Council's potential benefits under fire in Livingston

LIVINGSTON -- The possibility of City Council members receiving health benefits while in office has sickened some residents who oppose such a perk.

The city has set aside about $95,000 in case the council wants to plug into the city's health care plan, the third time the money has been included in an annual budget.

Residents hammered the council members over the potential benefit before the budget was unanimously adopted recently. The council members, who receive $300 each month for holding office, were accused of trying to use public money for private gain.

"Are they self-serving servants?" asked resident Kaye Greeley, who also chairs the Citizens Advisory Committee. "Shouldn't they be listening to the public?"

A few residents are circulating petitions in case the council tries to move forward with plans to have the city pay for health coverage, though such plans have stalled at City Hall.

With the city playing it safe with money as growth slows, residents have been more cautious with how their money is spent. Adding new perks has become a political hot potato -- and could be a dead issue. No council members have asked that a policy outlining a health plan be written and brought to a meeting, said City Manager Richard Warne, who stressed that the decision is solely up to the council.

A health care plan was brought forward in 2005 and quickly met with criticism from former mayors. Council members were admonished that they served the public as volunteers, and the matter didn't even make it to a vote.

To revive the plan, two of the five council members must ask that a benefit plan be put on an agenda, where it could be discussed and voted on.

With the public's attention already focused on the set-aside money, it's likely that there'd be more residents shaking their fists at City Hall.

Mayor Gurpal Samra said he believes new perks for elected officials should go to the voters on a ballot.

"I don't like to prejudge, but my record has been very clear," he said, referring to when he opposed the benefit as a private resident two years ago. "If someone's brave enough, they can bring it up."

Since last week's meeting, the council members have distanced themselves from the issue; none of them has said he would call for a discussion.

Councilman Rodrigo Espinoza said some residents believe he is behind the idea because he owns his own towing business and must pay for health coverage out of his pocket. He said he's not driving the issue.

Councilmen Roy Soria and Bill Ingram both said health care benefits were just one of the many ideas kicked around that never gained much support. "It's sort of a Christmas list, but the city can't afford stuff like that," said Ingram, who has health care through the military.

Councilman Frank Vierra did not return phone calls for comment.