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Jun 16, 2015 4:04 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Village Could Eliminate Lifetime Benefits For Former Elected Officials

Jun 18, 2015 3:53 PM

Amending benefits packages for both sitting and former elected officials, as well as future village employees, will be a top priority for the Westhampton Beach Village Board at the start of the new fiscal year next month.

Mayor Maria Moore said the current model, which covers all health and dental insurance costs for village employees and members of the Village Board, is not sustainable and prompted her to start exploring ways to address the issue. The village has budgeted more than $1.22 million to cover hospital and medical insurance costs for the 2015-16 fiscal year, and more than $80,000 for dental insurance. Together, the two line items account for about 13 percent of the village’s $9.8 million spending plan.

“I don’t see how we could sustain this level of benefits for people when there are no contributions made to the premium,” Ms. Moore said. “It is something I’ve talked to our village attorney about seeing if we can change what’s being provided now.”

Village law also allows former mayors and trustees who served on the board for at least 10 consecutive years, and are at least 55 years of age, to receive health benefits for life without making any contributions to the health plan. Village Board member Hank Tucker, who is seeking his fifth term in office in Friday’s election, would qualify for lifetime benefits if he can retain his seat and completes the two-year term.

At the present time, Mr. Tucker and his Lightning Party running mate, Patricia DiBenedetto, are the only two Village Board members currently receiving health care coverage through the village, according to Westhampton Beach Village Clerk Elizabeth Lindtvit. Ms. Moore, an attorney, and fellow board member Charlie Palmer, an accountant who works for the Suffolk County Police Department, both receive dental insurance through the village. Trustee Ralph Urban, a retired teacher, does not accept coverage from the village, though he is eligible to do so.

Members of the other municipal boards, including the planning, zoning and architectural review boards, do not qualify for benefits.

Ms. Moore said when the issue comes up, which she expects will be shortly after the board’s July 6 organizational meeting, she will recommend that the village stop providing lifetime benefits to elected officials once they leave office. She would not, however, look to take those benefits away from those former officials who are still receiving them.

Former village mayors Robert Strebel, Arma “Ham” Andon and Stuart Tobin, as well as former trustees Ora Belle “Ridgie” Barnett and Harold Williams, are receiving benefits from the village at a total cost of more than $50,000 annually. Prior to a resolution adopted in 2007 extending the required service to 10 years, board members became vested after just five consecutive years in office.

Former Trustee Toni-Jo Birk receives health insurance through the village but pays her own premium, at no cost to the village, Ms. Moore said.

Ms. Moore added that other adjustments might also be in order, such as requiring municipal workers to make contributions to the medical plan and offering an option for trustees to opt out of the village health plan in exchange for a larger stipend; currently, trustees are paid $5,710 annually, while the mayor earns $25,000 per annum.

The mayor also stressed that the modifications, if eventually adopted, would not be retroactive, meaning that current employees will not see their benefits altered.

“It’s an extremely generous benefit package, although I wouldn’t want to make changes for existing employees, because it would be the equivalent of reducing their salaries,” Ms. Moore said. “But for new employees, it would be a good idea moving forward.”

Lifetime benefits have been a topic of discussion on the campaign trail for the four candidates vying for two open spots on the board in this Friday’s election. Brian Tymann, who is running on the Our Village Party ticket with Rob Rubio, said many people have broached the topic with them because Mr. Tucker, who is 55, would be poised to reach the decade mark if he is reelected.

But Mr. Tymann said he does not think, as some as have suggested, that Mr. Tucker is seeking reelection simply to qualify for lifetime benefits. “I don’t think that’s why he’s in it. I think he’s doing this because he wants to serve his community,” Mr. Tymann said. But he added, “I do think it’s something that should be done away immediately.”

Mr. Tucker said this week that he did not get into village politics for the benefits, pointing out that he voted for the change from five years of service to 10 shortly after entering office in July 2007. He said he still thinks 10 years of service warrants lifetime benefits, but also said he’d be willing to reconsider that stance if other board members feel it is time for a change.

“If the board wants to change it going forward, I’ll listen to what they have to say and go from there,” he said.

Both Mr. Rubio and Ms. DiBenedetto said lifetime benefits should be discontinued moving forward.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Tucker would need to reach 10 years in order to qualify for lifetime benefits, because he was voted into office before the board changed the policy from five to 10 years. It was originally thought that Ms. Birk, who served on the board from 2006 to 2012, would have qualified for the previous five-year standard despite voting for the extension to 10 years—a decision that Mr. Tucker lambasted her for in 2012. Attorneys for the village, however, ruled in March that Ms. Birk does not qualify and, therefore, required that she start paying her full premium.

While he said he has not yet studied the matter because he has not been directed by the board to do so, Village Attorney Stephen Angel said he does not think Mr. Tucker qualifies under the five-year cutoff, because the law took effect at the beginning of his first term in office.

When Ms. Birk made her intentions known in 2012, Mr. Tucker was highly critical of her decision to accept the benefits even though she failed to serve 10 consecutive years.

When asked about that situation again during a phone interview Monday, Mr. Tucker said he did not know if he qualifies for lifetime benefits, adding that it would be up to the village’s legal team to decide that. But Mr. Tucker, who owns Holey Moses Cheesecake in Westhampton, also said he would not keep the coverage if he loses his reelection bid.

“I would stick to the stance I was quoted on in your paper and voted for, and I would hold myself to the 10-year standard,” he said.

Like Ms. Moore, Mr. Tymann said he’d rather increase the stipends and eliminate health and dental insurance for board members in the interest of transparency and fiscal responsibility, noting that insurance costs can vary greatly from year to year, and person to person. Providing only a stipend, he said, would allow taxpayers to know exactly how much each board member is being compensated for their service.

He did note that if he is unable to change the system and health insurance is still offered, he would likely take advantage of it, though he would reject the lifetime benefits if he ever qualified for them.

“I’d probably be a fool not take them in office—but I don’t want them after I leave,” Mr. Tymann said.

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Great Idea by the Mayor. Enough is enough with these "lifetime" benefits provided to any employee let alone an elected official serving a part-time or even full time position. I support enough social welfare nets with the taxes I pay. Keep the positive momentum moving. Good Job!
By realistic (472), westhampton on Jun 18, 15 7:38 AM
2 members liked this comment
13% of the budget which tops 7 figures is spent unpeople who no longer work there! Wow. That alone is a re-election cause anyone could vote for.
By Hambone (514), New York on Jun 18, 15 8:08 AM
1 member liked this comment
That would probably have paid for any Main Street improvements if abolished earlier
By Hambone (514), New York on Jun 18, 15 8:09 AM
1 member liked this comment
This is a direct attack at Joan
By westhamptonboy (227), Westhampton on Jun 18, 15 11:49 AM
Rob Rubio and Brian Tymann have told me they are against WHB signing promises never to oppose an eruv in WHB as is being sought by Verizon and the East End Eruv Assn. and are also against medical plans for trustees. That is enough to win my vote. Hank Tucker would get free medical for life if elected since he would meet the ten-year requirement,
By JackO'Dwyer (16), New York on Jun 18, 15 5:52 PM
These little east end villages are all about paying and benefitting elected officials.
By chief1 (2800), southampton on Jun 18, 15 7:52 PM

"Ms. Moore added that other adjustments might also be in order, such as ... offering an option for trustees to opt out of the village health plan in exchange for a larger stipend; currently, ... the mayor earns $25,000 per annum."

So how much MORE would Mme. Mayoress take home under this option (above the 100% bump in salary that she awarded herself immediately after taking office?)

Here's an alternative suggestion. ...more
By highhatsize (4214), East Quogue on Jun 19, 15 8:02 AM
1 member liked this comment