Friday, Jun. 29, 2012
Council, mayor enjoy generous perks
By Thaddeus Miller / firstname.lastname@example.org
City Council members, though technically part-time employees, receive benefits comparable to full-time city staff.
The monthly salary, health insurance and other benefits for the five members cost the city $5,543 a month, or $66,520 per year.
All five members have dental, vision and life insurance coverage, as well as cell phone allowances and post-employment benefits. A large segment of the money spent on coverage goes toward health insurance premiums.
A state law enacted in 2005 limits the pay of council members in "general law" cities, which includes Los Banos. Many general law cities offer flat monthly salaries -- it's $400 for the mayor and $300 for City Council members in Los Banos -- but no health benefits. In Merced, for example, the City Council members receive salaries of $840 each and the mayor $1,440, according to state Controller John Chiang's website. Merced, though much bigger than Los Banos, provides no other benefits.
Councilman Scott Silveira receives the largest amount of salary and benefits at $1,993 a month. Silveira, who manages his parents' dairy, said his coverage includes his wife and two children.
"I can't apologize that I have a young family," he said.
Silveira said he doesn't have the "Cadillac plan," but stepped down to where he felt comfortable balancing coverage and cost.
The city spends the least on Councilman Joe Sousa at $452 per month. The retired public services director is covered for life by the city, and so he declined any health premiums.
"I think we ought to look everywhere we can to save money," Sousa said, adding he doesn't begrudge any sitting councilmembers who accept coverage.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Stone's salary and coverage adds up monthly to $1,098, but she said that will end after next month. Previously working as a substitute teacher, she was recently hired at Pacheco High School and will be eligible for benefits there in August.
"If you are in a position where you can give it up, like I am, you should," said Stone, who got married Saturday and has changed her name to Stonegrove.
Cash-strapped and working with a projected deficit of more than $641,000, the City Council is looking for ways to save money. In April, for example, the city sent one representative to the One Voice lobbying delegation in Washington, D.C., to cut costs from the $5,500 budgeted.
Last week, a split City Council voted to deny $12,000 budgeted for the Merced County Continuum of Care 10-year Plan to End Homelessness. Merced County Association of Governments facilitates that program. The decision to pull that cash troubled Stonegrove.
"I wish people had that same kind of compassion they have for trees," Stonegrove said, referring to a split vote in May that kept the city from spending $3,000 to retain olive trees planted by town founder Henry Miller.
Mayor Mike Villalta, a retired employee of the Los Banos Unified School District, receives $1,174 in salary and benefits every month.
"We're putting in the time to serve our community," Villalta said. "So, along with that, the benefits that come with it are nothing I think that we need to apologize for."
Villalta said he gets partial insurance through the district until he's 65. The city pays his $737 co-payment. Villalta said his premiums will be reduced to $345 in October, since the district recently renegotiated its rates.
Councilman Tom Faria is covered at an $824 a month cost to the city. The Los Banos High School teacher gets a $371 payout in lieu of a health premium.
Faria said he uses the payout to cover part of his insurance payments to the school district. He said council members earn their benefits, because "sometimes council takes a great deal of time."
Faria said he would consider relinquishing his benefits if city staff and council came to a consensus that it was necessary.
"Everything's on the table when the budget's tight," Faria said.
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562.