Domestic equality: Chattanooga takes step toward benefits fairness

Domestic equality: Chattanooga takes step toward benefits fairness

November 13th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga has taken a step in the right direction toward fair and equal treatment of its employees.

Council members Tuesday gave a 5-4 nod on first reading to Councilman Chris Anderson's proposal to expand benefits to domestic partners of city employees - both in same-sex partnerships and in common-law co-habitations.

"Just as our constituents are diverse, so is our government," said Anderson just before the vote.

And Moses Freeman likened the equality issue to other rights struggles, bringing up the Constitution's preamble that all men, all mankind, are created equal.

"We've heard it all these years, but it's been resisted," said Freeman, who is black. "People have waved guns, flags and Bibles to say it's not true. And as a result people like me were never treated ... equal. The same with women. ... People always used the Bible but not in the way I'm familiar with it. ... It says, 'Love the Lord as thyself.' And the second part of that verse is 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' That's how I made up my mind about this vote tonight."

Anderson, Freeman, Carol Berz, Jerry Mitchell and Yusuf Hakeem voted for the measure. Council members Larry Grohn, Chip Henderson, Russell Gilbert and Ken Smith voted against it.

Several council members said they have been threatened in weeks preceding the vote, and the proposal became one of the most publicly debated local policy issues in recent history.

What a shame: Would that the city's citizens and all council members take as much interest in matters that actually pertain to running a city - like education and gun violence. Instead, this proposal, thanks to the polarizing issue of LGBT rights, brought out at least one crowd of people so large that the city fire marshal had to close the doors to the meeting room, leaving scores more people standing outside.

The council members opposing the change - especially Grohn and Gilbert - seemed obsessed with concerns about what they perceive will be higher costs for health care from an "at-risk (for disease)" population, or coverage extended to many dependents of people they believe are promiscuous. Each question exposed phobias.

Here's the reality: The city is extending benefits for present employees - people whose lifestyles are already covered, be those lifestyles safe or unsafe. The city also already covers the dependants of many employees who have been married or coupled more than once and who already are ordered by courts to provide insurance for the children of those earlier marriages or partnerships. The same is true everywhere.

Last week, Fraternal Order of Police President Toby Hewitt asked the council to delay the vote to first examine what benefits the current 2,700 city employees receive. Though the union supports expanding benefits, its members are concerned about cuts the city recently made in overtime and benefits to retirees - including access to the city's wellness center. Now the city is studying ways to trim the cost of the police and firefighter pension fund. With those cuts and concerns already on the table, the union questions whether the city has fully explored the cost of adding more people to the city's health insurance plan.

City officials say they have explored what domestic partner coverage would cost and found it to be negligible: Chattanooga Human Resources Director Todd Dockery said expanding benefits likely will increase the city's benefit plan by only 1 percent, or $163,000 a year.

Dockery said the city looked at how such a policy has affected municipalities such as Atlanta, Louisville and Indianapolis. In Indianapolis, where benefits were expanded in January, only 50 of the city's 7,500 eligible employees have applied for a partner to be added to their plan. Atlanta has been offering these benefits for 10 years and has seen no significant cost increase, he said.

On the other hand, cutting health benefits three years ago for retirees who are Medicare eligible is a considerable money saver. Taking that action sooner would have saved the city $2.44 million in 2000 and $8.69 million in 2010, according to Dockery.

Examining cost is always important and appreciated, but it should not overshadow fairness and equality.

Of course equality has a cost. Ending slavery had a cost. Giving blacks and women the right to vote, serve on juries, make equal pay, all had a cost. But the benefits of equality far outweigh the cost. This action is no different.