Lehigh County commissioners found themselves on the front line of the gay rights movement Wednesday night, when they voted 5-4 to reject providing medical benefits to the same-sex spouses of county employees.
"We should not discriminate—our policy is discriminatory," said County Executive Matthew Croslis, who proposed offering those benefits to same-sex couples who were legally married in another state.
"The state of Pennsylvania does not recognize same-sex marriage and I don't feel the county should either," said Commissioner Thomas Creighton, who proposed the amendment to eliminate $219,000 for those benefits from the proposed 2014 county budget.
But Commissioner Brad Osborne said: "As Republicans, we need to shed our image of intolerance. I am going to support the county executive in his effort to show that we respect each human being for being a human being."
Seven of the nine commissioners are Republicans.
Commissioner Dan McCarthy, one of the only two Democrats, supported funding the benefits "because it's the right thing to do."
Joining Creighton in rejecting the county executive's proposal to offer the medical benefits were Commissioners Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott, Lisa Scheller and Michael Schware – all Republicans.
Voting with Osborne and McCarthy to keep those benefits in the new budget were Republican Percy Dougherty and Democrat David Jones.
Before the vote, McCarthy said $219,000 probably was more money than would be needed. Croslis agreed. He said that estimate was based on 30 couples applying for health benefits, but doesn't think the county, which has about 2,000 employees, would come close to that number.
"We had to take a really wild guess as to how many couples we may have that would qualify," said Tom Muller, the county's administration director. "We have no idea how many are currently legally married or will become legally married in the very new future."
Croslis told commissioners Lehigh Valley Hospital has granted domestic partnership benefits. He said the hospital has 10,000 employees, but only 20 couples are taking the benefits.
Noting Air Products and Walmart also offer benefits to same-sex couples, Croslis said people often say government should be run more like a business.
Most large employers in the Lehigh Valley offer such benefits, as do Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, Bethlehem Area School District and most local colleges, said Adrian Shanker of Bethlehem.
Shanker is president of Equality Pennsylvania, which represents lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender residents across the state "including tens of thousands in the Lehigh Valley."
He said medical benefits for same-sex spouses is not a liberal or conservative issue, only an issue about what's best for employers to attract and retain a talented workforce.
Shanker called Creighton's amendment "mean-spirited."
Allentown resident Thomas Cunningham described himself as a proud retiree who worked for the county for more than 35 years. He also told commissioners: "I'm gay and damn proud of it. And I'm married and damn proud of it."
Showing commissioners a copy of his New York marriage license, Cunningham said he and his male spouse have been together for 29 years, but he could never get medical benefits for him while he worked for the county.
Cunningham praised Croslis "for having the guts to stand up and say yes, that same- sex people should be given benefits."
He won some applause when he challenged commissioners to "have some guts."
Rob Hopkins, a county employee, said he also was legally married in another state. "The state of Pennsylvania may not recognize our marriage, but the federal government does. I would hope that my employer would recognize my marriage too."
Hopkins told commissioners that nowhere near 30 people would qualify for the county benefits. "It will not make a large impact on the county's bottom line."
The county has not provided such benefits in the past, said Mazziotti, who added this is not the right time to make that change. "We have a very difficult budget before us."
"We have to find ways to cut expenses," said Creighton.
At the beginning of the commissioners meeting, the county was facing a deficit of more $10 million in the administration's proposed 2014 budget.
Mazziotti called that budget very troublesome and unsustainable.
Rather than raising taxes, he said the administration proposes closing the deficit by spending $10 million of the $25 million in the county's stabilization fund, also known as its emergency or rainy day fund.
Mazziotti said that money also is used to operate the county until the first tax bills are paid in May. "During that period we go through about $20 million." He said taking $10 million out of that stabilization fund would put the county below its cash flow needs.
He said the county essentially will be spending money out of its savings account to finance the 2014 budget "and we're spending 40 percent of it in one year."
Cutting medical benefits for the same-sex spouses of county employees was one of 15 proposed amendments to cut the proposed budget considered by commissioners Wednesday. Nine of them were presented by Mazziotti. Three were withdrawn.
Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, praised Mazziotti for thoroughly going through the budget.
Only one of Mazziotti's amendments failed. He proposed eliminating a total of $1 million by requiring all county departments to cut their budgets by less than one percent.
Commissioners voted 5-4 against it, after County Sheriff Ron Rossi said he would be forced to discontinue all security in the county government center and District Attorney Jim Martin said he would lose an assistant district attorney.
Voting with Mazziotti for that failed amendment were Schware, Creighton, and Dougherty.
Mazziotti did not keep a tally of all the approved amendments, but after more than three-and-a-half hours of debate, it appeared the commissioners reduced the $10-million deficit in the proposed budget by nearly $3 million
Commissioners unanimously voted to eliminate the county's vacant chief of staff position, saving $128,244. But most of the budget-cutting amendments were not passed so smoothly.
Some of the other cuts generated by amendments:
Commissioners voted 5-4 to reduce funding to the county emergency communications center by $100,000, despite D.A. Martin saying the center is "absolutely critical" to law enforcement and public safety throughout the region Voting to keep that money in the budget were Dougherty, Osborne, Jones and McCarthy.
Commissioners voted 5-4 to reduce funding for the new Regional Crime Center by $250,000, despite appeals by Martin, Whitehall Police Chief Linda Kulp and Bethlehem Deputy Police Chief Todd Repsher. "It's very important that this incredible system stays up and running so we can garner the information we need to keep the public safe," said Repsher.
"Please don't cut the system. It's invaluable to public safety."
Voting to keep that funding in the budget were Dougherty, Osborne, Jones and McCarthy.
Commissioners voted 6-3 to cut the county's I-T personnel budget.
Creighton, who proposed that amendment, said the county has 33 employees on its I-T staff, about one for every 60 county employees.
The $308,657 cut could reduce the I-T staff by three or four employees. Jones, McCarthy and Ott opposed that cut.
Commissioners voted 6-3 to reduce funding for court administration by $146,335, which would fund four tip staff positions. President Judge Carol McGinley, Court Administrator William Berndt and Martin were unable to dissuade the majority from eliminating that money from the budget. Jones, McCarthy and Osborne voted no.
The commissioners are scheduled to do a final vote on the 2014 budget at their next meeting at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23, which will be preceded by a 7 p.m. public hearing on the amendments they made Wednesday.
They held a public hearing on the proposed budget before their regular meeting Wednesday night.
Cunningham was the only person who addressed them during that hearing, about medical benefits for same-sex couples.
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