October 19, 2005

 

Palm Beach County approves, but won't fund, partner benefits

A story published today in the Boca Raton News reports that domestic partners of Palm Beach County employees are now eligible to receive all benefits currently given to spouses of married employees.

That’s as far as county commissioners are currently willing to go.

Commissioners on Tuesday instead agreed to offer, but stopped short of agreeing to pay for those benefits. In fact, domestic partners of county employees will pay more for benefits than what married co-workers now pay.

Cost estimates have ranged from a low of $450,000 to a high of $5 million annually for the county to supplement domestic partner benefits in the same amounts as married spouse benefits.

Led by Commissioner Warren Newell, the board voted 4-3 for a plan that will instead cost $440.97 a month for coverage for an unmarried domestic partner, as opposed to the $91 a month it currently costs to cover the spouse of a married employee.

Commissioner Karen Marcus seconded Newell’s motion saying the county should wait to see how many persons sign up for the new benefits, or perhaps indicate an interest once the county agrees to fund the plan.

“We should crawl before we walk,” she said.

‘First Step’

“A first step,” is Rand Hoch’s view of the Commission vote. The next step is “reconsideration” of that vote, the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC) founder said.

The 4-3 vote, and the commission’s decision not to fund the new benefits, was a surprise to Hoch, the state’s first openly gay judge. He had come to the meeting with a prepared press release which said that not only had commissioners unanimously approved offering benefits to domestic partners, but had also agreed to pay for those benefits.

Hoch said the PBCHRC would now seek to sway Commissioner Addie Greene to join Commissioners Jeff Koon, Burt Aaronson and Mary McCarty in a favorable “reconsideration” of the funding question.

For Aaronson, his support for providing and also paying for domestic partner benefits is more practical than political.

“It’s getting extremely difficult to get good people to stay with the county when the private sector is offering these benefits,” Aaronson told his colleagues.

Offering and funding such benefits “makes sense,” he said. “From a business standpoint it makes sense, and from a human standpoint, it makes sense.”

Hoch himself pointed out that the Palm Beach County School District took the first step to offer health insurance to the domestic partners of its 20,000 employees by extending health insurance benefits to 750 non-union employees earlier this month. The District’s five unions are expected to also seek domestic partnership benefits during the next round of contract negotiations, he said.

“By offering employees benefits covering their domestic partners and their children, both the County and the School District will be as recognized progressive employers that values diversity,” said PBCHRC President Jamie T. Foreman. “Our county’s two largest public employers will be able to attract and retain top-notch employees,” he added. “This action clearly benefits both the adults and the children in employees’ families.

According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, at least 8,281 public and private employers across the country – including almost 50 percent of the Fortune 500 companies – offer health care benefits to employee’s domestic partners or spouses, according to Hoch.

Public employers in Palm Beach County offer domestic partnership benefits include: the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the Office of the Property Appraiser, the Office of the Clerk and Comptroller, the Office of the Supervisor of Elections, the Port of Palm Beach, the cities of Lake Worth and West Palm Beach.

Additional public employers in Florida offering domestic partnership benefits for their employees include Broward County, Monroe County, the Broward County School District, the Miami-Dade County School District, Florida International University, Broward County Community College, and the cities of Gainesville, Hialeah, Key West, Miramar, Tampa, Wilton Manors, and Miami Beach.

Hoch did not say when he would seek to have a reconsideration vote.

Postponed Again

In the meantime, a decision last month to postpone seeking a domestic partner registry ordinance was delayed again at Tuesday’s meeting.

At a September meeting, Commissioners were reluctant to impose a registry requirement on the entire county. Commissioner Mary McCarty said that the registry proposal should be only for “the unincorporated territories, and not the entire county without talking with them first.”

“And if there’s opposition (from the county’s 37 municipalities) I’m going to be very sensitive to that,” McCarty said. Some 65 percent of county residents live in municipalities.

Staff was directed to process the proposed registry ordinance through the League of Cities; Tuesday’s meeting did not complete that process.

Registry supporters point out that Florida doesn’t recognize or permit gay marriage. The state also doesn’t recognize a “family” relationship between two persons who just decide to live together but not get married. A registry of domestic partners lays the foundation for such domestic partners to be recognized as family members under the law.

The registry proposal would provide a vehicle to recognize gay and straight registered partners as having the right to visit each other in hospitals and jail, make educational decisions involving a partner’s children, become involved in health-care decisions, and decide on funeral or burial plans —- all currently permitted to only “family members.”