daniels, Pamela C. Schwartz, David A. Murphy and Jesse M. Adams.
After the councilors on the plan identified themselves, Ward 7 City Council Eugene A. Tacy said he was “astounded.”
“I had absolutely no idea that almost this entire council had health insurance through the city,” said Tacy, who is not one of the six. “I think the city is pretty generous and maybe overly generous. I know that when I have part-time employees, I don’t offer health insurance.”
Later in the discussion, Tacy floated the idea of eliminating the practice as a way to save the city money.
Spector agreed that such a discussion is worth having, noting the paltry $5,000 salary that councilors earn. He said the additional health insurance benefit is not excessive, although he acknowledged that since not all councilors take part, it is inherently unfair.
“I’m not sure that benefit is out of whack, so it’s something that we could look at for the council and for the School Committee,” Spector said. “Maybe we need to increase the salary but not have the health insurance piece.”
Dwight said the issue of elected official compensation and benefits was discussed at length by the recent Special Act Charter Drafting Committee.
A specific section is included in the city’s proposed new charter — to go before voters Nov. 6 — that calls on the council to establish an elected official compensation advisory board within 180 days of the charter being ratified.
Periodically, but at least once every 10 years, this board would study elected officials’ compensation and make recommendations to the mayor and council.