Aurora City Council takes up same-sex benefits question for city employees

(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)
(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)
The Aurora City Council plans to consider Monday night whether to offer insurance benefits to same-sex domestic partners of city employees. A slim majority of city council members voted the measure ahead two weeks ago, with some arguing it is essential to attract the best employees. But vocal opponents questioned the proposal’s cost and asked whether the move would run afoul of Colorado’s constitutional definition of marriage.

City officials estimate the cost to expand coverage could total $49,500 a year for Colorado’s third-largest city. The figure is based on estimates from other Colorado cities and counties that have added same-sex domestic partners to benefits packages. Roughly 1 percent of city employees want the coverage, which would work out to perhaps 11 employees in Aurora, according to Aurora Human Relations Director Kin Shuman.

That could be too pricey for a city facing multi-million dollar budget cuts, said Councilwoman Renie Peterson, who stalled the proposal in December with a series of questions about the plan’s logistics. Peterson voted against the proposal in October when it was first considered by a policy committee. At the time, she said she “could not support including domestic partners due to the significant cost for medical insurance,” according to minutes of the Management and Finance Committee. Peterson also objected to the proposal, saying it treated unmarried opposite-sex couples unfairly.

In a memorandum responding to Peterson’s questions, Shuman suggested the potential costs — roughly $4,500 per employee — “must be weighted against the potential benefits,” including “placing the city on an equal position with other municipal, county, state and private sector employees in Colorado which currently cover domestic partnerships.” The policy would also help recruit police and firefighters, Shuman wrote.

Shuman wrote that opposite-sex couples have the option to get married, while same-sex couples don’t, in answer to Peterson’s question about any unfairness toward men and women who live together without getting married.

If approved, employees would have to submit a notarized affidavit of domestic partnership attesting the couple has been in a “committed relationship for at least 6 months.” After terminating a domestic partnership, an employee would have to wait a year before declaring another one eligible for coverage, according to the proposal.

The proposal would update the city’s personnel policies by expanding the definition of “immediate family” to include same-sex domestic partners. Currently, the city paints a broad definition of “immediate family,” eligible to share insurance coverage with city employees:

Employee’s mother, father, step-mother/father, mother/father in law, sisters, brothers, step-sisters/brothers, sisters/brothers in law, spouse, child(ren), stepchild(ren), grandchild(ren), sons/daughters in-law, foster child(ren), grandparents, grandparents in law, or paternal surrogate or other relatives living at the employee’s residence.

Councilman Bob FitzGerald, who raised questions about the policy’s adherence to the Colorado Constitution’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, said at a Jan. 13 study session he plans to “make statements opposing this” at Monday’s formal City Council meeting.

Last month, FitzGerald told the Colorado Independent he didn’t oppose expanding coverage but was concerned that the proposal “probably is constitutionally prohibited.”

Assistant City Attorney Stacie Glass Evans came to a simple conclusion when asked to determine whether there were any legal restrictions “that would prevent the City of Aurora from granting health care benefits to same-sex couples.” “No,” she wrote, before citing case law that said providing the benefits was fine under Colorado law.

At least 20 cities and four counties in Colorado offer the benefit to employees, according to data compiled by the Colorado Municipal League at the request of the Colorado Independent.

Cities offering insurance coverage to same-sex partners of employees: Breckenridge, Denver, Golden, Littleton, Brighton, Boulder, Commerce City, Englewood, Glendale, Lafayette, Lakewood, Northglenn, Central City, Frisco, Gunnison, Brush, Wheat Ridge, Windsor, Aspen, and Durango, which added the benefit in the fall. Counties offering the benefit include Logan County, Boulder County, Pitkin County and Summit County. The Regional Transportation District also offers the coverage.

In addition to Peterson and FitzGerald, council members Deborah Williams, Sue Sandstrom and Brad Pierce voted against moving the proposal ahead to Monday’s council meeting. Pierce previously voted in favor of the proposal at the October policy committee meeting.

Council members Larry Beer, Steve Hogan, Molly Markert, Bob Broom and Ryan Frazier voted the measure ahead with Mayor Paul Tauer, who cast a tie-breaking vote Jan. 12. The vote was to continue discussion at the next meeting, not necessarily in favor of the proposal, although Beer, Hogan and Frazier have all gone on record supporting the change.

The Aurora City Council meets at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Aurora municipal center, 15151 E. Alameda Parkway. The city’s municipal access cable channel, KACT-TV Channel 8, broadcasts City Council meetings live. The Colorado Independent will also be live-blogging the debate Monday night.

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