In front of a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday afternoon, Chattanooga City Council members heard details on new legislation that would provide benefits to domestic partners, including those in same-sex relationships, and add sexual orientation to the city’s nondiscrimination policy.
The council will vote on the Extended Benefits and Equity Ordinance next week. The vote will come after a monthslong debate that has filled council chambers weekly with vocal opponents and supporters zeroing in on the proposal, which would extend benefits to same-sex partners.
If approved, the ordinance would expand the city's health benefits for more than just gay or lesbian employees, said Councilman Chris Anderson, who is sponsoring the legislation.
"I think it’s more about equal rights than gay rights. It’s about treating all our employees equitably and fairly," Anderson said to reporters late Tuesday evening. "It’s been the right time for a long time. And better late than never."
The ordinance would make Chattanooga the third Tennessee city to extend health benefits to domestic partners of municipal employees. Collegedale became the first in August. Knoxville’s mayor announced in October that the city would do so starting next year.
A 2013 poll by Vanderbilt University found that 62 percent of Tennesseans think gay and lesbian domestic partners or spouses should receive employee health benefits.
Wade Hinton, city attorney, and Todd Dockery, director of human resources, briefed council members on how the legislation would impact the city’s workforce of more than 2,000 employees Tuesday afternoon.
"We are not defining marriage with this," Hinton said in response to Councilman Larry Grohn in one of the presentation’s few testy exchanges.
Most of the council’s questions revolved around the technical aspects of the ordinance.
Councilman Chip Henderson asked whether the HR director looked at the cost in cities and companies where domestic partnership benefits have been implemented in the past.
"We talked specifically with the city of Louisville and the city of Atlanta," Dockery said. "Louisville started covering domestic partners in July 2012. They have a year’s data, and they have not seen any additional cost with this."
Likewise, the city of Atlanta implemented domestic partnership benefits 10 years ago and has not seen any additional cost, Dockery said.
When his department looked elsewhere, they found that adding more individuals to the city’s health plan would cost approximately $168,000, or 1 percent of the city’s benefits plan, he said. But because many of the new enrollees are expected to be younger, it could end up saving Chattanooga money in the long term.
The benefits component of the ordinance would extend health, dental, vision and supplemental life insurance to partners of city employees if the couple signs an affidavit and meets the ordinance’s criteria for domestic partnerships.
Henderson, Grohn and Anderson are the only council members who have taken firm positions on the proposal to extend domestic partnership benefits. Sources inside and outside city government are expecting a tight vote that could go either way next week.
Councilman Jerry Mitchell is traveling and did not attend the meeting Tuesday.
A public comment period began Tuesday afternoon and continued into the late evening. Under council rules, this would be the last time residents would be able to speak to the city's legislative body before the first vote on Nov. 12. A television monitor was placed in the lobby to accommodate the overflow crowd.
For almost four hours, the council heard from city administrators and the public, including two Chattanooga police officers, on this issue.
Sgt. Craig Joel, a 19-year city employee and the former president of the Fraternal Order of Police, asked council members to consider the economic impact of extending city health benefits.
"Discrimination is both vile and obsolete and should remain as such," he said. "[This ordinance] is not a theological discussion. This is a business discussion to retain employees, to treat people right."
He listed cuts in overtime pay and other reductions that were made because he had been told, "We have to save money."
"My health premiums increase every year, despite the benefits of this wonderful health care facility we’re opening up, because we don’t have the money," he said. "So now we are opening up the doors to increase costs, from a business standpoint, for something as volatile and as unpredictable as health care."
Lt. Corliss Cooper told the council she wants to provide health benefits to her female partner as her co-workers do. Under current law, the only way she can provide them is through the death benefit in her police pension, she said.
"For 26 years, I’ve had to watch as my co-workers provide for their spouses while they are alive and able to enjoy the benefits afforded to them by our employer, the city," she said. "I have often thought, 'Maybe one day before I retire, I will be able to provide the same benefits to my spouse.'
"So at last, it may be near," she said.
Updated @ 8:40 a.m. on 11/13/13 to correct a factual error: The city's health plan would increase by $168,000, not $163,000, as originally reported.