Health insurance plan still available to Ross commissioners
By Kelsey Shea
Published: Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Ross Township remains one of the few municipalities in Allegheny County to offer its elected officials health insurance, though two commissioners who will be sworn in on Jan. 6 have said they won't enroll in taxpayer-paid insurance plans.
For the past five years, the township has spent between $103,000 and $136,000 annually on commissioners' health insurance, and the 2014 budget earmarks $98,250 for board members' individual and family plans.
Six of the eight commissioners who were in office as of this edition's deadline were enrolled in the township's insurance. The board of commissioners usually has nine members, but Gerald O'Brien resigned last month, when he was elected township tax collector. The township vacancy board had a meeting scheduled after this edition's deadline to discuss applicants for the vacancy created by O'Brien's resignation.
O'Brien received individual insurance through the township for most of 2013.
A 4-4 vote on Dec. 16 killed an ordinance that would have phased out the insurance for new commissioners. To cut spending, Commissioner Chris Eyster proposed eliminating coverage for commissioners elected after 2014 but grandfathering in those already enrolled.
“I don't think it's fair to incoming commissioners,” said Commissioner David Mikec, who voted against the proposal to phase out the paid insurance. “Maybe it needs to be looked at again if we have budget issues in the future.”
Ross officials plan to pull $700,000 from township reserves to balance its 2014 budget. The 2.7-mill property-tax rate will remain unchanged.
Commissioners Lana Mazur, Grace Stanko and Grant Montgomery also voted against the proposal to phase out township-paid health insurance. Commissioners Daniel DeMarco, Peter Ferraro, John Sponcer and Eyster voted in favor.
“It frustrates me because it's not beneficial to the taxpayers, and it shows a self-serving attitude,” DeMarco said. “I think it's time to phase it out.”
All commissioners on the plan voluntarily pay 10 percent of the premium, except Stanko. The 10-percent payment ranges from $500 to $2,000 a year.
Next year, the plans requires a mandatory 5-percent contribution from commissioners, though they still may volunteer to contribute 10 percent.
Richard Hadley, executive director of the Allegheny League of Municipalities, said that municipalities offering insurance to elected officials is not common and that Ross' practice was the first he had heard of in a “long, long time.”
“I think it really comes down to the values of the municipalities and what they want to achieve with their commissioners,” Hadley said.
Though the additional cost of insurance could be detrimental, Hadley said, he thinks there are benefits to offering the insurance, as well.
“It's getting harder and harder to find good people to run for office,” he said. “It could be argued that offering insurance could attract people who wouldn't otherwise run.”
Incoming commissioners Steve Korbel, who will replace Eyster, and Jeremy Shaffer, who will replace Ferraro, said during their campaigns that they would not enroll in the township-paid plans.
Korbel said he thinks O'Brien's replacement will determine whether the insurance issue comes up again next year.
“I was disappointed by the result but not surprised,” Korbel said about the Dec. 16 vote.
He said people were surprised and unhappy to learn that commissioners received insurance when he went door to door seeking votes.
“When someone decides to give back to their community, it really should be giving back and not taking,” said Jack Betkowski, a Ross resident who attended the commissioners meeting and also was disappointed with the vote.
Ross employees and commissioners are insured through Highmark Inc.'s Municipal Employers Insurance Trust, or MEIT, which specializes in providing affordable insurance to local-government employees.
MEIT board chairman Jerry Patterson said he's not sure how common it is for municipalities to provide insurance for part-time elected officials, but he thinks the decision on whether to do so should be based on individual circumstances.
“I think it's on a case-by-case basis, or even a commissioner-by-commissioner basis,” Patterson said. “Some need it, and some don't and don't want to pull that cost from the township.”
Mikec said he is especially grateful for the insurance after he was laid off this year.
The commissioners' compensation — $4,375 annually — is set by state law, but insurance coverage is discretionary.
Ross has offered commissioners insurance for more than 15 years.
Officials in McCandless, a municipality of similar size, choose not offer paid insurance for elected council members.
“The council felt from their point of view that they were providing a public service, and it wouldn't be appropriate to accept that,” McCandless manager Toby Cordek said.
Shaler Township is one of the few other municipalities in the area that offers the benefit of paid health insurance to its commissioners. Three of Shaler's seven commissioners are reimbursed for supplemental Medicare coverage, Shaler manager Timothy Rogers said.
The township budgeted $11,000 for commissioners' insurance in 2013 but spent about $7,000.
Kelsey Shea is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or email@example.com.
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