Dyster preserves gilt edged benefits for Council members

In News, Niagara Falls

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Niagara Falls Council member Kenny Thompkins pushed to have health insurance benefits not made available to future part time council members. Dyster vetoed the measure.

It’s enough to make one wonder what happened to the servant part of public servant. Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster last week vetoed a resolution by the city Council that would have ended the gilt edged health care benefits Council members receive for their part time jobs.

Dyster said the highly unusual veto of a Council resolution for a benefit only Council members receive, was a simple matter of pragmatism.

“Providing a compensation and benefit package which is both fair and responsible is an important factor to ensuring we attract candidates with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints,” he told the Niagara Gazette.

Council members were not happy. 

“I am curious as to why the mayor would leverage his executive privilege to veto a resolution that the city council passed in an effort to save taxpayers money,” said the sponsor of the measure, freshman Councilman Kenneth Tompkins said.

The Council measure passed 3-2. It is highly unlikely that Dyster’s veto will be overridden, as it would take a super majority of four votes to do so.

Council members earn $12,000 a year but the health care coverage is said to be worth $21,981. Council members who are covered by health insurance at their regular jobs can receive an opt out payment of $9,713 for a family or $3,526 for a single person.

In 2012, Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti moved to end the opt out payment after it was revealed that she’d been taking the family amount despite the fact she is single. She is covered by health insurance from the Niagara Falls City School District, where she teaches kindergarten. Grandinetti later made restitution.

She also practiced what she preached declining to take the opt out subsequently.

Council Chairman Andrew Touma, who is also a school teacher, called Dyster’s veto disappointing. 

“I don’t know what’s driving this, I think we have a very diverse council as it is, but I don’t think the council members ran for the monetary gain,” Touma said. “It’s been two years since I’ve been on the council and we haven’t made strides.”

Touma has health insurance provided to him through the Niagara Falls School District. In addition Touma accepts $9,713 annually from the city, on top of his $12,000 council salary for opting out of health insurance with the city.

Touma is one of several scores of Niagara Falls city and school employees who earn in excess of $100,000. According to www.seethroughny.net, Touma earns 103,000 from his job at the school district in addition to his $21,713 from the city council.

Newly elected council members Ezra Scott and Kenny Thompkins both receive health insurance from the city. Thompkins’ council health insurance cutting measure would not have affected present council members but only future elected council members.

The position of city council is part time; few employers anywhere offer full health insurance coverage for part time employees. According to a study made by the Buffalo News, Niagara Falls pays the highest opt out payments for employees who do not accept health insurance coverage of any municipality in the region.

Critics of Dyster’s veto say that the reason for running for elected office should not be the salary, benefits and perks but should be motivated by a true zeal to serve, and that elected officials should lead the way in making cuts to a budget that in Niagara Falls surpasses revenue by millions every year.

Niagara Falls is ranked by the New York State Restructuring Board as having the highest property taxes in the state in proportion to the value of the real estate being taxed.

The measure to suspend health insurance benefits for future council members could have saved taxpayers more than $100,000 per year based on present cost of health insurance assuming all five members of the council chose to take the city’s health insurance.

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