At a time when Davidson County residents are preparing for the first property tax increase in seven years — and future Metro Nashville employees will be asked to work longer to qualify for pension benefits — Councilmen Carter Todd and Phil Claiborne said the outlook should be no different for their kind.
The Metro Council last week passed on first reading an ordinance that would end the Metro policy which offers former two-term Metro Council members the opportunity to continue to participate in the Metro health care plan for life.
“We’re Metro employees, and we should consider ourselves in the same way that we consider all other employees,” Claiborne said in a phone interview with The City Paper. “If we’re looking at this as a cost saving measure, then we should include ourselves in it.”
The proposal (which was originally filed by Todd in May but has since been reintroduced by Claiborne after going through the committee system) would still offer participation in the health care plan to council members who serve for 10 years — the same length of service that will be required for future city employees to be eligible for a pension. Despite the council’s two-term limit, members could serve for 10 years by winning an at-large seat in addition to two terms representing a district.
The ordinance would not apply to current members, but would go into effect for those council members elected in 2019. Members who participated in the plan while in office would be able to continue receiving the benefits, provided they pay for it themselves.
Claiborne conceded that the savings would not be overwhelming. According to Metro’s Human Resources Department, 24 current council members, and 33 former council members in the Metro health insurance system. The total cost for current and former members is approximately $550,000 annually. There are also four current council members who are retired Metro employees, and therefore have Metro health insurance benefits through their service pension but not as a council member.
Claiborne’s argument, though, is based more in a belief that council members shouldn’t get a special deal.
“In terms of great dollar savings, in the grand scheme of the Metro budget, it would not be a huge amount,” But when you’re beginning to look at ways to make government more sustainable as far as cost is concerned, health care cost certainly is one of the major factors in the equation. So, if we’re addressing that for all other Metro employees, it doesn’t make sense to me that the council would consider itself to be an exception or to deserve something more than a Metro policeman or a Metro fireman or a Metro clerk.”
The change would make Nashville’s policy more similar to those in cities like Memphis and Charlotte, where city council members can elect to participate in the same plan offered to city employees. In Memphis, according to city officials there, council members can qualify to keep the plan, with the same contribution rate — a 70/30 split between the city and employees, as opposed to Nashville’s 75/25 rate — if they serve long enough to achieve retirement. However most council members, officials said, do not.
Todd echoed Claiborne’s sentiments about equality between council members and the city’s employees, and described the current policy — which neither Todd, an executive at Gaylord Entertainment Co., nor Claiborne, a retired Metro Nashville Public Schools teacher, use — as a “ticking time bomb.”
Two arguments against the plan, Todd said, are that, at $15,000 per year, council members are not paid enough as it is, and making the health plan harder to reach, would keep many quality candidates from running for office.
“I’d respond two ways,” Todd said. “One, well, pay them more. But at least the taxpayers will get to see how much you’re paying them. Or two, don’t pay them more, but I guarantee you good people will still run.”
Some on the council, such as At-Large Councilman Jerry Maynard, have argued that if there is to be such a change, it should apply to current council members as well. Both Todd and Claiborne said that providing for current members to be grandfathered in would be consistent with the changes for city employees, which did the same thing for current employees. Plus, Todd said, few council members would be likely to vote themselves out of the plan.
“Trust me,” he said. “If you didn’t do that, it would never pass. If Jerry [Maynard] and others said ‘Well, if you make it apply to everybody now, I’ll vote for it,’ I’ll change it and we’ll do it. But I guarantee you people won’t vote for it.”