ELIZABETHTOWN - In a bold but unsupported move, one member of the Essex County Board of Supervisors questioned the longstanding and widespread policy that allows elected officials to accept certain benefits from two different levels of government.
At the board's Dec. 30 end of the year meeting, Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava introduced a resolution that would bar elected officials in Essex County from accepting a health insurance buyout from the county.
Since each of the 18 town supervisors serve as employees for both the county and their respective towns, they are paid two separate salaries, along with benefits, from both jurisdictions.
Most but not all of the supervisors are offered health insurance benefits at the town level. All are offered access to the county's health insurance plan, but may instead take a buyout, which pays them money amounting to less than the cost it would be to insure them.
According to County Manager Daniel Palmer, 64 county employees opted for the buyout instead of the health insurance they were eligible for through the county in 2008, which equated to a value of $393,000.
"I can understand the concerns people might have of somebody getting something they don't deserve," said County Attorney Daniel Manning, "but this is a mechanism developed to save municipalities and private businesses money."
"If I'm taking health insurance from one municipality and taking a buyout from another municipality, isn't that taking money out of the taxpayer's pocket twice?" Scozzafava asked.
Manning explained that although both were funded by property taxes, the two were separate, and that the county spends less money when buyout options are taken.
"Potentially, if you eliminate a buyout, you could have supervisors taking health insurance from both places," warned Palmer, noting that such practice was common in the past, causing added expense for the county.
"Not everybody who takes the buyout is getting it from the town," said Essex Supervisor Ron Jackson, noting how several of the supervisors take the buyout because they have insurance through their spouse's work or through retirement benefits. Jackson is one of nine supervisors who opt for the buyout.
Westport Supervisor Dan Connell, who also uses the buyout, said he does so because the money helps supplement the cost of the insurance he has through retirement.
"Without the buyout, I would be foolish not to come to the county and take my health insurance," he said in contrast.
"It looks good in the press to get rid of the buyout," added Connell. "Economically, it's a disaster for the county to get rid of the buyout."
Town of Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas stated that both Manning and New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli had found nothing illegal in the practice of elected officials taking buyouts.
"Just like anybody would, you weigh your own situation with your employment opportunities, whether you work for IBM, Wal-Mart, or are an elected official," added Douglas, noting how buyouts are common throughout public and private sectors. "To single out elected officials is wrong."
Scozzafava's resolution was defeated as all but himself voted against it.