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City gives benefits to couples of same sex But not male-female domestic partners

Buffalo would extend employee benefits to same-sex couples under a compromise that sailed through the Common Council on Tuesday.

In an 8-1 vote, lawmakers approved a compromise that excludes opposite-sex domestic partners from receiving city benefits. The Council justified the exclusion by arguing that unlike opposite-sex couples who can qualify for benefits by getting married, New York has not legalized gay marriage.

The president of a local coalition of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents told The Buffalo News he would have preferred to have seen domestic partner benefits expanded to include both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. But Bryan Ball of Stonewall Democrats of Western New York called the Council's passage of the bill a step forward in promoting equality.

"This really is a tremendous achievement," said Ball. "It will provide a lot of protection and benefits to couples who can't legally get them right now."

Ball and other advocates have downplayed the likelihood that large numbers of people will be added to the city's health insurance rolls. They note that labor contracts already make about half the city employees eligible for domestic partner benefits. To date, only two employees have signed up.

The lone dissenting Council vote was cast by Masten representative Demone A. Smith. He said he strongly supports the effort, but he wanted a clause in the law stating that if New York legalizes gay marriage, the city's provision would no longer apply. The sponsors countered that a preamble to the bill already indicates that the Council would revisit the law if gay marriage is legalized.

The bill now goes to Mayor Byron W. Brown. While the administration has not publicly stated its position on the issue, several advocates have said the mayor told them he would support a law if it was confined to providing benefits to same-sex couples. Brown's office did not return calls to comment.

Even if the mayor opposes the bill, the eight Council votes would make it veto-proof, assuming no lawmakers changed their minds.

The bill was sponsored by Michael J. LoCurto of Delaware and David A. Rivera of Niagara. Both said they would have preferred to include opposite-sex couples in the law.

"This wasn't caving in," said Rivera. "We have to work with nine members to get things done, and [health benefit] costs were a big factor."

In other action, lawmakers unanimously approved bonds for dozens of improvement projects in city parks, schools and other public facilities. The big-ticket items in the capital budget include $4.8 million for street, curb and sidewalk repairs. The plan also allocates $4.3 million for parks improvements, $4.9 million to modernize some schools and $2 million to tear down blighted buildings.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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