By CHRISTOPHER BUTLER
Because of a little-known, seldom discussed ordinance passed more than 20 years ago, former Nashville-Metro Council members take advantage of huge health insurance benefits, all at taxpayer expense.
Since 1990, Nashville-Davidson County taxpayers have paid for the health insurance benefits of former Metro Council members who serve two terms and opt for the coverage. This is despite the fact that many of those Council members have or had jobs in the private sector that compensated them well, especially in terms of the health insurance benefits that were offered.
Metro officials have not provided specifics on exactly how much taxpayers have paid for former Council members’ health benefits throughout the past 20 years — but in 2010, it is estimated that taxpayers paid as much as $400,000.
There is no doubt that public service is a noble calling, and that a Nashville-Davidson County resident can accomplish much for the community by serving on the Metro Council.
“Council members put in a lot of long hours, in addition to working full-time jobs elsewhere,” said Roseanne Hayes, with the Metro Council Office.
The fact remains, however, that a Council member can reap great health insurance benefits for life (all of which are optional) if he or she manages to serve long enough. This is regardless of whether they could get those same benefits through their full-time, and often higher paying private-sector jobs.
Because of a 1983 ordinance, Council members who currently serve are entitled to the same health benefits that metropolitan government employees receive. The ordinance also originally allowed Council members to receive those same benefits after they left office, provided they pay the full premium “without any subsidy from the Metropolitan Government.”
Seven years later, in March 1990, Council members changed the rules.
They amended that ordinance to include new language:
“Those elected officials holding office for eight years or more and those persons receiving a pension from the State County Paid Judges Pension Plan may elect to continue the health care plan provided they pay the contribution rates equivalent to those rates paid by metropolitan government employees.”
A Council member who serves two terms (whether consecutive or not) is eligible for the health benefits, but this time with a subsidy from the city government – and a large one at that.
Currently, the city will pay 75 percent of the health benefits for sitting Council members. Those same benefits extend to members who previously served two full terms on the Council on or after July 1, 1989.
Meanwhile, a Council member who serves just one term is ineligible for the health benefits after he or she leaves office.
(In November 1994, about four years later, voters throughout Nashville voted yes on a referendum that limited Council members to serving no more than two full terms – whether consecutive or not — according to a representative from the city’s Elections Commission Office.)
Another change to the ordinance came more than a decade later.
As recently as three years ago, Council members extended the coverage beyond the two-term requirement. Council members voted in 2008 to extend those same health insurance benefits to Council members who step in to fill another member’s unexpired vacancy. Such individuals are ineligible to seek a third term in office, but they can still get the health insurance benefits for life.
For more than a month, Tennessee Watchdog asked Metro officials for specific information on how much local county taxpayers pay per month and year to provide health insurance benefits for former Council members. Officials, however, have thus far refused to release that specific information.
“In the absence of specific information from Human Resources and/or Finance, there would be no way to know how many former members have elected to continue their coverage,” said Mike Curl, finance manager with the Metro Council Office. However, Tennessee Watchdog has obtained records indicating that 31 former Council members opt for the Metro health benefits.
According to Metro’s Human Resources personnel, the average Metro employee pays $141.50 per month in health benefits, while Metro pays the remaining 75 percent, or $424.50 (translating to $5,094 per year per employee). For the family plan, the average county employee pays $339 per month, while Metro pays the remaining 75 percent, or $1,017 per month (translating to $12,204 per year per employee).
If all former members participating in the benefits plan are on family coverage, local taxpayers could be paying as much as $378,324 per year for those 31 former Council members still receiving those same benefits.
(As far as current Council members are concerned, Metro taxpayers paid a combined $159,800 in 2010 for the health insurance benefits for the 19 currently serving members who choose to participate. In 2009, taxpayers paid a smaller amount, $143,216, for currently serving Council members).
Many former Council members currently have or once had lucrative-paying jobs outside of elected office. The fact that some of them still receive health benefits at taxpayer expense has not gone unnoticed by at least a few people, Hayes said.
“People can get upset about an issue like this, especially if it is something that pertains to money or budgets – or especially if they get mad at a certain city Council member,” Hayes said, in jest.
Council members may work demanding hours, but not all of them sign up for the Metro health benefits plan, whether they are current members or not.
“Not everybody takes it (the city’s plan), because they probably have it at their own jobs and the health benefits are better there,” noted Hayes.
AN ISSUE BARELY NOTICED
The vote on amending the health insurance ordinance took place in 1990 without any reported controversy.
The issue concerning the ordinance was virtually unreported that week in the local media, at least according to public news archives.
Instead, most media coverage at the time focused solely on the Council’s controversial vote on whether to continue using the Bordeaux Sanitary Landfill until the city was able to use a new landfill in the Bells Bend area.
According to the minutes of the actual meeting, the motion to amend the health insurance ordinance passed unanimously. Unfortunately, those minutes do not include comments from Council members as to why they thought amending the ordinance was in their constituents’ best interests.
Some of the Council members who voted in favor of amending that ordinance in 1990 are now benefitting from it, according to city records.
One of those Council members who voted yes on amending the health benefits language now owns a bookkeeping business in Nashville. That former Council member confirmed to Tennessee Watchdog that he still receives health insurance benefits from the county, but he would say little else.
“Yes, I do get health insurance benefits – but I don’t even remember how much I pay for the premiums,” he said before refusing to comment further.
Other former Council members appear to still have high-paying jobs, many of which offer their own health insurance benefits.
One former councilman, for instance, receives health benefits from the city, but he now operates a civil engineering firm. Another former Council member who also receives health benefits from the city is now a state representative. She is also a retired director of Mail Service at Vanderbilt, according to a representative from her office.
Christopher Butler is the director of government accountability for the Tennessee Center for Policy Research and the editor of Tennessee Watchdog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org