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Goleta’s Discarded Premium Plan for Council Members Was Unusual Among Santa Barbara County Cities

Noozhawk review turns up no other community paying 100 percent of its council members’ health insurance plans

[Noozhawk’s note: Third in a series investigating health insurance overpayments for Goleta City Council members. Click here for the first article, and click here for the second. Click here for a related article.]

In 2012, the City of Goleta determined it had been overpaying health benefit premiums for four City Council members over a period of six years. Realizing the overpayments — which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars — were unlawful excess compensation, the city set about getting the four to repay the debt.

State law sets limits on compensation for elected officials, and Goleta’s longtime policy of paying 100 percent of council member health plan premiums represented a higher payment than the city’s rank-and-file employees were receiving.

According to city records obtained by Noozhawk through a California Public Records Act request, the city in November 2012 generated invoices totaling $32,169.68 for the four: now-Mayor Paula Perotte, Councilmen Roger Aceves and Ed Easton, and former Councilwoman Jean Blois.

At the same time, the city also changed its health benefit system to an allowance payment, which is the same system it uses for employee health benefits.

Perotte owed the most, at $22,676.16, and city staff worked out a repayment plan that has her paying the city $20 per two-week payment period. As of late February, she still owed more than $20,000, the records show.

Aceves owed $9,114.44 and Easton $269.04, and both repaid the full amounts.

Blois owed $110.04, but the records show that she was never invoiced. She apparently first learned of the debt from Noozhawk, and on Tuesday personally delivered a check to the council during the regular meeting’s public comment period.

As a General Law City, Goleta’s council compensation is set by California law.

When Goleta incorporated in 2002, it set the salary at $300 per month, which is allowed to increase by 5 percent per year, but not until after a new council is seated after an election.

The City Council has approved salary increases for its members every two years: to $440 per month from $400 on Sept. 7, 2010; to $484 on Oct. 16, 2012; to $532 on Aug. 19, 2014; and to $585 on Sept. 6, 2016, making the current salary amount $7,020 per year per council member.

During the 2010 deliberations, Easton said at least one future council member would be “someone who works for a living, so for us to turn down this pay raise at this point is at least for this one person negative as far as she’s concerned” — a reference to the two women running for the council that fall: Perotte and Reyne Stapelmann.

When the council voted to approve the pay raise, Easton said he would return his $40 salary increase to the city to show solidarity with municipal employees.

During salary discussions over the years, council members usually joke about the pay not even being minimum wage, and often mention how they don’t serve for the money.

The issue of low pay has come up more recently during Goleta’s district elections debate, with the Goleta District Elections Committee suggesting that the city explore becoming a Charter City to allow for a higher salary, which might compel more working people to run for elected office.

Health benefits are allowed to go above the set salary limits, but state law prohibits council compensation from exceeding what employees receive.

While Goleta had been paying 100 percent of its council members’ plan premiums for years, neighboring cities were not.

Carpinteria, another General Law City, also uses the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, for its health benefit plan system, and offers council members the option of enrolling in the same plans as employees.

They can choose a single plan, cover themselves and a spouse, or cover eligible dependents up to 26 years old, human resources manager Arlene Balmadrid told Noozhawk.

The health plan offering can change whenever a new employee contract is negotiated, she noted, but the current cost-sharing agreement has the city designating 0.29 percent of an employee’s annual pay as a monthly contribution.

“We just wanted to make sure it’s fair to everybody,” she said.

Carpinteria council members currently are paid $310 per month, amounting to $3,720 per year. As a result, Balmadrid said, they end up getting something like $12 a year paid toward their health insurance.

Council members can select an HMO plan or a PPO plan and pay the premium difference.

While employees can cash out a portion of the city’s contribution if they don’t enroll, council members can’t, Balmadrid said.

Buellton doesn’t offer health insurance to its City Council members, according to Linda Reid, the city clerk/human resources director. Dental and vision coverage is offered, with the premium paid by the city.

Council members receive $440 a month, plus $75 for a car allowance, in salary, she said.

Buellton’s full-time employees receive benefits, including $800 per month toward medical premiums, employer-paid dental premiums and employer-paid vision premiums, Reid told Noozhawk.

In Solvang, members of the City Council are not eligible for any health benefits, according to Sandra Featherson, the city’s director of administrative services.

Council members currently receive a monthly salary of $600, and the mayor is paid $700 per month.

Santa Barbara, a Charter City, has a voter-approved charter amendment allowing its council members to be paid more. Currently, council members are paid $3,518.58 per month and the mayor gets $4,398.33 monthly.

For health benefits, the seven elected officials get a monthly allowance of $1,731.61, and choices for medical, dental and vision plans. They pay the difference between the plan premiums and their allowance, which is the same as managers, human resources manager Susie Gonzalez told Noozhawk.

Santa Maria, another Charter City, offers health insurance benefits to the mayor and council members, city spokesman Mark van de Kamp said.

They have a choice of five plans, from CalPERS, Blue Shield of California or Anthem Blue Cross of California, and the costs vary depending on the plan and whether the council members add dependents, he added.

The range is between $633.46 and $2,077.79 per month.

Santa Maria pays $128 per month, the same as employees, as the minimum employer contribution amount. The city also pays a monthly “optional medical insurance contribution” to council members and employees, which varies based on the bargaining unit, van de Kamp said.

The amounts are $464 for a council member, $753 for a council member and one dependent, and $928 for a council member and two dependents. It’s the same health coverage offered to the city’s nonrepresented full-time management and confidential employees, he said.

The 2017 salary for Santa Maria council members is $1,313 per month, and $1,563 for the directly elected mayor.

Lompoc’s municipal code sets the salary for council members at $600 a month and the mayor’s salary at $800 a month. A 2010 resolution reduced the salary to $570 a month.

City Clerk Stacey Haddon told Noozhawk that City Council members are offered the same health insurance plans as employees.

Lompoc pays a monthly share toward its offered health plans: $431.70 for an individual, $861.76 for a two-party plan, and $1,086.13 for family plans.

Employee shares for health benefits vary depending on which plan is selected, with options including HMOs from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and PPOs from Anthem Blue Cross.

The five members of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors get the same health insurance as county employees and the same county contributions, according to the Human Resources Department.

Supervisors get options of enrolling in four Blue Shield plans, with county contributions ranging from $645 to $741 per month depending on the plan. If they don’t enroll in any plan, they don’t get the county contribution.

Supervisors also get the choice of two Delta Dental plans, with a county contribution of $26.06 per month, and no contribution if they decide not to enroll.

The county also offers a vision plan, but doesn’t contribute toward its premiums, according to the Human Resources Department.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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