Township supervisors' health care becomes campaign issue

Posted: October 28, 2013

THE REGION From Rick Colello's perspective, Doylestown Township taxpayers are getting a deal.

He works 13 to 15 hours a week as a township supervisor, often in meetings or responding to residents.

He forgoes the supervisors' $4,100 annual stipend. But he lets the township pay $14,000 a year for health insurance for him and his wife.

Larry Glick sees it as no bargain at all. He says Colello and his fellow supervisors, all of whom refuse the stipend but get health benefits, are taking advantage of taxpayers. Their insurance costs the township about $90,000 a year. And each serves a six-year term.

"It's about money," said Glick, a Democrat running against the Republican Colello for one of two at-large board seats. "It's about my tax dollars."

Who deserves insurance and who should pay for it isn't just an issue worthy of congressional debate. These days, it has cropped up in campaigns for one of the lowest-level offices in Pennsylvania: township supervisor.

Across the commonwealth, about a quarter of supervisors receive health insurance for what amounts to a part-time public service, a fringe benefit codified into state law in 1988.

Governing many of the city's suburbs, supervisors pass town budgets, levy taxes, and approve the hiring of township employees. Some of the people who want that job - in places such as Doylestown and Lower Makefield in Bucks County and Delaware County's Newtown Township - have made the perk a campaign issue in races often decided by a few hundred votes - or less.

No one tracks how much supervisor insurance costs statewide, according to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

Pennsylvania has more than 1,400 townships governed by boards of supervisors. Their taxpayer-funded insurance, if they take it, often mirrors the health plans of a township's full-time workers.

Critics say the benefits are an excessive use of tax dollars for a part-time job, particularly one that's a public service. And, they say, most people don't know about it.

"When you ask people if they know that supervisors are getting health-care benefits, the response is: 'Why? I thought that was a part-time position,' " Glick said.

He and other challengers say they would push their townships to ban the benefit. Incumbents contend the issue has been manufactured by candidates with nothing else to run on.

"It's an election-year criticism," said Pete Stainthorpe, chair of the Lower Makefield supervisors and a Republican running for his third term. "It won't be discussed again."

Stainthorpe gets a health plan through the township that's capped at $2,500 a year, and it only includes hospitalization.

"The question should be: Do you get a good value out of me being supervisor?" said Stainthorpe, who also takes a $4,300 supervisor stipend.

Mark Moffa, a Democratic challenger in Lower Makefield, said: "Public service should be just that. This job should be about making our community richer, not ourselves."

Another argument for the insurance is that it helps attract a broad pool of candidates, including self-employed professionals such as lawyers, who bring expertise.

"It's a way to attract younger, more diverse individuals," said Barbara Lyons, chairwoman of Doylestown's supervisors. "Otherwise you would have a lot of retired people with benefits who don't need the insurance."

Lyons, a Republican who is not running for reelection this year, runs her own mediation and arbitration business.

Colello is a self-employed financial adviser. Stainthorpe, also self-employed, helps small businesses with marketing and Web design and other consulting.

"People aren't just doing it for the medical insurance," added Joseph Catania, chairman of Newtown Township's supervisors in Delaware County. But he said it could help sway a potential candidate who may be "on the fence" about running.

Catania, a Republican who is not seeking reelection this year, is an attorney who once took the supervisors insurance. Three people on the board still do, he said.

"It takes a special person with some thick skin and some expertise," he said. "I know those people are out there, but whether you can get them to serve the public is another issue."

The practice of supervisors' taking insurance dates to the 1950s. In 1988, lawmakers in Harrisburg explicitly authorized the perk in the state code.

Rules governing the insurance require supervisors to pass a resolution to allow it. And the benefits can't be any better than those provided to full-time township workers.

Council members in the state's boroughs can get the same benefit under their state code. School board members cannot.

The perk has made headlines in other states. In Massachusetts, some towns have decried the cost of insurance for part-time elected officials. And in 2012, a county supervisor in California tried but failed to get an initiative on the state ballot to ban the benefits.

The issue has not bubbled in Harrisburg, according to Michael Gasbarre, executive director of the General Assembly's Local Government Commission.

Ray Lopez, a Democrat who is running for one of two open supervisor seats in Delaware County's Newtown Township and who wants to ban the benefits, said: "A lot of residents don't know about it unless they get involved in the budget hearings."

Back in Doylestown, Colello is running for his first full term after winning an election two years ago to fill a vacancy. He said taxpayers who don't know about his township insurance would learn they're getting a deal.

Rounding up, he said, the township's nearly 18,000 residents pay about $1 a year for his efforts, which have included saving them money during the budget process.

"You can't go to the dollar store and get a better value than that," Colello said.


bfinley@phillynews.com

610-313-8118

@Ben_Finley

www.inquirer.com/bucksinq

|
|
|
|
|