Starkville’s new plus-one insurance policy survived a board challenge Tuesday, but not before residents hammered aldermen for perceived transparency issues and the proposed change’s potential impact to same-sex partners.
After almost an hour behind closed doors, Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver attempted to rescind the specific provision — one of two new insurance tiers the board unanimously approved last week — but his motion died at the table without a second.
No other motions emerged from executive session, but it became apparent that Mayor Parker Wiseman and Chief Administrative Officer Taylor Adams took the brunt of some board displeasure after Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn, who called the impromptu meeting along with Carver, thanked the duo for admitting they did not fully prepare aldermen last week for what expanded coverage would mean for employees.
As approved in the last regular meeting, Starkville’s new medical insurance policy added new coverage options for employees’ dependents. Previously, the city paid for individual employees’ Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi coverage — approximately $393.19 per month — while workers could add their spouse and immediate children for an additional $600.39 monthly out of their own pockets.
The new policy created two additional tiers: The single employee and whole-family rates remain but are each $2 cheaper per month, however workers can now choose to add either an adult or their children for an additional $348.74 or $268.95 monthly, respectively.
Starkville drew statewide and national media attention Friday when the Human Rights Campaign issued an unauthorized press release applauding the city’s insurance expansion to workers’ LGBT partners, but Wiseman and other staff downplayed the release, saying the change’s impact is not limited to one specific group of people.
The HRC release also contained inaccuracies, including a claim that Wiseman would hire liaisons to “support the needs and provide resources to the LGBT community, including working with the police department.”
Those hires are not planned, Wiseman said Friday. The mayor already maintains an open-door policy that welcomes any and all residents and employees, he said.
A small coalition of residents crammed into the small conference room Tuesday to support the new insurance options and the policy’s potential impact on Starkville’s LGBT community, with one resident strongly annunciating “for all” at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance’s recitation.
Public commenters took aim at other aspects of the day’s meeting, including transparency issues with holding the gathering outside of regular board dates, thereby stifling public discourse.
Former Starkville Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill, who prepared meeting agenda packets for the mayor and three current aldermen last term before she was pushed out of office, openly suggested that board members are neither reading important information, nor digesting the impact of pending legislation before taking action at the board table.
Starkville previously approved a new non-discrimination statement for the city, which included base-level protection for LGBT employees for the first time. After Starkville made state and national headlines for the move — it was the first city in Mississippi to codify such a policy — Carver openly said he was not aware of the implications of the board’s actions and went as far as suggesting a new vote on the matter.
In that instance, aldermen stopped short of attempting to repeal the policy.
“This potential action flies in the face of the recent adoption of the non-discrimination policy by this board,” Spruill said. “If approved, the collateral consequences of this action are that some board members are obviously willing to deny coverage to those employees and their loved ones who might be single parents of our employees, adult children or common-law wives or husbands, all in an effort to discriminate against those who do not fit a particular mold of acceptable family members.
“What is embarrassing about this is that, yet again, we have aldermen who are guilty of either not reading the packet or not understanding its contents,” she added. “Neither is acceptable for someone with the responsibility that tends the position.”
Spruill went on to ask Wiseman to veto any policy change if one found board support, but the call was moot since Carver’s motion would die at the table.
Following the meeting, Carver said he called for the special meeting after receiving numerous calls from constituents while he was out of town. The second-term alderman said he was unaware of the massive cost savings afforded to employees and exactly how many domestic situations beyond same-sex couples the new policy would cover.
Since the city is unlikely to include an employee pay raise in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2014-2015 budget, he said it was imperative to provide savings to help alleviate the cost of living.
The main reason Carver called for the meeting, he said, was the expected increase of those covered under the new policy.
“When we hire a city employee, we’re hiring for a reason. We think that person will be a good employee and a law-abiding citizen. Now, all someone has to do is sign an affidavit (for extended coverage). Other than that, we know nothing else about them,” he said. “Employees receive periodic evaluations like drug screening, health evaluations and performance evaluations from department heads.
“This coverage — and I learned a lot of information tonight — impacts more people than just the LGBT community,” Carver added. “Married couples, unmarried couples and children can also be included. When you look at how much money one can save (moving from the old, family tier to rates for specific domestic situations), it’s a big deal.”
Adams confirmed the two new insurance options were available to staff before Tuesday’s meeting. The city ended its open enrollment process at the conclusion of business hours.
Theoretically, the city could have re-started insurance enrollment initiatives this month if aldermen nixed the new policy since Oct. 1 marks the start of the new fiscal year.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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