Robey weighs partner benefits

Executive says he'll make decision within 90 days

Two issues remain

He seeks to rid loopholes, confirm rules for approval

Howard County

March 12, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As controversy over gay marriages swirls nationally, Howard County Executive James N. Robey is nearing a decision on a lower-profile issue -- whether to extend employment benefits to county workers in same-sex or unmarried life partnerships.

If he approves the move, Howard County will join Baltimore City and Montgomery County in offering those benefits, though it is more common among private businesses.

"Within 90 days, I will make a decision," Robey said this week, noting that "the fiscal impact is insignificant" because of the few employees likely to be affected.

The two issues remaining, Robey said, involve how to ensure the right people get the benefits and whether the change would require legislation or merely an executive order.

"How do we confirm that it's not just two friends trying to take advantage of the benefits the county will offer?" Robey said.

Nationally, nine states, the District of Columbia and 140 local governments and agencies, including the Prince George's County-based Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, offer health insurance for partners, according to Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit gay and lesbian rights group based in Washington.

Local employers such as the Rouse Co. also offer benefits. Howard Community College offers limited benefits, although that does not include health insurance because the college shares a policy with county government.

If Robey seeks legislation to offer partner benefits, he has majority support on the County Council, with only Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, solidly opposed.

Definition of partner

In Montgomery County, a domestic partnership is defined as a worker 18 or older, living in the same place with a partner for at least one year in a close, personal, caring relationship. They must not be related in any way that would bar marriage under other circumstances, and must share "sufficient financial and legal obligations."

Those include a signed, notarized Affidavit for Domestic Partnership and a joint housing lease or mortgage, joint ownership of a vehicle, joint checking or credit card accounts, designating partner as a beneficiary of insurance and retirement benefits or designation in a will, and designation of the partner for power of attorney in health care decisions for the employee.

The issue arose in the county during the 2002 election campaign at a candidates forum sponsored by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Republican executive candidate Steven H. Adler supported benefits for same-sex partners. Robey did not attend the forum, but he said the next day that he was "interested" in providing the benefits, which are offered by 211 Fortune 500 companies nationally, according to a survey last month by the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute based in Washington. A 2000 study by Hewitt Associates, a benefits management firm, found that, on average, 1.2 percent of eligible employees offered domestic partner benefits took them.

Only one county employee had requested benefits, Robey said at that time. Although the executive refused this week to say how many workers might be eligible now, PFLAG co-founder Colette Roberts guessed perhaps a half-dozen.

"Very few people are `out,' " Roberts said. "It's not going to be a financial impact." Her group has been working quietly to encourage Robey, a Democrat, and has also been working with County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. She is pleased that a decision is near, she said.

"That's great," Roberts said, noting that her group gave the county suggested language used by other businesses and governments to define domestic partner eligibility. Her group hasn't made a public fuss, she said, but hopes now to begin a dialogue with the county school board, too, to seek the benefits for school system workers.

`Good business sense'

All three County Council Democrats strongly support offering the benefits, and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman said he won't have a firm position until he sees details.

"I feel very strongly about it," said east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes, who used to sit on the community college's board of trustees. "It's a good program -- one needed more than a lot of people realize."

Guzzone argued that the benefits make "good business sense" because many private companies offer them and the county wants to keep good employees. Beyond that, "I believe in live and let live."

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman said, "I think it's the right thing and the fair thing to do."

But Merdon said he is opposed from a fiscal and a philosophical standpoint, noting the county's budget problems. In addition, he said, "I don't think it's appropriate for county government to be covering nonfamily members."

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