September 22, 2008 in City

City domestic partnership benefits closer

Council expected to consider contract tonight
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Three years after city leaders gave the go-ahead, more than half of city of Spokane employees may soon be able to get medical and other benefits for domestic partners.

The benefits would be allowed in a contract covering about 1,100 city workers that will be considered by Spokane City Council tonight.

Allowing employees to gain benefits for unmarried domestic partners was hotly debated in 2005, when then-City Council President Dennis Hession sponsored domestic partner legislation that passed by a veto-proof margin of 5-2. A few months later, opponents of the measure just missed collecting enough signatures to force the issue on the ballot.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, who voted for the benefit policy as a city councilwoman, said she supports the new benefits, but that individual unions have to bargain for the rights.

“We didn’t push it on anybody,” she said. “To me, this is an equity issue.”

Under city rules, a worker who applies for the benefits must sign an affidavit that says he or she has been in a “close personal relationship” for at least six months with his or her partner, who can be of the same or opposite sex as the worker. Among other requirements, they must attest to intending to remain partners “indefinitely.”

The 2005 decision only affected the city’s non-unionized work force – less than two dozen people. This year, the Spokane Police Guild became the city’s first union to gain the right, which they bargained for in negotiations last year.

Three members of the guild and one employee not represented by a union have signed up for the benefits, said city human resources director Dave Chandler.

Penny Lancaster, a local activist who led the effort to overturn the 2005 city council decision, said she remains opposed to providing domestic partner benefits on moral and financial grounds.

“The taxpayers deserve to know why there’s that much money available when we have a shortfall in the budget,” Lancaster said.

But Verner said there already are so many changes in the number of dependents covered by the city because of marriages, divorces, births and other factors that the city doesn’t foresee much change with the new policy.

“We’re not expecting this to be even something we can see in terms of expenses,” Verner said.

Councilman Mike Allen, who has questioned cost increases of the employee contract, said he supports domestic partner benefits but has other concerns with the proposal. Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin, a social conservative, said she likely will vote against the entire contract proposal because domestic partner benefits go against her core values.

Local 29, the city’s firefighters’ union, did not gain the benefits in a three-year contract approved in June by the Spokane City Council. City officials say the benefits were not presented as a priority by the union.

Meanwhile, the county’s largest employee union, Local 1553 of the Washington Council of County and City Employees, was unsuccessful in its attempt earlier this year to win medical benefits for domestic partners.

County commissioners did, however, agree to provide bereavement and sick leave benefits for domestic partners of employees who are in a relationship registered by the state Secretary of State’s office.

Medical coverage for domestic partners “is one of the proposals that we held onto until very close to settlement,” said Gordon Smith, staff representative for the Washington Council of County and City Employees. “We are pleased that we have that foot in the door. It’s just the right thing to do.”

To qualify for state registration, partners must be of the same sex unless one member of an opposite-sex partnership is at least 62 years old.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke said the county didn’t agree to provide medical benefits to domestic partners because of financial concerns. By extending bereavement and sick benefits in the new contract, county officials will have a better idea how much medical benefits would cost next time the contract is considered.

“What we’ve said is we want to provide equal benefits to our employees,” Mielke said. “We don’t have a handle on how many formalized domestic partnerships we have in Spokane County.”

Commission Chairwoman Bonnie Mager said she would have supported medical benefits for domestic partners in the contract, but noted that she is “only one vote.”

“What we saw when we looked at it is it’s a miniscule hit in the budget,” Mager said.

County Commissioner Mark Richard said he agrees with the new sick and bereavement benefits but doesn’t support extending domestic partner benefits to medical plans.

“The institution of marriage has value, but I believe in these benefits because I think they’re fair, just and the right thing to do,” Richard said.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@ spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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