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Niagara Falls Council votes to end health insurance for future council members, but not themselves

NIAGARA FALLS – The City Counci took a hard look at health insurance on Monday and in a 3-2 voted to end health insurance incentives benefits and opt-outs payments for council members and a part-time civil service commissioner.

The catch is voters will have to kick them out of office to see any changes.

The adopted resolution only affects officials who take office after Jan. 1, 2016. Due to the potential for litigation, anyone who has insurance or was promised the benefit as part of their election has been grandfathered in for coverage.

New Council member Kenneth M. Tompkins ran his campaign on a promise that on “Day One” he will submit a resolution to end lifetime health insurance benefits for officials. He made good on the promise, bringing the resolution to the table at his first meeting.

But Tompkins has admitted that, as much as he doesn’t want to, he finds himself in need of insurance and will be one of the three members of the council who will take the city’s family insurance policy. New Councilman Ezra P. Scott and Councilman Charles A. Walker, who both voted against abolishing the benefit for future members, are also taking the insurance benefit.

Tompkins voted to abolish the benefit for future members, as did Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti, who said she does not take any insurance benefit nor opt out payment. Council Chairman Andrew P. Touma said he takes the $10,000 opt out payment. The full family insurance plan is about $25,000 per member.

Touma, who became the deciding vote argued both sides of the issue before casting his vote. He said council members receive a part-time salary of $12,000, but they are on call all the time. He said in comparable cities elected officials receive $15,000.

“But we don’t sign up for the pay. Moving the city forward is why we are all here,” said Touma.

He said the vote itself was “just politics” and what they really need to do is look at the $9.6 million being spent on health care for city employees. He said city employees deserve the best health care coverage available, but the council needs to do better to find a way to save the city money.

Tompkins said a family tragedy at the end of the year forced him to reconsider and plan to utilize the city policy he was automatically awarded as part of his election win.

“I’m not proud of it,” said Tompkins, who became teary-eyed about his situation as he talked to The Buffalo News afterwards. He called it a stop gap and said he hopes to get off the plan as soon as possible.

Also at Monday’s meeting, another money-related matter almost held up the city’s plan to host the prestigious Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Cities Initiative meeting and conference. The two-day conference in June will bring mayors from 118 municipalities in the region to the city. It is expected to bring an overall economic impact of $96,000 to the area.

But several council members balked at a clause that would force the city to pay $75,000 if there are any cost overruns. They also faulted the mayor and city counsel for bringing the proposal to them with no advanced warning.

The proposal to partner with the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation on the conference was initially adjourned in the work session, but after some discussions and previews of a more detailed budget that showed where the money would come from, the council agreed to allow the issue to be put on the agenda where it was approved 4-1 with Scott saying he wanted more time before making a decision.

“I was in the hotel business and have a greater understanding of how these things work, but I believe this information should have been given to my colleagues and it should have been made available at an earlier time,” said Grandinetti. “But having said that I fault the city, not the NTCC, and wholeheartedly support this.”

The NTCC will provide $5,000 of its own money toward transportation costs. Mayor Paul Dyster said the city, as host, would only be liable for cost overruns if there are no sponsors and other sources of revenues, but he assured the council that they are already getting requests from sponsors.