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Majority of City Council members support health benefits for Mayor Graham

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WATERTOWN — Councilman Joseph M. Butler just doesn’t think an elected official should receive health benefits that are paid for by a municipality that he or she represents.

That’s why he continues to oppose a plan for the city to foot the $5,242 bill to pay medical coverage for Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham. He spoke against the proposal on the night the City Council adopted a $39 million budget that raised property taxes and included a $5,242 budget line to cover Mayor Graham’s health benefits.

“It’s the timing,” he said. “It’s not the time to ask for benefits when you raise taxes by 10 percent. It stings.”

He recalled that the City Council agreed 10 years ago that elected officials shouldn’t receive health benefits. He also would never accept medical coverage, he said.

But Mr. Butler is in the minority. It appears there’s enough support on City Council for it to pass. Council members Stephen A. Jennings, Teresa R. Macaluso and Roxanne M. Burns all have come out in support of it. Mayor Graham said he will not participate in the discussion or vote on it when it comes up, possibly later this month.

Under the proposal, the mayor also will receive health benefits once he leaves office. It would not affect the other council members.

City Manager Sharon A. Addison said Friday that the city attorney’s office has put together a city policy dealing with elected officials getting health benefits and two resolutions needing council action involving medical benefits for Mr. Graham.

The three council members in favor of the proposal contend that the mayor puts in enough time as mayor to be considered a full-time city employee. He’s also served as mayor for 16 years, they said.

For the past 10 years, Mr. Graham has paid an estimated $7,000 per year out of his own pocket to participate in the city’s health benefits program, Ms. Macaluso said.

“I think he’s like any other city employee who gets it,” she said. “I consider him a vested city employee.”

As a public official, Mayor Graham has enough certified hours to be eligible to participate in the state retirement system, Mr. Jennings said.

“The devil is in the details,” he said, adding that it will depend on what ends up in the resolutions from the city attorney’s office.

The matter first came up a few months ago when City Attorney Robert J. Slye was asked whether the mayor could continue to pay the full share of the tax benefits after he leaves office, Ms. Burns said.

She subsequently brought up the issue during an executive session to get input from council members about what they thought. She disagreed with Mr. Butler’s assertion.

“In my opinion, I don’t think he made a strong case,” she said. “I think Mayor Graham is entitled to it.”

She also remembered that council members decided to drop coverage for the mayor and council members in what was “a goodwill gesture” during a difficult budget year. At the time, none of them needed health benefits because they were covered through their employer or by their spouse’s package, she said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Graham declined to comment, except to say, “I just appreciate that they’re willing to look at it.”

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