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Commissioners approve same-sex insurance benefits

Published:   |   Updated: June 4, 2014 at 11:01 AM

— Elwell argued both sides of the issue over the past two weeks: should the commissioners allow a gay employee to add his spouse to his Florida Blue insurance policy.

The issue s Don urfaced last month when Clerk of Courts Bob Germaine refused to pay the insurance bill because he believed Highlands County does not offer same-sex spousal coverage.

“This is the hardest single topic we’ve handled in the last four years,” Elwell said. “It can be framed in interpretations of the Bible, the Florida Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, social ramifications, finances, the law ...”

“I knew we would be asked to put on our big-boy pants,” Elwell said, a reference to Germaine’s quote that the commissioners must decide the issue.

Several Bible verses could apply, Elwell said, and many refer to a marriage being between one man and one woman. But the Bible also instructs Christians to love their neighbors.

“I will make a lot of decisions that will be unpopular,” Elwell said. “I’m up for re-election this year, and I don’t care if I win or lose. I care if I can sleep well, if I can look in the mirror and be proud of what I see.”

“I think it’s an issue of marriage,” said Chairman Greg Harris, whose day job is the YMCA director. “God mandated that it’s between a man and a woman, and I believe that strongly.”

He passed the gavel to vice chairman Ron Handley to move that the commissioners should define marriage the same way.

Commissioner Jack Richie voted against Harris’ motion, which failed 1-4, but then moved to notify Florida Blue to opt out of same-sex coverage, citing his oath of office to follow the Florida Constitution.

Brooks voted no. “I was raised in the church all my life, but that’s not the issue that we’re here for today.”

The auditorium was nearly full, and the audience made it clear it was against same-sex spousal coverage.

“You all had a chance to talk, this is mine,” Brooks continued. “Not one of you out here is going to judge me. I ask that you respect my opinion.”

Handley, who chaired the insurance committee last money, agreed with Brooks. “I don’t see the need to put it on the agenda. It’s already been decided by the insurance company.”

Florida Blue Cross and Blue Shield decided last year that it would offer same-sex spousal coverage, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, but failed to notify policyholders, said County Attorney Ross Macbeth. “We find no record that we received such a letter.”

After the Supreme Court ruled, County Administrator June Fisher said one employee decided to ask if he could insure his spouse. The county does not pay for spousal coverage and employees bear the full cost, commissioners were told.

“If the board does not wish to make a change, you don’t need to do anything at all,” Macbeth said. “Coverage is in effect. We do need to inform our employees, administratively. If the board wants to change the plan, you would need to take action.”

Germaine, Tax Collector Eric Zwayer, Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre and Elections Supervisor Penny Ogg all framed the issue within religious parameters, as did many audience members.

Tea Party chairman Jack Nelson said Highlands County citizens voted 77 percent for the Florida constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. “Stick to the law. If you open up insurance coverage, that means you have to open it up to every boyfriend and girlfriend.”

“This is a stand we have to take for the purpose of liberty,” said Dale Pflug.

“I did everything I could to get everyone stirred up and down there,” said former Avon Park City Councilman George Hall, who is a minister. “I’m disappointed there’s not more here.”

Only two people spoke for same-sex spousal coverage. “What I’m seeing is society is evolving,” Ben Dunn said. “I don’t think it makes the country worse; I think that makes the county stronger.”

“I can’t believe that you’re using God to say that one person is not equal to other people,” said Suzanne Sills. “They have no rights, is that what you’re saying?”

With the vote, other gay county and constitutional officer employees will be able to enroll their spouses.

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Dick Miller, president of Sun ’n Lake board of supervisors, said the district is still waiting for a new fire department to be built.

The issue, said Handley, is that Florida Hospital has offered the land but wants it back in 50 years, along with the county’s building.

“So we’re looking for another place,” Handley said.

“It’s a 50-year lease,” Miller said. “It’s not like you turn around and it’s gone.”

“We have met with your manager,” said Fisher. “We’re looking for property on the frontage road.”

“Trust me, we have countless pieces of property in Sun ’n Lake,” Miller said. “We can easily find property on that frontage road.”

Larry Stiney, president of the SNL property owners association, wanted county commissioners to change the SNL board membership to all-popularly voted membership. Currently, two are elected by landowners.

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Harris explained why he pulled recycling from the agenda. “Apparently, we didn’t understand the financial ramifications.”

Commissioners agreed to take up recycling again after Progressive Waste Solutions, the current garbage hauler, decides whether to extend the contract another five years.

In other action:

♦ Human Resources Manager Melissa Bruns’ request to modify a job description and upgrade a position upgrade to human resources coordinator was accepted, 4-1.

♦ County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete congratulated Solid Waste Cashier Marjorie Caswell for 15 years.

♦ Ogg informed the commissioners of several voting precinct boundary changes. The biggest one: Restoration Center can’t be used, and that precinct will split. Most will vote in the Harder Hall area, the rest at Lake Josephine.