STARKVILLE — Unvaccinated city employees may still have an insurance increase in December.
Mayor Lynn Spruill on Monday vetoed the board of aldermen’s decision to delay monthly insurance surcharges for unvaccinated employees until Feb. 1, meaning the policy’s initial increase date will remain Dec. 1 if the board fails to override the veto.
After aldermen passed its COVID-19 vaccine policy in September requiring all city employees to be vaccinated or see their insurance premium increase by $75 per month, the board voted to delay the surcharge from Dec. 1 to Feb. 1 due to legal developments that had occurred since passing the initial policy. Board attorney Chris Latimer informed the board at its Nov. 16 meeting that in order to execute a vaccine mandate, the board must provide employees a reasonable alternative to the insurance surcharge, such as weekly testing, to be in compliance with the U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Treasury’s frequently asked questions and guidelines.
Spruill said she believes now is not the time to delay the surcharge but to enact it in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I have both fiscal and health and safety concerns for our employees, taxpayers in our community and individuals who rely on the health and welfare of our employees when they are in the role of public service,” Spruill said.
The board will hold a special-call meeting at 3 p.m. Nov. 30 at City Hall to discuss the veto and the possible alternatives. The board can override Spruill’s veto with a 5-2 vote, but because the vote to delay the surcharge was only 4-3 — Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 3 Alderman Jeffrey Rupp, Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn in favor of the delay, while Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Ward 4 Alderman Mike Brooks and Vice Mayor Roy A. Perkins, who represents Ward 6, all opposed — one aldermen must change their vote for this to happen.
“I called a special-call meeting so the board can determine that alternative that Mr. Latimer says we need in order to keep us on the right side of the legal requirements,” Spruill said.
Spruill said she has asked Latimer and Human Resources Director Navarrete Ashford to create a policy for the board to consider based on resources Latimer has gathered. She said she would anticipate weekly testing at one of the testing centers available in the city, and employees would submit those results.
Carver said he does not think a special-call session is necessary and said he wished the surcharge would remain delayed until Feb. 1 due to the financial difficulty the holiday season can have on some people.
“I just think we need to help our city employees in any way with this additional burden,” Carver said. “… I think this is just political theatrics.”
Carver said he also believes the city should have allocated some of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to help cover COVID-19 insurance claims that city employees may have.
Beatty echoed Carver’s thoughts on the veto, saying while he knows people are concerned about health and safety, he still thinks the board should wait two months to enact the increase.
Beatty served as mayor for the city of Newton from 1992-2005. He said he has seen more vetoes during his 2 1/2 years on the Starkville board of aldermen than his entire tenure as Newton mayor. Spruill has executed her power of veto three times during 4 1/2 years as mayor.
“I was mayor for 13 and a half of the 15 years I was an elected official in Newton, and I bet I vetoed maybe three of four things that entire time,” Beatty said. “It wasn’t that we didn’t have a diverse board and different opinions on things. I just always thought that vetoes were to be used for the most important stuff, and I don’t know if this rises to that level or not.”
Spruill said while she believes the vaccine is the best way to prevent COVID-19, if Starkville sees no surge of cases throughout the winter months and no variant appears, then she said the board could possibly discuss eliminating the vaccine policy altogether come spring.
“Come April or May and everything looks fine, and we haven’t had a spike, and everybody is doing well, and the hospitals are not overloaded from cases, then it may be the time to take the whole thing away, take away the surcharge, take away the mask requirements, take away the vaccination requirements,” Spruill said.