Southampton Town Board studying costs of health care for some town employees

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As a belt-tightening measure, the Southampton Town Board is considering changing the way health benefits are given to appointed members who serve on the municipality’s regulatory boards.

If the changes proposed by Supervisor Linda Kabot are adopted by the Town Board, appointees who sit on the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals would have to pay more to receive town-subsidized health benefits.

For members of the town’s Licensing Review, Conservation and Architectural Review boards, health benefits have already been terminated, aside from the four members who are in “holdover” status. However, the option to receive benefits in lieu of an annual salary could be offered to all members of these three boards in the future, according to town officials.

Town Services Administrator Richard Blowes is now conducting an analysis that examines the financial impact of the town offering health benefits for those serving on its appointed boards. That study is scheduled to be finished in September, at which time Mr. Blowes said he will present his findings to Town Board members so they can best determine how to structure the health benefits for board appointees.

Mr. Blowes said he is not certain how much money the municipality could save if those sitting on the town’s planning and zoning boards are required to contribute more for their health benefits, as is now being discussed.

Calls placed to Planning Board Chairman Dennis Finnerty and Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Herbert Phillips were not returned this week. Messages left at Town Hall for other members of their respective boards also were not returned.

Mr. Blowes said he began his study in January at the behest of Ms. Kabot. The supervisor said her goal is to reduce the amount of taxpayer money that goes to providing health benefits for board appointees—regardless of how much money is being discussed.

Unlike elected town officials, who receive lifetime health benefits, appointed board members receive such benefits only while they are serving at Town Hall. Ms. Kabot said that, in the past, health benefits have been a retention tool for many appointees, a practice that she thinks needs to be curtailed. “They want to keep being reappointed so they can continue to receive benefits,” she said.

Ms. Kabot added that, in her opinion, the annual salaries earned by individuals on the Licensing Review, Conservation and Architectural Review boards are sufficient compensation and should not include health benefits.

But not all Town Board members agree that the potential savings of such an initiative will benefit the municipality.

Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi said health benefits not only attract qualified candidates to serve on the town’s regulatory boards but also help retain them. He warned that the town needs to carefully review the situation before adopting any policies.

“There’s a lot of work on these boards,” Mr. Nuzzi said. “We need to be mindful of what we’re asking of taxpayers, but I’m not sure if eliminating or raising the cost of benefits is the best way to cut costs.”

Ms. Kabot acknowledged that access to health insurance was an incentive for people to serve on the board, but she suggested that there are many qualified citizens who would do so without that enticement.

Town Board member Anna Throne-Holst rejected the notion that citizens serve on the the boards primarily for the bonus of health benefits. Ms. Throne-Holst said she was open to whatever alternatives are presented to her when Mr. Blowes completes his analysis in September, but said, in principle, she supports providing appointees with health benefits.

Agreeing with Mr. Nuzzi, Ms. Throne-Holst said she isn’t sure if increasing the amount of money that Planning Board and ZBA members pay for their health benefits is worth the savings.

“We ask these people to make a big commitment to the town, and I think with the rising cost of health care in this country, providing them with benefits is a justifiable expense,” Ms. Throne-Holst said.

Other than the 14 members of the Southampton Town Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, no other appointed member of the town’s regulatory boards currently receives health benefits.

As of now, one suggestion being considered by the Town Board is an increase in the cost-share formula for appointees serving on the Planning Board and ZBA who currently receive benefits. Presently, the 14 members of these two boards foot an estimated 28 percent of their health insurance premiums, with the remaining portion of the cost picked up by the town.

Under the current structure, it costs the town $7,352.40 a year to provide individual health insurance to a board appointee, and $15,593.28 a year if that individual opts for family coverage. A board appointee with single-person coverage contributes $2,000 a year, while the town pays the $5,352.40 balance; an individual with family coverage contributes $4,250 annual, leaving the town to pick up the other $11,343.28.

If the proposed changes are adopted, the town and board appointee with an individual policy would each pay $3,676, an increase of $1,676 for the individual board member. For family coverage, 65 percent of the premium cost would be paid by individual board members with the town paying the remaining 35 percent. So, for that same $15,593.28 family policy, a board appointee would pay $10,136 and the town would contribute $5,458 under the proposal. That means that each appointee with family health benefits would have to pay an additional $5,886—more than double what he or she is currently paying.

If adopted, the new benefits update would take effect January 1, 2009. Ms. Kabot said a resolution to enact a cost-share formula for the Planning Board and ZBA will come before the Town Board in mid-November, when the 2009 budget is adopted.

New York State law mandates that the town pick up 50 percent of the tab for individual health plans and 35 percent for policies covering families. In accordance with that law, what is now being considered by the Town Board is a 50/50 split for individual plans.

The Planning Board meets four times a month for an estimated 5.5 hours per meeting, totaling about 300 work hours each year. Mr. Finnerty earns an annual salary of $20,800, Vice Chair John Blaney makes $15,600 and the other five board members—Larry Toler, Jacqui Lofaro, Alma Hyman, George Skidmore and E. Blair McCaslin—each earn $14,600.

According to town figures, Planning Board members currently earn roughly $66.50 an hour when health benefits are included in the equation.

The yearly compensation for Mr. Phillips is $15,800 with Vice Chair Beth Wickey earning $13,400. The five remaining members—Ann Nowak, Margaret Caraher, Keith Tuthill, Denise O’Brien and Adam Grossman—take home $12,500 each per year. The ZBA meets twice a month and meetings last about 4.5 hours for a yearly workload of 225 hours, when field inspections and training are included. The town estimates that, with benefits, ZBA appointees make about $79.34 per hour.

In November 2007, the prior Town Board passed a resolution that discontinued benefits altogether for appointed board members serving on the Licensing Review, Conservation and Architectural Review boards beginning January 1, 2008. A month later, the Town Board delayed the termination of those benefits until March 31. To fund this extension, the Town Board appropriated money from the Land Management Enterprise Fund.

Now, the current Town Board, in an April 22 resolution, has extended benefits for one member of the Licensing Review Board until July 1, 2008, and for three members of the Conservation Board until December 31, 2008. These four individuals were reappointed after the change in policy.

Once these remaining benefits are phased out, the town will no longer allow members of these boards to opt for health benefits. Ms. Kabot said the salaries earned by individuals on these three boards were sufficient compensation for their service to the town. In the future, those board appointees could have the option of taking health insurance instead of collecting an annual salary.

The Conservation Board includes Chairman Harry Ludlow, who earns $8,500 a year, and six board members—Gilbert S. Foster, Thomas Rickenbach, George Heine, Jeremiah Collins, Terrence Flanagan, and Zeb Youngman—each earning $5,900. The Conservation Board meets twice a month for an estimated 96 hours per year.

ARB Chairman Michael Charrier earns $5,800 a year and the four other board members—Jay D’Aries, David Reilly, John Zuccarelli and Timothy Rumph—earn $4,700 each. The ARB meets twice a month with the town estimating its yearly workload at 144 hours.

Meanwhile, Licensing Review Board Chairman Anthony D’Italia takes home $6,800 a year with the four other members—Thomas Kerr, Steve Halsey, Brette Haefeli and Edmund Moore—taking home $5,800 annually. That board meets once a month for an estimated 24 hours a year.

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