A Small, Good Step Toward a More Perfect Lakeland

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A family from a 2008 Chicago Equality rally

I want to thank the Lakeland City Commission for its respectful and serious attention to my request yesterday to consider same sex/domestic partner benefits. On behalf of the 10 or so people who attended in support, and everyone else who has emailed support or “liked” the idea in the last few days, I want to say we’re very pleased with the outcome.

We look forward to a timely workshop that lays out options. Five of the seven commissioners clearly expressed a willingness to consider the merits of a plan. I think that speaks very well of this city. But I’m not nearly as surprised as a number of other people. This is a reasonable place. Inertia is powerful, and sometimes you just need to ask.

I also want to thank Howard Wiggs for his honesty and forthrightness in declaring that he couldn’t support any form of a plan. Clarity is very helpful. But frankly, I haven’t given up on Commissioner Wiggs or Commissioner Phillip Walker, who also expressed great skepticism about the idea.

The challenge now is to keep the issue in front of commissioners. I may have been a little annoying with my gentle insistence on a fairly clear timeline. I did that because I know how institutions of all kinds work. It can be very easy to let a potential change languish in study mode, not because of malicious intent or laziness, because there are other pressing demands and time is limited. So I’m willing to be the squeaky wheel. I hope we’ll have a workshop by around April 15. I guess that’s my internal target date for time agitation.

The three key issues that we’ll need to resolve are identifying couples, the implications for heterosexual couples, and the cost. But these aren’t new questions. Other governments have already dealt with them. And with that in mind, I’d urge commissioners and everyone else to peruse this story from the Orlando Sentinel. It’s a year old, but it provides a good roundup of the universally minimal budget and administrative impact on other local governments, particularly Orlando, Tallahassee, and Sarasota County.

Here are a couple of key excerpts:

Some Florida local governments and agencies offer domestic-partner benefits to male-female and same-sex partners, but Orlando offers the benefit only to gay employees. The reasoning is that heterosexual workers can legally marry their partners, while gays cannot.

But few Orlando employees have taken advantage of the benefit, and the financial impact on the city has been relatively minor. Records show that in 2010, domestic partners were covered under just seven employees’ medical insurance, at a cost of $17,291. Two other retired employees included domestic partners on their policies, but the city does not contribute to dependents’ premiums for retirees, so there was no extra cost to the city.

Here’s another:

In Sarasota County, nine employees have domestic-partner health benefits, all of them opposite-sex couples, an official said. In 2008, when county leaders considered adopting the new policy, four times that many were expected to apply. Exact totals were unavailable, but the cost to county taxpayers is about $30,000, an official said.

This gives you a sense of the real world experience. Go read the whole article. My personal preference is probably the Orlando model of same sex only benefits for the same reasoning stated in the article. But heterosexual domestic partner benefits are not a deal breaker for me if that’s what it takes to get a policy approved.

And in terms of cost, I think it’s important to remember that in the last two weeks that our city created an $80,000 per year part-time position for a liaison to the Detroit Tigers and took a $368,000 loss on the sale of the Wesley Memorial Church to Parker Street Ministries. We did that, as a city, because the Tigers and the work of Parker Street Ministries are important to us. (Still meaning to write a thing about how impressive Tim Mitchell is. I’ll get around to it eventually.)

A budget expresses a community’s priorities and values. I would argue that Lakeland’s core value as a city is its dedication to quality of life for families. The Tigers and Parker Street reflect that. Benefit equality, which is likely to cost $20,000 or less, is also a highly cost effective way to honor our city’s values.

And finally, I have been known to throw the occasional dart at our local leadership organizations. Today, I’m coming to Leadership Lakeland, the Chamber, and Emerge — which, I realize, are all sort of related — with hat in hand.

I would guess that the people of Emerge and at least the more recent Leadership Lakeland classes largely support this idea. And it’s time for our next generation of leaders to assert themselves a bit. How about offering a resolution of support at your next meeting Emerge? Or putting out the question to your members, Leadership Lakeland Class of 2011 or 2010?

Individually, I urge anyone who supports this to let all the commissioners and city manager know. And thank them for their serious consideration. Just because I consider this an obvious vote doesn’t mean they do. And I put them on the spot, which is uncomfortable. I thought they behaved pretty admirably. Go thank them. Reward good behavior.

You can find their email addresses here. The five minutes you invest might be the note that finally makes the difference.

Anyway, we’re on the move. We’re going to stay on the move. I’m excited. Come get on board.


Creative Commons License image credit: Fausto Fernos