Community Commentary: Pay council minimum wage without benefits

Health-care benefits for City Council members have become controversial, one of the few issues that has united both the right and the left (although for different reasons).

There are multiple levels of the controversy.

The most basic question is whether the council members should receive any health benefits at all.

Many citizens believe that health care is a personal responsibility and don't believe the government should be involved in providing health care, whether it is the national "ObamaCare" or local city council health benefits.

Other citizens believe that serving on the City Council should be a civic service rather than a paying job, advocating a minimal stipend that covers actual expenses.

John Adams strongly argued in favor of public officials being paid for their service. He wanted to avoid a rule by the aristocracy and pointed out that the poor and middle classes could not afford to serve without pay.

The greater controversy is over how costly the benefits are.

Depending on what figures you use, the Costa Mesa City Council currently gets more than either double or triple the national average for health insurance. Their health benefits (at $1,559 a month) are higher than for any city official, including the city manager, fire chief, police chief or department heads (at $1,476 a month), almost double the health benefits of general employees (at $799 a month), and nearly triple the health benefits of sworn fire fighters (at $556 a month).

Many citizens have pointed out that they are independent small business owners who pay for their own health insurance outside of a large pool (such as a national business) and their insurance costs are still lower than those for the Costa Mesa City Council.

The amount Costa Mesa provides for its City Council is not the highest in the state (Orange Cove, up to $26,957 a year) or even the highest in Orange County (Laguna Hills, up to $26,051 a year), but it is among the highest for any city council in the entire state.

In contrast, Newport Beach provides health-care benefits to City Council members that are only slightly above the state average.

In Costa Mesa, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer has refused his health care benefits, saying, "I felt at this time it would be difficult for me to ask our city employees to cut back on there unsustainable programs and accept them myself."

Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, his integrity is clear.

In Newport Beach, Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Gardner and Councilmen Rush Hill and Steve Rosansky are not receiving health-care benefits.

Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the left-leaning Costa Mesa Employees Assn., said, "The City Council's health benefit is high when compared to general employees and even to the supervisors and managers. My understanding is that of all the employee groups within the city, the City Council is the only one that hasn't taken a cut to their benefit packages.

"General employees are paying more toward their pensions, did layoffs and furloughs, etc. The City Council gets the $1,595 amount for a cafeteria health plan, but if they do not use the full amount, they can receive the difference in cash.

"In contrast, the city pays $799 a month for a general employee cafeteria health plan. If that amount is not enough to cover their health care needs, the employee pays the difference for coverage for themselves and their families. That varies based on individual need, but we know that many of our employees have significant out of pocket health care expenses."

Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the right-leaning Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., said, "City council members who work a few hours a month should not receive these benefits unless they are willing to pay for them. The positions are service, not jobs."

Earlier this year Vosburgh told the San Jose Mercury News, "The only reason there isn't more outrage is that most people aren't aware of this. It amounts to a gift of public funds, a theft from taxpayers."

My personal opinion is that City Council members should be paid only for the hours they actually work at the same minimum wage set by the state Legislature for private business, without any extra compensation or benefits.

MILO SHIFF is a reporter with KOCI News in Costa Mesa.

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