Westchester community first in New York to eliminate partner benefits of gay employees
In a 3-2 vote, the Town Council of Eastchester, New York ended a four-year-old program that extended health benefits to the domestic partners of its employees.
“There are two pieces that are important,” said Ross Levi, director of public policy and governmental affairs at the Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide gay lobbying group. “First of all, domestic partner benefits are a life and death issue for families. This could be the difference between having health insurance or not… This could be the difference between taking care of your children or not.”
Levi, who testified at the January 4 town meeting before the vote was taken, said the vote could also send a message that rolling back gains made by the queer community is acceptable.
“I think that elected officials across the nation are trying to determine whether the political sands have shifted and whether you prove your stripes as a real Republican by being anti-gay,” Levi said.
The council members who supported eliminating the program said that it had been surrendered by the unions who represent the town employees in contract negotiations and not out of moral concerns.
“This is not some giant moral issue,” said Anthony S. Colavita, the town supervisor, on WNBC News, which covered the January 4 vote. “This is strictly a fiscal issue.”
Colavita and the union leadership did not respond to calls seeking comment, but Levi told Gay City News that the comments from council members who opposed the benefits were generally couched in those terms. However, at least two audience members who spoke up at the council meeting voiced moral concerns.
Eastchester is a municipality of 18,000 residents in Westchester County that includes the incorporated villages of Bronxville and Tuckahoe. Its town budget for 2005 is $26.5 million. It spends about $3 million a year on health care for its roughly 175 employees and retired workers, according to the The Journal News, a local newspaper.
Since the benefits were created, only one town employee has signed up for it at a cost of roughly $6,100 annually, the Journal News reported. That employee will continue to receive the benefit despite the vote.
When the benefit was first enacted—with Colavita’s support—a local group called the Family First Movement sued seeking to eliminate it, after claiming to have collected 1,100 signatures in opposition. That suit was dropped after Colavita, a Republican, won the town supervisor job—with powers roughly equivalent to those of a mayor—by beating Jim Cavanaugh, also a Republican, in 2003.
The benefits program was an issue in that race and Colavita changed his position, coming out in opposition to it. Cavanaugh continued to support the benefit.
“I think some of the hypocrisy on the part of the town supervisor became apparent last night,” Levi said. “He said he was only interested in doing what the police union wanted, but when asked if he would reinstate the benefit if the union wanted it he said ‘No.’”
Levi said that he did not believe that other jurisdictions in New York that currently offer domestic partner benefits would seek to roll them back.
“I think the rest of the state will look at what happened last night and conclude that things haven’t changed much in New York,” he said. “Kowtowing to a vocal minority is not the politically smart thing to do.”