Monday, March 23, 2009

Perpetuating a falsehood

The chairman (or chairwoman, if you prefer—see Gender, The New Era Sex for more on this topic) of the board of selectmen made a comment to me after last week’s meeting adjourned. Still a little hot about the board’s decision to reduce our stipend to a dollar a year, she said to me “At least you’re going to get lifetime benefits.” I replied, “You don’t know that.”

This idea of lifetime health insurance for selectmen who serve two three-year terms has never been true. But, in spite of that fact, a group of ill-informed people still hold that belief and are willing to blog and distribute emails to perpetuate this falsehood. If you’ll bear with me through this rather lengthy blog post, you will not only see that I am speaking the truth, but you’ll become an expert in how pension benefits are calculated.

I served for three years on the Town of Sandwich finance committee before making a run for the board of selectmen in 2004. I won one of the two seats, the other one was taken by Doug Dexter, a fellow finance committee member.

When Doug and I sat down with the town manager to go through our orientation, he told us that the town’s health insurance benefit was available to paid elected officials. I found that interesting on two fronts: 1) In the three years I spent on the finance committee and throughout my campaign, I had never heard about this benefit, and 2) Having been on a bare bones health plan while building my fledging CPA practice, I welcomed the opportunity to move up to a more generous plan for about $500 less per month. I am, after all, a numbers guy and accepting this benefit was a no brainer.

Back to point one. I found it curious that this benefit, which had been in place for many years, was such a well kept “state secret.” It was a pleasant surprise for me and I thought then, and still do, that such a benefit would add to the number of self-employed, business oriented candidates who would consider serving the town as a selectman, assessor, moderator, or town clerk (the paid elected positions in town); assuming, of course, that candidates knew about this perk.

When Doug Dexter and I won that race, something very unusual had occurred in the Town of Sandwich. All five selectmen were Republicans, the first time anyone could remember this happening since Abe Lincoln was walking around the West Wing. Another unusual thing happened at that time: The long standing health insurance benefit became an evil waste of the town’s money. It seemed a bit interesting to me because the person who started the crusade against the villainous perk had watched from the sidelines for years, as a member of the finance committee, never raising an objection to it.

Not only that, but this person campaigned in the Cape Cod Times (I remember my photo next to Tom Keyes’ on page one above the fold) against paid elected officials having this perk by claiming that these people who serve for as little as six years would be able to retain this benefit for life—starting at age 55—on the town’s dime. He had even projected a figure exceeding a million dollars per person for benefits that the town would be on the hook for if we didn’t nip this suddenly important loophole in the bud.

Now we have the current chairman of the board of selectmen repeating the same, ignorant chant, having clung to this unfounded rhetoric for several years just waiting for the opportune time to unleash it on me (and Tom and Bill and who knows who else). The only problem is that it’s not true and never was.

Let me explain why none of us is eligible for a lifetime of health insurance benefits courtesy of the Barnstable County Retirement Board. The formula for receiving a pension from the Retirement Board is as follows:

First, you have to be employed by a government which participates in the Barnstable County Retirement Association (BCRA) for at least six years. During this time, you need to have payroll deductions directed into your account at the BCRA, however small. Unfortunately, that’s as far as the investigation went several years ago, hence the assumption that six years makes you golden. Lifetime benefits here we come! (Wait, we’re not done yet.)

Next, you have to apply a formula to determine your retirement benefit. That formula is: Take the average of the highest three consecutive years of pay times an age factor (the factor for 55 being 0.015) times the number of years of service. Okay, let’s do that for me. My highest three years were $1,500 for two years and $2,000 for the year I was chairman. That averages out to $1,667. Multiply by the factor for retiring at age 55 (0.015) and you get $25. Then multiply that product by six years of service and you get $150. That is the amount of my annual pension starting at age 55.

Lastly, there’s one little bugaboo that disqualifies me from getting a lifetime benefit. The result of the above formula must be at least $360 in order to qualify for a pension. And, yes, you must qualify to receive a pension in order to qualify for the health insurance plan.

The whole push for the town to be saved from these millionaire beneficiaries was fallacious (and salacious). And not only for the reason that it flat out wasn’t the truth, but also because the vote of town meeting to eliminate health insurance benefits for part-time paid elected officials had nothing to do with it.

For your benefit, Madam Chairman, I’ll repeat that for you. The vote of town meeting to eliminate health insurance benefits for part-time paid elected officials had nothing to do with eliminating the opportunity for someone to receive subsidized health insurance for life. Town meeting cannot vote to change the BCRA’s retirement formula. And it didn’t.

Anyone, even now, who contributes to the BCRA for a minimum of six years and who satisfies the formula I outlined above is entitled to a lifetime of health insurance benefits. In a deliciously ironic statement, the proponent of the citizens’ petition to eliminate health insurance for part-time paid elected officials said that he didn’t have a problem with raising the pay of selectmen. At least it would be transparent—right there in the budget for all to see.

So do the math. If we had agreed to raise the selectmen’s pay to $3,750 (and $5,000 for the chairman) in an effort to make things more “transparent,” the above formula would yield a $375 per year pension after a short six years, complete with lifetime health insurance benefits. (Always be careful with unintended consequences.)

What did the action of town meeting accomplish? It prevented part-time paid elected officials from participating in the town’s health insurance while they’re still on the payroll. The home rule petition specifically did not take away the benefit from anyone who was already entitled to participate as long as there is no interruption in their service. With the turnover on the board of selectmen, I am the only one who still qualifies to participate in the plan. And I do.

As I said before, I believe that health insurance coverage would have a positive benefit by encouraging younger, self-employed individuals to run for the office. Just look at the lack of competition for this year’s open seat on our board. Would it be that way if insurance were still offered?

People contemplating entering the race for the wrong reasons would be quickly identified by the electorate, so the risk of electing someone who just wants to get on the gravy train is unlikely. Even so, it would only be for a short few years—not a lifetime. But that’s all water under the bridge. It is what it is.

Below, I have printed an email that hit my Outlook last Sunday. A shorter version of this email was posted by our chairman in the Cape Cod Times online blog beneath George Brennan’s article about the selectmen voting to reduce their stipends to a dollar per year. Somehow, she has made the leap from this vote to pointing fingers at those of us who she falsely thinks are destined to be on the dole. The connection is pretty loose to start with, but this is the standard passive aggressive behavior I come to know and love from our leader.

For purposes of pointing out to those who may wonder what’s in the public domain and what’s not, any emails, letters, voicemails, etc., that are sent to or generated by a member of a public board relative to that board’s current or past deliberations is in the public domain. Since our board’s deliberation about the stipend reduction has concluded with a vote of the board, this blog post does not constitute further deliberation of an issue currently before the board and, therefore, is not a violation of the Open Meeting Law.

* * * * *

From: Linell Grundman

To: Undisclosed-Recipient:;

Sent: Sunday, March 22, 2009 7:50 AM

Subject: vote to give up stipend


Since as is so often the case, that the CCTime prints half the story I wanted to make a statement about the stipend issue. When the selectmen went from (3 full time 2 part time selectmen) to all "part time" selectmen a little over twenty years ago, the selectmen then got a small stipend. Currently it is $1500 for 4 members and $2000 for the Chairmen. Until we voted at town meeting a few years ago to ask the legislation to change allowing selectmen to be eligible for full time medical benefits for life after 6 years of service as a selectman, we had that expense as well. Currently we have only one selectmen serving who is eligible for life time health benefits. I'm grateful the town changed the health benefit criteria through a legislative act.


The day after I was elected I went to Town Hall and said I did not want the stipend. I was told it couldn't be done that I had to accept the pay. So I began giving my checks to various charitable organizations. I also realized that having at least some pay was not a bad thing as it actually was more professional. A year ago I discovered I could be of help to my mom and sister (my parents live with her) by sending my checks so mom could get regular hair perms etc. Mom was recovering and will never recover fully from a serious illness and being able to go get her hair done was a great boost to her spirits. I'm not trying to say what a good person I am....I'm just trying to as Paul Harvey use to say give you "the rest of the story."


My comments at the BOS meeting Thursday were an authentic expression that I really didn't want to be perceived as needing to grandstand on this issue. I also am not in the position to be as chevalier about this decision as my fellow board members. Since the economic future we all face will demand that I enter the work force full time soon, I am concerned about how the status of my work as a Selectman will be received on my resume. I made the choice to leave the work force full time, like many women do, in support of my husbands career and the opportunities of a swifter career rise for him, which bring obvious economic benefit to our family. Now my children are close to college age and I am preparing for the next part of my life. I am in a much different place then my fellows on this issue in a practical way and clearly because of the economic times. Though I would have given it up two years ago, I think differently now about the value of the stipend today on several points.


I'm glad people see the BOS giving up the stipend as a positive gesture and could have gone along with it without saying anything, except for this problem I have with trying to be honest. I will say not all people who have commented to me see it as positive. Some see it as a hollow political move. I knew I would take heat for discussing it last Thursday. In fact the selectmen had decided to take it out of the budget and I thought that was a done deal. I had no idea we were going to make a big thing about it. More to the point in terms of selectmen savings, I am grateful the town voted to take away full time health benefits from Selectmen who serve six years. Apart from being able to pay into a group plan while serving, I can't imagine how it makes sense to pay part time unpaid officials ongoing benefits. I truly am grateful to [name redacted by Randy Hunt before posting to this blog] for bringing this issue to Town Meeting and for the legislative act that got us out of that financial obligation. At every level of government we do indeed need to reform the approach to benefits.


When I started with the Federal Government in 1974 coming from my very straight and narrow Kansas upbringing I was soon saddened by what I use to call "the get over attititude" of Government employees. So much so that after 4 years I decided I would try the private sector. I went back to the Department of Defense one more time and eventually to the army, but I've never changed my opinion about the "get over attitude." I realize now it's not just the government, it's a lack of integrity. Over the years in many jobs and as a citizen I experienced the "get over attitude"....employers who hire illegals, private citizens who patronize those firms or pay people under the table, employees who think it's o.k. to take things from their employer, people paid under the table who don't pay taxes on what they earn....the list goes on and on. None of us is perfect but it would be nice if we could all play by the same rules. Obviously and realistically that's impossible. What has helped me a great deal, as I come to the end of my second year in politics, is discovering how many of those most critical of government apply a different standard to their own life when it comes to issues of integrity and fair play. It makes it easier not to get sucked into the absurdity politics is so often reduced to. Have a great day,


Linell


Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

4 comments:

  1. Good Morning Mr.Hunt,
    I also had recieved the above mentioned E mail from the Chairperson of our Board of Selectmen.
    It was rather interesting to observe once again at last nights meeting by the Board the answer given by the Chair. What has happened to a very serious breach of Leadership in admitting I made mistake. I would like to call this a profile in courage syndrome or lack of therin.

    If we have the courage to disseminate false information as fact, then we should have the courage to admit it when confronted with the truth. Not place the blame on yet another source whom you gave permission to and whom you actually allowed your words to be sent out among the good citizens of Sandwich. Attempting to deny the facts as presented once again shows the lack of leadership skills by the Chairperson.

    Being devious does not solve the character issue, nor does it resolve what the Chair is attempting to perpetrate with this type of wording in my opinion.

    It is also not worthy of note to see the actual reason the present Chair performance is how it it will look on a resume. Perhaps I am under a fasle impression, but when one runs and is elected to a public office,once that person is elected, they serve the people first and formost. It is the people whom have elected you to what ever position in governement that should recieve the benifits formost. It would appear from that one comment that the Chair is concerned about how her resume will read, more than the concerns of those that elected her into office to perform.

    If one was doing the job they promised to do then they would have no need to worry about how a resume will look, I guess in the real world that is just to much to ask from a person that talks a good walk, but can not deliver on the promises made. I hope the good citizens of Sandwich will see through the facade and hold the Chairperson accountable for the lack of Leadership in managing our town for the past 10 months. Citizens make your voices heard above the crowd, changes are comming, but will we as a town be prepared to see through the forest for the trees??

    Ca Johansen

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  2. Mr. Hunt
    I just recieved another E Mail from the Chair Person and apparently she has seen the error of her ways and that is a goods thing for those she represents in the town of Sandwich.
    To realize a mistake was made in an grevious manner assures all that unneeded damage be corrected.

    It would be better said that it never happened at all and going forward let us all hope that words spoken in public have more thought and meaning behind what is stated as fact is fact.

    Ca Johansen

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  3. Randy, your excellent recounting and correction of the many misstatements made by Ms.Grundman on the elimination of health insurance for part time elected official’s serves this community well. It was unfortunate that the original petitioner of that article never truly researched the facts needed to draw an honest conclusion. Who knows how many well qualified individuals choose not to seek elected office because of this. As you stated, none of the previous part time elected officials qualify for life time health benefits through the Town of Sandwich. This petition effort was purely a deceitful political move on the part several individuals within that group.

    There are other errors in Ms. Grundman’s E-mail which was also forward to me. Specifically, the comment about our having removed the stipend from the budget earlier. I never remembered our having discussed doing away with the Selectmen’s stipend. As of March 19, 2009, when we voted to give up the stipend, the $8,000 to cover this expense was still in the FY 10 budget. Bud did remove it on Friday March 20, 2009. Was there a vote when I was out on medical leave?

    I also found Ms. Grundman’s comments about using her experience as a Selectman/Chairman for her resume’ interesting. My recommendation to her would be, don’t do it. What would she point to as accomplishments? The completion of the budget which is mandated by law? The failure to update the original Long Term Plan, or even begin assessing how to expand it even after 3 useless joint meetings in which there was no follow up? Here we are 10 months after the 2008 election and our current year’s goals/objectives are not completed. How about the Oak Crest Cove Property and what to do with it? Recreation Authority discussion? Golf Course progress to becoming more financially independent? There is much more, but I think you get my point. Frank

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  4. Frank the race by Ms. Grundman to accomplish something to place on her resume before the year ends will be a challenge indeed. We all have heard many words that have never produced any viable attainable goals for the good citizens in Sandwich. I suppose one could say, we all realized that in the end it was not in the cards for any goal be completed, given the lack of direct leadership skills.

    Politics in todays world are not an easy nut to crack, but for some they dilute themselves into believing what they say is what the citizens want to hear. Being honest and transparent all depends upon whom is talking at that time and how that person convinces themselves that they are right in order to prove some one else is wrong, no matter true or not.

    Sandwich has lost a years worth of valuable time and effort to find out we are just as far behind the Eight ball as when we started the new year off in 2008. Can our town survive going forward will be the question in hand? Can we prepare some plan that affectivily will allow Sandwich to at the very least obtain further income from available property we own to deflect the losses expected going into the 2010 budget? Yes we are in a race, we just need the right leader to place our money on, to win it.

    Ca Johansen

    ReplyDelete

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