Mayor Pasquale Menna has concluded that the public is opposed to the continuation of healthcare coverage for elected and appointed officials, and will waive the benefit for himself if the council doesn’t eliminate it.
“If the recommendation by the [council finance] committee is to maintain the benefits, something I don’t think is defensible from a public policy standpoint, I will individually opt out,” Menna told redbankgreen last week.
Led by freshman Councilman Michael DuPont, the finance committee recently began looking into why the benefit was adopted by the borough some 20 years ago, how widespread its use is among New Jersey towns, and what it costs.
DuPont said he hasn’t yet found definitive data, but it appears that about 80 percent of the state’s municipalities offer the coverage to electees.
As for the cost, DuPont said that, combined with the salaries paid to the mayor and council, the coverage sets back each borough taxpayer six cents a day, or just under $22 a year.
The average local-purposes residential tax bill is estimated this year at $1,556.
“I’m not saying that it’s not worthy of discussion, but I do know that we have a lot more important things to address,” DuPont told redbankgreen last week. “But it’s an issue that’s been asked of me that I think needs to be investigated.”
Menna, though, said continuing the coverage would fly in the face of a growing public feeling.
“The consensus out there is that elected officials should not be receiving health benefits as part of their remuneration pacakage that’s the reality,” Menna said. “And if that’s the case, as I said during the election campaign, we have an obligation to reflect the consensus of the community, and I don’t think that should be maintained.”
Menna’s stance could put him at odds with his four fellow Democrats on the council: DuPont, R.J. Bifani, Art Murphy and Council President Sharon Lee. Bifani indicated last year that the benefit should be revisited, but only Republican John Curley has been vocal in opposing the coverage, and does not accept it personally. We don’t yet know where Councilwoman Grace Cangemi, who was sworn in two weeks ago, stands. [Update: See Cangemi comment, below.]
DuPont has asked the New Jersey League of Municipalities for comparative data, but so far hasn’t received it. Nor does he yet have a firm grasp on why the council instituted the coverage about two decades ago. But he says there is a “philosophical” rationale for the benefit.
“We don’t want to allow a situation where people who are wealthy or retired or people who have time on their hands to be the only ones running for council,” he said. “You want to attract everyone.”
Menna agrees that “the worst thing that could happen” is that only “silver-spoon” types wind up on the council.
“But, by and of itself, I don’t believe that the availability or lack of availability of health benefits would convince a person to run or not run for public office,” he said.
So far, the coverage issue has been kept alive largely by resident Gary Morris, who appears at nearly every council session to chide the panel about it.
We asked DuPont if he thought Morris had single-handedly kept the issue alive. “I think that’s a fair statement,” he said.
At the moment, though, the issue hasn’t yet come to the table in the form of a formal seconded motion, and its not clear if it will once the finance committee has made a recommendation.
As mayor, Menna wouldn’t have a vote on the matter except in the case of a tie.
“I’ll defer on taking any personal action until [the finance committee] comes up with a recommendation ” he said. “If I don’t agree with it, I’m not going to grandstand on it.”
A sole practitioner of law, Menna says he doesn’t have health insurance through his business.