Guest Opinion: Let he who is without lifetime health benefits cast the first stone
When is a contract excessive, and by whom shall excess be judged?
In this case, five of the seven members of the City Council at the meeting voted to approve a contract with our unionized employees. Council member Larry Klein stated that this agreement was a good one, albeit, not a great one.
I agree. The complex and oftentimes tense negotiations that preceded this contract produced an agreement that the majority of the council felt struck an appropriate balance between pension benefits and health care costs.
Along comes our former Mayor Dick Rosenbaum, who expresses his disapproval of the council's vote, both at a council meeting and in a guest opinion in the Palo Alto Weekly (Oct. 25). In decrying the Council's action, Mr. Rosenbaum writes: "Health insurance costs aren't volatile; they just go up. ... [T]his contract ... does not effectively limit increases in health care costs for active employees and exacerbates the problem of unfunded liability for retiree health costs." (Emphasis added.)
What Mr. Rosenbaum neglected to mention was that when he retired from the council on Dec. 31, 1999, he began receiving lifetime retiree health benefits, 100 percent of which are paid for by the City of Palo Alto.
He is not alone. Currently there are nine former council members who receive lifetime retiree health benefits for themselves and their spouses. From 2001 to 2006, these payments cost the City $220,000. Five of the current council members, including the two council members who voted against this union contract, are eligible for this lifetime benefit when they retire from the council.
Why is this?
For years, the city required only five years of full-time service in the state's PERS system before its employees could become fully vested to receive 100 percent lifetime retiree health benefits. Unbeknownst to the public until recently, this policy also applied to council members because under state law, rightly or wrongly, council members are classified as city employees -- even though we are volunteers, put in as much or as little time as we choose, punch no time clocks and have no minimum required hours of work for the city.
In 2003, the policy was changed. Now, all employees, including council members, who begin working for the City after Jan. 1, 2004, become eligible for this 100 percent lifetime-retiree benefit only after they have been in the PERS system for 20 years.
If those council members upon whom our fair city has bestowed the lavish gift of a 100 percent city-paid lifetime health benefit choose to accept it, so be it.
But it might, methinks, be more seemly were these folks -- before criticizing the benefits earned by our hard-working city employees -- take guidance from that famous biblical injunction: "Let he who is without lifetime 100 percent city-paid health benefits cast the first stone."
But in the end, of course, the real pity is not that our employees and even our council members have health coverage but that so many in our city and in our country do not.
LaDoris Cordell is a member of the Palo Alto City Council, a Stanford University administrator and a retired Superior Court judge. She can be e-mailed at lcordell@Stanford.edu.