Citizens Target Officials’ Bogus ‘Insurance Allowance’

April 8, 2014

Inside Insight

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insurance allowance

A LITTLE NOISE GOES A LONG WAY

So you think you cannot possibly make a difference in reining in out-of-control government?  Read on.

This is the story of how a couple of average taxpayers, with help from a small town newspaper editor, wrestled a city government and won – saving city taxpayers over $50,000 per year. It’s also a testament to the power of a free press.

My wife and I have resided in Abbeville, S.C., for nearly 20 years. It’s a great town, with many appealing features, but, alas, we had a governmental problem. For many years (no one in city government could ever say how many – records were “lost”) city council members had the option of accepting state health insurance, for which they would pay the employee share, or receiving a so-called insurance allowance of $6,500 per year, significantly more than their council salary of $5,209 per year.

I was smart enough to know that this was upside down. For several years, at budget time, I approached council about this sketchy-looking perk. Each year, it continued to be an ever-increasing line-item in the budget.

In a letter to the Abbeville Press and Banner on August 21, 2013, my wife joined the fray. She pointed out correctly that there was zero accountability for this allowance. If a council member chose, he/she could spend the entire amount on lottery tickets, for example.

Her letter started the ball rolling. Lamar West, editor of the weekly Press and Banner, contacted the S.C. Attorney General’s Office about the issue. The response was, to summarize colloquially, that this was a fishy practice, probably in violation of the state constitution.

City council members, including one who had received this bogus perk for over 20 years, tucked their tails between their legs and cowered. Well, it was good while it lasted.

At the September, 2013, meeting of the city council, a motion passed, unanimously, to eliminate the cash-in-lieu of insurance payment from the city’s 2014 budget. Long term councilman Spencer Sorrow said it was time for the editorials and letters to the editor to come to an end. Really? If the practice was legal and ethical, why did it take the average citizenry to abort it?

In fairness it should be stated that Abbeville Mayor Sarah Sherwood had expressed serious doubts about the handout. Her efforts to determine when this practice started were stymied by a lack of records going back that far.

So what was accomplished? Over $50,000 was saved in the 2014 budget. Of course, city officials will simply spend those funds elsewhere. Still, the point was made that taxpayers can stand up against an irresponsible government. And, as the Greenwood Index-Journal editorial of September 12, 2013, pointed out, “We still get the impression members of this and other councils are practically doing their level best to run contrary to more strict interpretations of the law regarding how they handle their finances.”

Well said. There is a lot more corrupt dubious spending out there at the school-district, city and county levels. But we have to start somewhere.

Editor’s Note: Steve Maxwell is a retired postal manager and retired U.S. Army staff sergeant, having served in various assignments in military intelligence. He earned a B.A. degree in English from Lander University and holds diplomas in both Hungarian and Russian language from the Defense Language Institute. Currently, he writes periodic opinion pieces for local newspapers.