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Grover Beach and Cambria consider offering insurance to council and board members 

For many Americans, the issue of health insurance has become something of a roller coaster ride. Between multiple failed attempts by the Republican-led Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and recent calls from some Democrats and their constituents for a government-run single-payer health care system, no one seems to be sure what the future of their own benefits may look like.

click to enlarge UNINSURED Grover Beach is the only city in SLO County that does not offer insurance benefits to its elected officials. - GRAPHIC COURTESY OF THE CITY OF GROVER BEACH
  • Graphic Courtesy Of The City Of Grover Beach
  • UNINSURED Grover Beach is the only city in SLO County that does not offer insurance benefits to its elected officials.

SLO County's elected officials appear to be no exception. In recent months, officials at two entities have been considering whether to offer their members health insurance benefits. While the move may create a perk to encourage citizens to run for office in the future, some worry about the cost of providing such benefits at the expense of taxpayers.

Members of the Grover Beach City Council are considering offering health insurance benefits to future council members as part of a larger package that includes increasing council stipends and providing city-issued laptops or tablets for their technology needs. According to a survey conducted by the city, Grover Beach is the only one of SLO County's cities that does not offer health insurance benefits to council members and the mayor. The council discussed the possibility of offering such benefits at a Sept. 18 meeting.

According to council members, any addition of insurance benefits wouldn't go into effect until after the next election, meaning officials like Mayor John Shoals, who will be termed out by then, won't be eligible. Those in support of offering the benefits, like Councilmember Mariam Shah, believe that, coupled with an increased stipend, they might further encourage citizens to run for office in the future.

"In the interest of getting the best people, I think people do need to make their time worthwhile on some level," said Shah, who along with Councilmember Barbara Nicolls ran unopposed in the 2016 election. "I think if it encourages one person to run, I'm for it."

But offering the benefits won't come cheap. Estimates from city staff placed the cost of offering medical, dental, and vision insurance benefits between $42,435 to $111,474 annually to cover all five council members. City Manager Matthew Bronson said the upper range also represented scenarios where the coverage includes not only council members but their families as well.

The price tag raised concerns from Councilmember Jeff Lee.

"I struggle with the medical just because of the cost of it associated with the potential general fund hit," Lee said.

Bronson said that the cost estimates were based on a number of assumptions, including that all the members would opt into receiving insurance rather than choosing to keep insurance they already might have through their work or spouses.

"In the cases of some council members, or perhaps all council members, you may receive benefits from other places," Bronson said. "Future councils may receive benefits from other places. It would not be a requirement that you take the benefits, but that you have that option available to you as a member of the council."

In the end, the council gave direction to city staff to look into providing insurance benefits that were comparable to those offers to city employees and, like the proposed stipends, will not go into effect until after the next election. That move may help to insulate the council from public backlash.

"I see no reason not to protect ourselves from appearing greedy [and] to make it effective along with the stipends," Nicolls said. "That seems fair to me."

The council took no action on the issue at the Sept. 18 meeting, and the item, along with the stipends, will come back to them for a formal vote at a future meeting.

Grover Beach isn't the only SLO County government thinking of offering heath insurance benefits to its elected officials. About 50 miles north of the city, members of the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) briefly discussed the issue at their Sept. 28 regular meeting.

According to a CCSD staff report, the cost of providing insurance for all five board members could range from $35,494 to $92,682 per year. Similar to Grover Beach, the actual cost depends on how many of the five board members opt in, and whether or not any potential health insurance package will cover one or more or their family members. At least one board member, President Amanda Rice, indicated that she would likely want to get the insurance if it was offered to members.

"I have a dog in the fight in that I need health insurance," Rice said. "But the board is the one that makes the decision whether or not that's a benefit they want to offer."

The members of the board set aside further discussion of the issue and directed staff to go back to the drawing board and explore alternatives after hearing from the public, some of whom raised concerns about the cost and uncertainy swirling around health care at the national level.

"We really don't know what the health insurance system is going to look like even a few months from now, much less a year from now," Cambria resident Don Howell said. "Spending time on this is probably not the best idea." Δ

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.


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