Debates are raging over health care across the country. Communities are struggling to make fiscal ends meet in the tough economy. The state of Maine recently made state employees – including legislators – contribute to the cost of their healthcare, a first. This is the climate in which the South Portland City Council voted on whether to keep their own health benefits.
Monday night council members gathered to discuss if the council should continue receiving health care benefits costing $70,000 a year or to drop them. After debating the issue for an hour the South Portland City Council voted 3-3, a tie which means the health benefits will continue. Councilor James Soule proposed revoking benefits and changing the language on compensation in the City Charter. Soule felt the revocation necessary after budgetary problems led to several employees being laid off.
Mayor Tom Blake disagreed with Soule’s assessment of Council compensation and budget issues. Mayor Blake believed that the people of South Portland would suffer in the long run from the City Council’s loss of health benefits. Councilor Tom Coward, who also voted against the change, felt the current health benefits attracted the best people to become town councilors.
Some South Portlanders did not agree with Mayor Blake and Councilor Coward’s views. One resident quoted in the Portland Press Herald questioned why these elected officials did not put the changes to a vote by the people. Albert DiMillo Jr. said the amount of compensation South Portland Councilor’s received was grossly inflated. “City councilors don’t deserve this extraordinary compensation,” DiMillo said. “Your performance is pitiful. If you want to be in the plan, pay for it. Stop stealing from the city.” DiMillo went on to point out that though education is two thirds of South Portland’s budget school board members receive only $1,000 in compensation.
Are South Portland’s City Councilmen receiving more compensation than they should? The nearby towns of Cumberland and Scarborough grant council members $2,000 and $1,500 a year respectively. Lewiston, a city of roughly 10,000 more people, pays its council members $1,800 annually. Even discounting money from health care benefits, South Portland council members receive even more. Councilman Coward’s assertion that these benefits attract the best to serve is disturbing. Are there really no concerned citizens who would heed the civic call without being bribed with compensation?
Mayor Blake said in the Portland Press Herald, “Several times we have heard we need to share in the pain.” Yes, we should. Maine citizens and businesses are tightening their belts. In this budget crunch some expenses, like the unfortunate February layoffs of South Portland workers, have had to be cut. Though city council members perform a vital service, they ultimately are elected officials and this is not their primary occupation. Citizens of South Portland should be calling for greater accountability from their officials. Other towns are able to get citizens to serve without the need for extra compensation. In these lean times, South Portland should too.
(Cross-posted at Augusta Insider)