Nashville council shelves legislation to adjust health benefits for future council members
Nashville Council pushed off an effort to adjust lifetime health benefits for future council members to March.
They voted 20-18 to deliberate further on legislation that could adjust how much Metro will pay for lifetime health benefits for Nashville council members, citing confusion on the issue in the public and among council members.
But before deferring, council approved a measure to delay when the proposed changes will go in effect — which would make it so current first-year council members, if reelected in 2023, will not be impacted.
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Council Member Tonya Hancock resurrected her bill after successfully bringing it back earlier this month after it was deferred indefinitely in August.
Currently, officials that served at least eight years and their spouses, have been able to stay on the city’s comprehensive health care plan after they leave office by paying 25% of the premium, with taxpayers covering the rest.
Council Member Freddie O’Connell has filed an amendment that would ceate an eight year “transition” period for costs to be split 50-50, before Metro’s subsidy will be trimmed to 25%.
The individuals receiving the benefits will then pay 75% of the premium, bringing them in line to the share other Metro employees who serve 10 years pay for the same health insurance program.
Council members, Council Member John Rutherford and others argued, should not be considered a special class.
“This bill is not about access to health care … This bill will not decide whether this is a full-time or part-time job,” Hancock said Tuesday. “This bill is about fiscal responsibility. It saves money for the future. We must make decisions beyond today or tomorrow.”
The renewed effort comes as the city is once again looking at how it can or should address its more than $4.6 billion unfunded costs to cover retiree health benefits. The growing liability for the city is of concern to some who argue current level of benefits won’t be sustainable, so changes should be made now without the risk of impacting current employees and retirees.
The increasing costs applies for council as well, as more than $837,400 have been spent in health insurance benefits for both current and former Metro Council Members in 2020. The cost is expected to increase to $1.2 million by 2024.
Lifetime health care benefits for council members have been called to the chopping block from some in the public, as Metro Council adopted a 34% property tax increase. It’s become amplified with a referendum effort to repeal the increase that would create a $33 million budget shortfall — promoting severe cuts to city services and possible layoffs.
The city’s subsidy calculates out to .00034% of Metro’s total $2.4 billion budget. If the legislation were to be approved, changes won’t be realized until 2031, when a new council member elected in 2023, will become qualified for the benefit.
But supporters say it’s a matter of long-term fiscally responsibility, and that the issue should not be put off any longer.
Overhauling the benefits has put Metro Council at odds in previous years, with similar legislation defeated four times since 2012.
“I keep hearing about this being a drop in the bucket. But excess is excess money no matter how big or small it might be,” Rutherford said, adding future budgets will be impacted by council’s decision.
Those in opposition to adjustments, as in previous debates, warn of the impact the change could have on the make-up of future council bodies as it could play a factor on a person’s ability of run for office, if they can’t afford to do so.
Others said there needs to be more time for consideration — particularly with false rhetoric surrounding the issue — including a deeper look by council and possibly the Metro Benefits Board.
“What we really need to have an honest conversation about what it means to be a council member in Nashville of the 21st Century. And to me, you cannot separate those conversations. You cannot decide that we’re going to cut one piece off without addressing the entire piece of it because it will impact who runs for office,” said Council Member Colby Sledge.
While agreeing changes need to be made, he said it shouldn’t be “piecemeal,” arguing with no immediate impact, council should consider taking a holistic view.
“We are currently in the situation we’re in because we’ve been taking these penny and nickle approaches to the budget,” said Council Member Tanaka Vercher, agreeing for a call for a comprehensive review.
“Our community has been stirred up as it relates to this and we haven’t done our own due diligence on our side. If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it right. Let’s put our best effort forward and let’s stop exploiting the emotions people in the city,” she said.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville council shelves legislation to adjust health benefits for future council members