STARKVILLE — Starkville’s insurance surcharge for unvaccinated employees will officially go into effect today without any alternative.
Aldermen passed a policy in September requiring all unvaccinated city employees to pay an additional $75 monthly surcharge on their medical insurance premium, but in order to meet all legal requirements for the increase, the city must allow for a reasonable alternative in its place, according to board attorney Chris Latimer.
Mayor Lynn Spruill asked for the special-call meeting Tuesday to discuss a possible alternative, but the board failed to approve the proposed option by a 4-3 vote, placing the city in potential legal jeopardy. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn set another special-call session for 5 p.m. today to discuss delaying the surcharge altogether. Spruill has vetoed a previous board vote on the delay.
Latimer, along with Spruill and Human Resources Director Navarrete Ashford, created the potential alternative over the weekend, which would allow unvaccinated employees to apply for a medical waiver with their physician in the place of the monthly surcharge. The increase would be delayed from today, the initial effective date, until Dec. 17, the next pay period, to give employees who wished to apply for the waiver adequate time to obtain one. But because the board rejected the alternative, the increase will be implemented today.
“The policy will go into effect (Dec. 1) without a reasonable alternative standard which is problematic legally,” Latimer said.
Employees submitting regular COVID-19 test results could have served as another alternative, but Latimer, Ashford and Spruill decided that option could prove costly to employees and the reporting structure for those tests too difficult to sustain.
The board on Nov. 16 voted to delay the increase until Feb. 1 due to the upcoming holiday season and to see if any case law regarding vaccine mandates transpires over the coming months, but Spruill vetoed the delay Nov. 22 saying she believes postponing the surcharge could be detrimental to the health, safety and wellbeing of city employees and individuals with whom they come into contact.
Ward 3 Alderman Jeffrey Rupp, who originally proposed the increase delay, said he does not agree with enacting the policy during the holiday season and voted against the alternative.
“I still encourage everybody to get vaccinated, but I am against this,” Rupp said. “I think it’s regressive. I think it really hurts the $13 an hour employee much more than some others who make more.”
Rupp, along with Carver, said he thought Tuesday’s special-call meeting was to discuss Spruill’s veto, not just to consider an alternative to the surcharge, but the notice of the meeting only specified amending the original resolution to allow for an alternative. Latimer said the board could not override Spruill’s veto or vote to delay the increase again at Tuesday’s meeting because it was not stated in the special-call meeting’s agenda. In order to vote on another delay, a separate meeting must be called.
“The special-call notice says that you have to distinctly specify the subject matters of business to be acted upon and business not specified therein shall not be transacted at the meeting,” Latimer said.
Carver said he and Vaughn called today’s meeting to discuss another vote to delay the surcharge until Feb. 1. A 4-3 majority voted for the delay originally, and Carver said he expects that margin will hold today.
It would require a 5-2 majority to override the veto, but by law an override vote must occur in the meeting immediately following the mayor issuing the veto, which would have been Tuesday. So for today’s meeting, a simple majority can simply reinstitute the delay.
“It would have the same effect as overriding the veto, but it would be subject to another veto,” Spruill told The Dispatch.
Spruill said she isn’t certain she will issue another veto on the issue. What she hopes is for some sort of compromise where the city can enact both the surcharge and the alternative.
“I will wait and see what the board decides to do,” she said. “What I don’t want is for this to come up again and again.”
Managing Editor Zack Plair contributed to this report.