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A premium role: City should publicly debate paying for Graham’s health plan

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The Watertown city budget was passed Monday night, raising the city property tax levy by $781,896 or 10.4 percent. A small portion of the levy increase goes to cover the $5,242 needed to fund Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham’s health insurance premiums, which he’s been paying.

The issue of providing the city’s public officials with health insurance was settled years ago when City Council members stopped having the city pay any premiums. Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. reminded the council of that decision.

“I believe it was a good idea 10 years ago, and I believe it’s a good idea now,” Mr. Butler said. Even though he voted for the total spending plan, he stressed that he opposed this single line item in the budget.

Mr. Graham said that public officials are eligible to participate in the New York state retirement system. Members of the City Council would need to have their hours certified every four years, he said.

When he returned to public office in 2004, Mr. Graham began paying 100 percent of the premiums in the city’s health plan because there was no appropriation for this expense, he said. But the mayor recently learned that he would not be allowed to remain on the health plan upon his retirement if he paid all the expenses himself. So he asked council members to re-evaluate his situation.

Mr. Graham justified the council’s action by claiming other council members believed the mayor’s job was akin to a full-time position and thus deserved health insurance. Councilman Stephen A. Jennings confirmed this, stating that the mayor’s certified hours demonstrated full-time work and would enable him to remain on the health plan after he leaves office.

This explanation, however, is difficult to accept. The position of mayor in this nonpartisan, city manager form of government has always been a part-time, mostly ceremonial function. Management of the day-to-day operations has been entrusted to a professional city manager.

Mr. Graham operates a business. He’s a political blogger and radio host. He has become a de facto campaign manager for Elise M. Stefanik in the GOP primary for the U.S. House of Representatives. What is he doing for at least 30 more hours each week as the ceremonial leader of the city?

And if this position has expanded as described by the mayor, why has the council left his salary at $17,236 a year? This works out to a range of $8.29 to $11.04 an hour for a 30- to 40-hour work week.

Those who hold public office in Watertown should not look upon themselves as city employees. The mayor and members of the City Council are elected officials — which is a public trust, not a job.

While public officials should be compensated for the time they serve, employee benefits should be reserved for those who are hired to work for the city. Aside from their stipends, elected officials should be satisfied with the privilege of being public servants and the authority that comes with this.

The budget sleight of hand that overturns a long tradition treats members of the council inconsistently, some of whom may or may not have insurance. Compensation for the city’s elected officials is inadequate and needs to be adjusted. However, stipends for all public positions — including that of the mayor — should be set before an election for the next set of public officials and remain in force for the entire term of office.

The next step for the council is considering a resolution enabling the action of paying the mayor’s health insurance premiums. The amount of money in question is small, but the implications to open and transparent governance are significant. The council should re-examine this one line item.

The council should circulate the resolution widely and engage in a public debate on its merits. Then a public decision needs to be made on whether this line item should be passed or removed from the budget.

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