Aurora moves forward on same-sex benefits question for city employees

(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)
(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)
After delaying the question a month ago, the Aurora City Council moved one step closer to offering insurance benefits to same-sex partners of city employees Monday night, the Aurora Sentinel reports. At an informal City Council session, council members voted 6-5 to consider the proposal at a formal meeting and decided to hold off discussion of the contentious issue until then. Some city decision-makers have questioned the constitutionality of the proposal or argued it was too expensive when the city faces drastic budget cuts, but advocates argue it’s essential to attract the best workers to the city.

The proposal, brought forward by the city’s Human Resources Department, would add Colorado’s third-largest city to the growing ranks of governments, schools and businesses that offer the coverage. Aurora officials estimated the cost at $4,500 per employee for those who add same-sex partners to their benefits package, for a total cost of $49,500 with “perhaps a dozen employees” declaring partnerships. City officials said the estimate was based on the experience of similar cities that have added same-sex benefits and have found that roughly 1 percent of city employees seek the coverage.

That’s too expensive for one city council member, who pointed to looming budget deficits faced by the city. “We already had to cut $9 million from the 2009 budget, so why are we talking about adding costs at this point?” Councilwoman Renie Peterson said, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

“It’s a best practice in the employee benefits world, and it’s a benefit we should be offering to our employees,” Councilman Larry Beer told the Colorado Independent when the measure was first raised in December.

Beer said “offering a decent employee benefits package on an equal basis to all employees” outweighed cost concerns. “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.”

Another council member, Bob FitzGerald, stalled consideration of the proposal in December when he asked the city’s attorneys to determine whether the benefits might run afoul of the state’s constitutional definition of marriage. City attorneys said the benefits change would be within the law, the Sentinel reported before Monday’s meeting:

But according to background provided by Assistant City Attorney Stacie Glass Evans, the proposed benefits would not conflict with Colorado state statutes. While Amendment 43 of the state constitution defined marriage as being “a union between one man and one woman,” granting benefits to same-sex partners does not conflict with state statutes.

Citing the ruling on Schaefer v. City and County of Denver, Evans wrote that “the court found that the ordinance granting same-sex benefits did not infringe upon the integrity [or definition] of marriage.”

FitzGerald told the Colorado Independent in December, “I’m not against covering people; people need to have coverage,” but said after the constitutional questions were answered he still might oppose the same-sex benefits proposal because “I’d like to see us decouple health insurance from employment.”

By Monday, FitzGerald hadn’t changed his mind but agreed to argue against the benefits change at the City Council’s formal meeting. “I will make statements opposing this on the floor,” FitzGerald 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 city employees’ immediate family members, including in-laws, step-siblings, foster children and parental surrogates.

Cities including Denver, Lakewood, Glendale, Littleton, Boulder, Northglenn, Englewood, Durango 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.

“Everybody will have a chance to comment on that on the floor … We’re really voting on do we want to put it forward to the floor,” said Mayor Ed Tauer, who cast the tie-breaking vote sending the proposal ahead for consideration.

The same-sex benefits proposal will be decided at the regular City Council meeting on Jan. 26, city officials said.

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