<p>File Photo</p>

File Photo

Members of the Naperville City Council have taken themselves off the subsidized health insurance coverage extended to full-time city employees, and put an end to the benefit for the mayor and former council members as well.

The policy changes, which will take effect after all of the council positions come up for re-election next year, will be offset in part by significantly higher pay for the part-time jobs.

The officials also agreed to allow salaried part-time employees to participate in the city’s self-insured health and dental plans, paying the full premiums themselves. That change will affect fewer than a dozen staff.

Councilman Steve Chirico proposed a plan to create an “all-in” salary of $24,000 annually for the board, and taking away the insurance coverage perk that has come with the position since 1986. The 6-3 vote supporting the proposal capped extended debate by the officials, all of whom are serving terms that will expire a year from now.

Doug Krause, who has served on the council since 1989, took issue with the assumption that the position requires just 1,000 hours yearly.

“The question is, what does that count?” said Krause, pointing out assorted roles he fills on the city’s behalf.

Krause said he has been approached by constituents in a wide variety of settings, including a movie theater restroom.

“Being a public figure, you’re held to a higher standard in the public’s eye, because you’re on the job all the time,” he said.

The insurance issue arose as part of ongoing discussions about council pay and benefits that have brought an end to the officials’ stipends for cell phone and Internet expenses and their option to take part in the lllinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

Council member Paul Hinterlong reiterated his assertion that it’s unfair for the officials to be provided with the same health coverage that the city underwrites at 80 percent only for full-time staff.

“We ask our employees to work 30 hours or more a week to get the benefits that we get,” Hinterlong said.

In a letter to the council last week, Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Nicki Anderson also urged discontinuation of the insurance option, saying the matter “raises fundamental questions of fairness.” All but Hinterlong and Councilmen Bob Fieseler and Grant Wehrli take the coverage.

“The Council has encouraged the hiring of part-time positions in various departments to avoid the expenses of a full-time position. Despite progress being made, the pension and unfunded health care liability crises in this state and in Naperville have only grown more acute and are a substantial burden on taxpayers,” Anderson wrote, noting that the Affordable Care Act has affected the cost and availability of health coverage.

“Given these realities, the question now is whether it is appropriate for taxpayers to continue to subsidize this benefit for the Council, and if it is fair to continue to offer elected officials benefits packages not offered to other municipal employees.”

A resident who addressed the council on the issue also pressed for cancelling the policy.

“If you cannot pay for health insurance out of your own pocket, then I suggest that you not run for office,” Kurt Dorr said.

The council was not unanimous in backing the move. Wehrli characterized other recent reductions in the council’s compensation as “low-hanging fruit” in pressing for rejection of the plan.

“I just look at this as (the council’s benefit package) was getting whittled away, whittled away,” Wehrli said, adding that outside pressure has been building for more cuts. “Finally as a last-ditch effort, here we are trying to save everything before it goes away, and by the way, we can do it in a cost-saving (manner) so that it looks good even though we’re going to double our salary. Too late, in my book, for that.”

Wehrli, a candidate for the Illinois House next November, is one of two current council members who so far are not expected to seek re-election. Chirico announced a year ago that he will run to replace Mayor A. George Pradel, who has said he plans to step down next spring.

Chirico acknowledged that the timing of his proposal appeared “suspect,” but said it addresses concerns that include transparency, equity, fairness and fiscal prudence. The change, he said, will translate to annual savings to the city of $45,000.

Some officials have said that the insurance option enhances the monetary feasibility of the position, which now pays a base salary of about $13,000. Political motivations, Chirico said, drive some who would prefer to have council service become a prospect that is less “affordable” than it is now.

“They would love it, because then they can send their pawns out to be on council, and have undue influence, or even control,” he said. “Don’t think it can’t happen, because it does.”

Chirico also made the motions to increase the mayor’s combined salaries for the elected post and the duties of liquor commissioner that come with it to $42,000 and do away with all benefits, including the health coverage, vehicle and gas now provided to Pradel. Those changes also passed with a 6-3 vote.

Additional proposals from Chirico to put a stop to the provision of health benefits for former council members and to enable part-time salary earners to buy city insurance will come back as draft ordinances for council approval.

Fieseler joined those giving support to codify the measure cutting off health coverage for council members after they step down.

“This came out of nowhere. I had no idea that was happening,” he said.