Niagara Gazette

October 12, 2012

Council asked to drop opt-out payments

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A city councilwoman who was criticized for receiving too much money for an insurance opt out earlier this year is now saying she’ll forego future payments and would like her council colleagues to do the same.

Councilwoman Kristin Grandinetti, who was cleared of wrongdoing in January after the Niagara County District’s Attorney’s Office reviewed an overpayment she received for opting out of the city’s health insurance program, has sponsored a resolution calling for the elimination of opt-out payments for all council members effective Jan. 1. 

In her resolution, Grandinetti cites the city’s “dire circumstances with regards to the 2013 budget” as the primary motivation for presenting the proposal. Her resolution calls on the council, “in the spirit of teamwork,” to approve the elimination of their opt-out payments, arguing that it will “generate a sizable savings for the city.”

The move comes as the city is grappling with severe financial constraints, largely due to a lack of incoming revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino. Mayor Paul Dyster postponed his 2013 budget presentation last week, citing a need for more time to put together a spending plan under what he has previously described as potentially devastating circumstances for city employees and taxpayers alike. 

“I think that it is symbolic to the community that we are willing to take a hit ourselves,” Grandinetti said Thursday, referring to her resolution. 

City workers, including council members, are able to “opt out” of the city’s health insurance plan. In doing so, they are allowed to receive “bonus” payments which are offered as incentives to reduce the number of enrollees and to cut overall insurance costs.

Grandinetti, a school teacher, receives her health insurance through the Niagara Falls School District. Earlier this year it was revealed she received nearly $10,000 for opting out of enrollment in the city’s family insurance plan when she should have received a payment of a little more than $3,500 as a single individual. 

The investigation by the district attorney’s office determined that the overpayment was made through no fault of Grandinetti’s but rather was due to a clerical error in the city’s human resources department. Violante said his office found no evidence of criminal conduct on Grandinetti’s part. She has since made arrangements to repay the difference between the bonus she received and the amount she was actually owed.

Grandinetti said her payment situation had nothing to do with her decision to submit the resolution and that it was a cost-cutting effort only. 

“We are trying to cut money,” she said. “I want to do something and I think this would be a no-brainer.” 

The resolution would impact Grandinetti and two other council members, Chairman Sam Fruscione and lawmaker Glenn Choolokian. In response to a Freedom of Information request from the Niagara Gazette, the city’s Equal Employment Office Coordinator Ruby Pulliam confirmed that Fruscione and Choolokian each received $9,713 for opting out of the city’s family health insurance and dental plan, while Grandinetti received $3,537 for opting out of single coverage. In total, Pulliam said the opt out costs for the council was $22,943. Pulliam confirmed that council members Charles Walker and Robert Anderson Jr. did not receive opt-out payments. 

Grandinetti’s resolution is scheduled to be brought up for consideration by the council during its meeting Monday. The council will hold an agenda review session at 4 p.m. followed by the regular council meeting at 7 p.m. Both meetings will be held in council chambers at City Hall, 745 Main St.