Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Montgomery County, Maryland taxes



Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Montgomery County pays benefits for some employees' unmarried partners

Firefighters received perk since 2002 without necessary law change

by Erin Cunningham | Staff Writer

For some Montgomery County employees, unmarried partners are treated the same as spouses and are able to share in county health benefits. The same goes for the partner's children.

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council voted, 9-0, to make opposite-sex domestic partners of county firefighters eligible, by law, for health and some other benefits. But the firefighters have had the benefit in their contracts since 2002 — even though it hadn't been formalized into the county code.

Police officers have had the same benefit since 2001, but in their case, it was put into law at the time.

All told, about 113 county employees have signed on to the program, which currently extends benefits to 307 unmarried partners and children, said Wes Gerling, the county's benefits manager. This includes same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners and children who may not be related to the employee. The partners receive the benefits that would be offered to employees' spouses, such as health care and dental.

Meanwhile, employees who belong to the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994/Municipal and County Government Employees Organization are eligible for same-sex domestic partner benefits, but opposite-sex domestic partners are not eligible for coverage.

"It's something that we keep trying to negotiate, and it keeps getting killed at the table," said Gail Heath, special assistant to the president for MCGEO.

She said the union, which represents about 8,000 county employees, will request the benefit again when contract negotiations begin in September.

The exact cost of providing the benefit was unknown, Gerling said, although analysts estimate that the county pays at least $171,000 to provide benefits to opposite-sex domestic partners for 49 firefighters.

That amount represents the 80 percent of the premiums that the county subsidizes, but because the plans are self-insured, the actual cost to the county could be more or less, Gerling said.

"This is an expensive benefit that goes to a relatively small number of employees," said Stuart Weisberg, labor relations adviser for the county.

Employees initially are required to show two proofs of a domestic partnership, such as a joint mortgage or car loan, but the county does not investigate the claims beyond the initial request, Weisberg said.

Gerling described it as the "honor system."

"We don't go into the bedroom to see what's happening," Weisberg said.

Fairfax County, Va., does not provide benefits for same-sex or opposite-sex domestic partners.

The benefit is available to government employees in Howard County, and in the municipalities of Baltimore, College Park, Greenbelt, Hyattsville, Mount Ranier and Takoma Park, according to Equality Maryland.

The school systems of Baltimore County and Prince George's County also offer domestic partner benefits.

As for the firefighters' benefit finally making it into county law, council Vice President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said, "This is eight years of taxpayers paying for something they didn't know they were paying for."

If MCGEO members are not granted the benefit in the upcoming contract negotiations, Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg, who chairs the council's Management and Fiscal Policy Committee, said she would raise the issue in committee.

"If you're going to offer it for police and firefighters, why wouldn't you offer it to other county employees," Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda said.

MCGEO has been denied the benefit because the union is larger than those for police and firefighters, so the cost would be much greater, Heath said.

In the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 35, 33 employees are receiving benefits for same-sex domestic partners or opposite-sex domestic partners, Gerling said. The Office of Human Resources did not maintain separate lists, he said.

Twenty-four MCGEO employees receive same-sex domestic partner benefits, he said.

In the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 1664, 49 employees receive opposite-sex domestic partner benefits, and seven get benefits for same-sex domestic partners.

The partnerships are treated just as a marriage, according to Gerling, so children — even those not related to the employee — are covered.

The county first extended benefits to same-sex partners of employees in 2000. But now, more employees are taking advantage of the benefits for their opposite sex domestic partners, said Robert H. Drummer, a senior legislative attorney for the County Council.

"It's an add-on that has overwhelmed the original bill," he said, referring to the larger number of employees using the opposite-sex domestic partner benefit rather than the same-sex benefit.

To receive benefits for either partnership, the couple must share the same home for at least 12 months, "share a close personal relationship and be responsible for each other's welfare" and not be married or in a domestic partnership with anyone else, according to county code.

The couple must show evidence of at least two of the following: a joint housing lease, mortgage or deed; joint ownership of a motor vehicle; a joint checking or credit account; designation of the partner as a primary beneficiary of the employee's life insurance or benefits; and designation of the partner as holding a durable power of attorney for health care decisions regarding the employee, according to county code.

If the relationship ends, the employee is required to notify the Office of Human Resources, so the benefits can end, Gerling said.

However, Ervin said more oversight might be necessary.

"This has the potential to cost the county a lot of money," she said. "We have all of these regulations, and there's nobody enforcing anything. If you wanted to be resourceful you could do a lot of things."



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