Gay marriage question delays Aurora debate over same-sex partner benefits

(Photo/sea turtle, Flickr)

(Photo/sea turtle, Flickr)

The Aurora City Council put off considering whether to add benefits for same-sex partners of city employees Monday night after one council member raised a series of questions about costs and another asked the city to determine whether the benefits might run afoul of a state constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Councilman Bob FitzGerald raised the legal objection, cutting short the debate at an informal study session where lawmakers had planned to discuss whether same-sex domestic partners would be added to the city’s definition of family members, extending health and other insurance benefits.

“I don’t think it complies with the Colorado Constitution,” FitzGerald said, according to the Aurora Sentinel. The lawmaker asked Aurora’s city attorney to determine whether the proposed change could run counter to Amendment 43, a measure passed by Colorado voters in 2006 that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

An attorney who serves on the board of Equal Rights Colorado, a gay rights advocacy group, disputed FitzGerald’s contention. “If there were any kind of constitutional cloud over this, it would have come up in other places,” Pat Steadman told the Colorado Independent on Tuesday. “This isn’t about marriage. No higher ed governing board or city council can change that.”

Steadman pointed to the town of Durango’s recent adoption of same-sex benefits for city employees without any mention of Amendment 43. “I’m aware of no challenge to any existing employee benefits package premised upon that question,” he said. “In fact, just the opposite — the frequency where the incidence of that benefit being offered is spreading.”

Supporters of the change to the city’s personnel policy point to dozens of cities and counties across Colorado that have added coverage for domestic partners as an incentive to attract employees, while skeptics — including Councilwoman Renie Peterson, who cast the lone vote against the policy change in a preliminary committee weeks ago — say it’s too expensive when cities are facing tight budgets because of the economic downturn. Aurora officials estimated the cost at $4,500 per employee for those who add same-sex partners to their benefits package.

Councilman Larry Beer disagreed with the notion the policy would be too expensive in an interview before the meeting on Monday. “Offering a decent employee benefits package on an equal basis to all employees” outweighed cost concerns, Beer said. “We have a good employee benefits package — we don’t have a superb, top-of-the-line benefits package,” he said. “Because of that, I think it’s unlikely adding domestic-partner benefits would actually drive our costs that dramatically.”

As the study session got under way, Peterson joined FitzGerald in asking lawmakers to postpone consideration for a week until she could get answers to a list of questions about the proposal’s cost from the city’s Human Resources Department, which drafted the new policy.

“The questions revolve around some of the specifics related to how domestic partner coverage would be handled regarding benefits, the costs and so forth, how we would deal with the costs, how it impacts the budget,” said Human Resources director Kin Shuman on Tuesday. Shuman declined to release the specific questions, referring inquiries to Peterson, who did not return calls Tuesday morning. The questions — and responses — will be available to the public before the next city council meeting on Dec. 15, Shuman said.

If approved, the policy would allow Aurora employees to add same-sex partners to benefit coverage by presenting an affidavit similar to one attesting to common law marriage. Benefits are already available to an employee’s immediate family members, including in-laws, step-siblings, foster children and parental surrogates.

In addition to Durango, cities including Denver, Lakewood, Glendale, Littleton, Boulder, Northglenn, Englewood and Brighton offer benefits to same-sex partners of employees. Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, used to offer the benefits but revoked them in a series of moves over the last decade. Aurora, with roughly 300,000 residents, is Colorado’s third-largest city.

The city council plans to discuss the proposal at its next study session, Dec. 15, and, if approved, would vote on it at a later formal meeting.

CORRECTION 12/10/08: The list of cities offering same-sex domestic partner benefits to employees included Telluride, which does not offer the benefits. The Independent has been unable to substantiate a widely reported recent account that “more than 60” Colorado municipalities offer the coverage and none of the organizations that track the policy tally nearly that many cities and towns in Colorado, although a number of the state’s public colleges and universities extend the coverage and could be included in that total.

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Ernest Luning

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