The town of Woodstock with a population of just 8,000 is giving big healthcare stipends to town hall employees who opt out of the town’s healthcare plan. Employees, including First Selectman Alan Walker Jr. and tax collector Linda Bernardi, receive stipends of $1,163 per month while getting healthcare coverage through their spouses.
On an annual basis, the stipends add up to $13,956 and costs taxpayers about $98,000.
Walker receives the benefits outlined in Woodstock's union contracts. It is Walker's responsibility to negotiate those contracts. Walker negotiated the 2013 contract which increased the annual stipend by $3,200.
The issue came to a head at a contentious board of finance meeting Tuesday as members of the board clashed with Walker over the stipend. “The idea of paying $14,000 for someone not to take insurance is - outside of Woodstock - unheard of,” said alternate board member David Richardson.
Other towns in Connecticut offer stipends to employees who waive insurance coverage but they are not nearly as generous. The town of Plainville, population 17,973, offers a family rate stipend of only $1,500 per year and Brandford, population 28,026, offers $1,000 per year according to their union agreements
Woodstock’s own board of education, which has different policies than town hall, only offers a maximum family-rate stipend of $2,750 per year.
Opponents of the stipends on the board of finance said the practice was unfair to other town hall employees who have to take health insurance. Woodstock employees who are enrolled in the town’s healthcare plan pay $2,600 toward the premium for an individual plan. Employees taking the stipend don’t have to make premium payments and therefore take home an extra $16,556 per year over co-workers.
Woodstock, in accordance with federal law, requires that employees taking the stipend show proof of insurance.
Board of finance member David Fortin had previously circulated a letter to the board of finance detailing the problems with the stipend. Walker, upon receiving the letter, had town attorney, Robert M. DeCrescenzo issue a written response to Fortin’s criticisms.
Walker said the practice actually saves the town $7,000 per employee who opts out of taking health insurance. He said taking away or reducing the stipends would unfairly punish employees for not being in a union, create employee anger and possibly spark unionization efforts. Health insurance costs for Woodstock have risen 23 percent since 2008, according to Walker's budget presentation.
Walker, a Republican, is currently serving for his ninth year and receives a salary of $64,389. The stipend adds an additional $13,956 per year. Tax collector Linda Bernardi also receives the stipend in lieu of health coverage, which she receives through her husband, Mike Bernardi, the volunteer chairman of the Woodstock Board of Education.
The health stipend is part of Woodstock’s contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The stipend began in the 1990s and has grown through the years. The most recent contract with AFSCME was negotiated in 2013 by Walker. Although the contract applies to union members only, the town has traditionally offered the same benefits to non-union employees, according to DeCrescenzo’s written response. Walker said he is “absolutely” entitled to negotiate the contracts with the union even though he benefits from the agreement.
The board of finance members debated whether they had the authority to limit the amount of the stipend. Fortin, in a gesture of frustration, made a motion that the stipends be limited to $1,500 per year. The motion was defeated, three votes against, two in favor with one abstention. No one walked away satisfied with the events of the evening.
“It’s a great thing if you’re on the right side of the table,” Richardson said. “Not so great if you’re paying for it.”
This article originally reported a stipend increase of $5000. This was corrected to $3,200.