Health benefits don’t seem to be going away anytime soon for Herkimer County legislators and some part-time employees.
While mention has been made in the past about reconsidering benefits for county legislators, a county committee recently passed a resolution approving slightly increased insurance costs, bypassing conversation on whom to include.
The cost to cover the 13 county legislators who take the county health insurance plan at a 10 percent premium is $194,000 — which includes any spouses or family members on the plan.
Three others take a $4,860 per year stipend in lieu of the benefits.
One county Legislator, Helen Rose, D-Herkimer, does not receive the insurance or stipend and said more conversation and possible reform should be considered in regard to the matter.
“As an elected legislator I consider this service as my passion, not a job,” she said in an email. “Salary of $6,500 is a bonus. To take another $20,000 health insurance perk is obscene.”
Herkimer County legislators receive a salary of $6,500 per year. The chairman of the Legislature Vincent Bono, R-Schuyler, receives $12,000.
The health insurance plans are offered to full-time employees as well as county attorneys, the Stop DWI coordinator and county legislators, who are all part-time.
The current plan is estimated to cost $6.2 million next year — up about two percent — for all county employees.
Pros and cons
Even though the costs from legislators does not make up the bulk of the health insurance expenses — the county Department of Social Services is at the top costing roughly $1.9 million — experts and county legislators vary in their opinions on whether political officials should receive the benefits.
“The assumption of having a part-time legislator is that they’re citizen legislators that hold down a full-time job,” said E. J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “If they’re retired, they have some other health support or Medicaid.”
Others contend that because of the low salary legislators receive, it’s a fair trade-off as well as something that can attract candidates.
“I do believe it’s appropriate,” said Legislator Patrick Russell, R-Old Forge and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which has facilitated the budget workshops. “We’re paid so little in proportion to what we do.”
Russell receives county health benefits.
“It’s certainly a major incentive to attract legislators,” said Gerald Benjamin, SUNY New Paltz professor and politics watcher. “The aggregated compensation from benefits likely exceeds the over compensation from salary alone.”
The last time county officials adjusted the stipulations of the health benefits was in 2009 when the payment of benefits went from zero to a 10 percent premium for all county employees.
Page 2 of 2 - It also adjusted the eligibility for retirees’ access to health benefits. Those who retire must have served at least 15 consecutive years with the county, be at least 62 and pay the 10 percent cost for the insurance.
Those employed or in office prior to this change are grandfathered in.
Benjamin said that it’s up to each county and its taxpayers to decide what is a fair compensation package.
“It’s not an issue of whether or not they should get benefits, it’s how much they’re compensated in general and whether or not that’s equitable and fair and (discussed in public),” he said.
In recent years, some government entities have considered foregoing health insurance benefits to save taxpayers dollars.
Utica residents last year voted to eliminate health benefits for council members, and the Oneida County Board of Legislators nixed their benefits in 2012, saving the county more than $200,000 annually.
Beyond consideration of what the constituents might want, experts said it could make it difficult for legislators to make changes to the program.
“They also become conflicted when there are proposals to change health insurance policies,” McMahon said.
Russell noted that the economy isn’t changing and that the conversation may need to be brought up again.
“I brought up discussions to get rid of payment in lieu before,” he said. “It’s certainly something to reconsider again.”
Since 2009, Herkimer County full-time employees as well as part-time employees — legislators, county attorneys and the coordinator of the Stop DWI program — have operated under these stipulations when accessing health insurance benefits:
• Benefits available to employees with a 10 percent premium.
• Retirees are eligible if they served for at least 15 consecutive years with the county and are at least 62 years old. They also pay the 10 percent premium.
• Those who opt not to take the insurance have the option of a $4,860 per year stipend instead. County employees in the highway department, CSEA, management and county Sheriff’s Association are not offered this stipend.
Note: Part-time county employees who work more than 19.5 hours are eligible for above benefits under the CSEA contract.