Health care benefits lead to changes and concern in Hainesport – Burlington County Times


HAINESPORT — Taxpayer-funded health benefits for Township Committee members continue to rile residents and has led to a shakeup in the governing body.

Longtime Committeemen William Boettcher III and Bruce MacLachlan have decided to resign from their posts, effective immediately.

Their decision to step down came after a majority of the committee approved a measure last month to stop extending health care benefits to elected officials beyond their public service.

With only three of the five members remaining, the Republican-controlled committee last week approved the appointment of Gerard Clauss, a former Board of Education member and current member of the Joint Land Use Board, to fill one seat. The other position is expected to be filled at the next committee meeting.

Clauss was sworn in just in time to hear an earful about what many residents think of the benefits package his colleagues receive.

Resident Mark Murdy said he previously cautioned the committee about the consequences of “taking this Cadillac health insurance program.

“A couple people told me, ‘Hey, whatever, get over it,’ ” Murdy said. “That hasn’t happened.”

The three current members had voted to end the practice of providing benefits beyond their service. Boettcher and MacLachlan voted against it. Mayor Michael Dickinson, Deputy Mayor Anthony Porto and Committeeman Michael Fitzpatrick will continue to receive health benefits for as long as they continue to serve. 

Murdy called on residents to vote if they want to stop paying for benefits for part-time committee members. None of the three councilmen is up for re-election this year.

“We’re spending approximately $30,000 apiece,” he said about the health benefits for the three committeemen, in addition to more than $5,000 apiece in annual salaries.

Township Administrator Leo Selb Jr. said a 2010 law entitled Dickinson, Porto and Fitzpatrick to medical benefits from the municipality.

“That was what was explained to me, and that was explained to the committee,” Selb said.

Some residents wondered why the number of hours worked each week by committee members aren’t being documented, but the mayor said there’s no way to track it.

“Why? We have to have our hours checked at work to make sure we get paid, and you’re getting all these benefits,” resident Mary McCleery said. “There should be a paper trail.”

While the majority of the crowd that attended the last two meetings voiced their displeasure with the committee’s recent actions, a couple of residents expressed support.

Brian Murphy praised the committee members for their service.

“I think these guys are trying to do their best,” Murphy said. “I don’t want to run (for office) and be (under) that scrutiny because, guess what, you’re going to get crap.”

Fitzpatrick appreciated the vote of confidence.

“I would like to thank a couple individuals who had the courage to actually speak and say what was on their mind,” he said. “This town has become rather divisive, and I’m kind of really embarrassed and upset to see what this town has become.”

He said he is friendly with many of the residents who have voiced their concerns about the health benefits.

“What have I done? What have we done that is so horribly wrong?” Fitzpatrick said. “What have we done as individuals that we deserve the abuse we get? It’s not right. It’s not fair to us. We do the best we can.

“Are we taking benefits? Yes, you know that. Is it right or wrong? That’s a difference of opinion. But you can’t dislike us for who we are. It’s politics, and it’s embarrassing that it’s gotten to that point.”

Porto welcomed Clauss to the committee and encouraged him to vote his conscience on municipal matters.

He also explained that he voted to eliminate the extended health care benefits as part of a cost-cutting measure.

“I just want to put this in perspective, that it didn’t sit well with me that at age 40 (and) 15 years of service on the committee, I would be entitled to lifetime health benefits at age 55,” Porto said. “My grandmother, she’s in her 90s, and I could be on the benefits for 30 or 40 years, and that’s something I brought forward to end that practice.”

“I’m glad the committee passed it,” he said. “No committeeman should have lifetime benefits. The costs are long-term prohibitive for the taxpayers in this town.”

Clauss, who is not eligible for the benefits, didn’t want to weigh in on the controversy. But the electrical contractor looks forward to serving and was glad to see residents at the meeting.

“I’m always extremely happy to see the public come out,” he said. “I always knew when I was on school board, when you saw a lot of the public come out, the public felt passionate and you got to listen to them.”

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