AG City Council cashing in on benefits

OPINION by JULIE TACKER

The Arroyo Grande City Council voted to increase their monthly stipends by sixty percent! On top of that, they agreed to award the mayor an additional $150 per month. It is their intention that these increases will begin just after the Nov. 2020 election for the “new” council. Mayor, Caren Ray Russom, Mayor Pro Tem, Kristen Barneich and recently appointed, Lan George are all up for election.

The public will not get to vote on these increases, yet they could — if the council wanted to — put the mayor’s $1,800 annual increase on the ballot.

The public is invited to attend the two upcoming city council meetings where the ordinance that is being prepared for the council to cement their decision will be heard. Become informed by subscribing to the city’s eNotification list by simply logging on to the city’s website, agenda’s will be posted with at least 72 hours’ notice. Keep an eye out for these public hearings so you can attend and make your thoughts known.

The council’s Nov. 12 decision to increase their stipend came on a night they had scheduled a discussion on upcoming water and sewer rate increases and moving drainage expenses to the county tax rolls. They chose to make this $16,380 addition to the city’s annual budget ahead of finding ways to fund important infrastructure related increases.

The council had this “difficult conversation” without the meat of the matter in front of them.

What does the city already pay out and which council members are benefiting the most?

Since being sworn in to serve the city on Dec. 11, 2018 when Ray Russom became mayor and Keith Storton and Jimmy Paulding joined Barneich on the council they have each received $5,265.00 as a stipend ($405 per month). Appointed councilwoman George began collecting in January, to date, she has received $4,455.00.

A stipend is distinct from an income or a salary because it does not necessarily represent payment for work performed; instead it represents a payment that enables somebody to be exempt partly or wholly from waged or salaried employment in order to undertake a role that is normally unpaid or voluntary, it cannot be measured in terms of a task.

What also wasn’t discussed or presented fully was the cost to the city associated with council member fringe benefits. In addition to the stipend, the city pays its council members and mayors medical insurance, dental and vision along with a small monthly set aside for Public Agency Retirement Services.

Over the same period of time, the total paid out in fringe benefits to council members is staggering in a city that is struggling to stay afloat.

George $563.44
Ray Russom $1,579.48
Paulding $17,181.41
Storton $20,960.48
Barneich $23,762.80

The inequity in benefits hinges on the benefit packages chosen by each council member and the coverage for their families. Other’s healthcare benefits are provided for by their ‘day jobs, or coverage from their spouses employment. In the case of Mayor Pro Tem Barneich, her husband works for the City of Santa Maria and is allowed to take a cash equivalent from that city for the benefits he refuses – burdening two sets of taxpayers.

In the case of Mayor Ray Russom, she’s employed by the Santa Maria school district which is the same insurance company as the city, the school district requires her to insure at least herself, so she was unable to cash out as Barneich does.

Councilman Storton is retired from the City of San Luis Obispo; he has a very nice pension, but chooses to take advantage of Arroyo Grande’s health benefits and in some cases, council members employers provide better benefits and choose to opt out of the city’s benefit packages.

Unfortunately, due to the contracts with the vision and dental providers “all city employees” must be covered and council members and employees cannot opt out of those benefits even if they are already covered by another plan.

Over the last two years the city has struggled to generate additional revenue to remain in the Five Cities Fire Authority, and cover other city services. As it grapples with cut-backs in services, encouraging retirements, laying-off staff, closing City Hall on Friday’s, and threatening to cancel the Halloween in the Village tradition. The council has also increased city fees across the board and is considering an increase in sales tax, too.

All tolled nearly $90,000 in stipends and benefits have been paid to this council in just one year of service. That kind of money could go a long way toward defraying city expenses. A selfless city council should put service back in public service.

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