Mayor Seeks Enforcement of Court Order to Ensure Employee Health Benefits Planning Commissioner Chantelle Okarter
MOUNT VERNON, NY — May 5, 2018 —Repeated refusal by Mount Vernon’s Comptroller to pay employee health-care benefits is forcing Mayor Richard Thomas back to court to seek enforcement of a July 2017 injunction prohibiting interference by the Comptroller and City Council with the mayor’s ability to pay his staff.
The situation boiled over yesterday’s when Planning Commissioner Chantelle Okarter submitted her resignation effective May 14, unless the city starts paying for her family health care benefits before then.
“The contention that the City’s Planning Commissioner is not a City employee, and, therefore not entitled to receive health benefits is not only preposterous but contrary to the City Charter,” Okarter said in her May 4th resignation letter, noting that she has an 18-month old daughter who requires healthcare coverage. “Moreover, it is my understanding that I am the only Commissioner that has been refused health insurance. As the only female Commissioner, this level of treatment serves as a basis for discriminatory conduct and disparate treatment.”
The Comptroller has taken the position that because Okarter’s salary is not fully paid by the city, she does not qualify for the city’s health care coverage. This contention has been refuted by the City Council and Corporation Counsel.
A portion of her $108,171 salary – 66 percent – is funded with federal funds that come to the city through its Urban Renewal Agency, where she serves as executive director. The remaining 34 percent comes directly from the city’s budget.
Mayor Thomas said numerous attempts to reason with the Comptroller had failed. In fact, the City Council and Board of Estimate have passed legislation to clear the way for the Comptroller to pay Commissioner Okarter her health care benefits. But unless the Comptroller changes her position, the city will move to enforce the injunction, which prohibits “disrupting, obstructing or interfering with [the Mayor’s] employment obligations.”
“In Mount Vernon, employees have a right to health care and the city has an obligation to provide it,” said Mayor Thomas. “This callous refusal by the Comptroller to honor our basic social contract with employees is financially cruel and morally wrong. To have to sue to get our employees their health care coverage, which they are entitled to, is unconscionable.”
The Comptroller has taken a similar stand with staff members who are paid through the city’s Industrial Development Agency, which is a public benefit corporation that works on the city’s behalf and whose chairman is the mayor.
The IDA has said it would reimburse the city for its costs of covering IDA employees under the city’s policy. But, the Comptroller has taken the position that IDA must get its own insurance, which doesn’t make sense since the cost would be far higher and would still effectively fall on Mount Vernon taxpayers.
The health care coverage is only part of the problem. Budgets passed by the City Council since Mayor Thomas took office have left dozens of positions – mandated by the charter and essential to operating of the city – with no funding. In the 2018 budget, 80 positions have zero funding.
To fill the gaps, Mayor Thomas has taken a number of steps to maintain the delivery of services, which have included supplementing city funds with grants, giving managers additional responsibilities, and tapping the city’s Industrial Development Agency for help.
In the case of the IDA, it hired consultants to make up for unfunded positions in the Buildings Department. This allowed the Buildings Department to clear a backlog of permits, which are a major source of revenue for the city.
“This kind of help is not sustainable year after year,” Mayor Thomas said. “It’s time to return the city to normalcy. The City Council and Comptroller owe it to the residents of Mount Vernon to give our departments the money they need to get the job done. No good can come of not adequately paying for services.”
As part of his effort to return the Buildings Department to normal, Mayor Thomas announced that he was naming Curtis Woods as the city’s engineer. Woods had been doing double duty, serving as the commissioner of the Buildings Department and as the city’s only engineer.
“There is just too much work for one person to handle,” Mayor Thomas said. “Mount Vernon needs the roles of commissioner and engineer to be separate.”
Mayor Thomas said he expects to announce a new Buildings commissioner shortly and was sending legislation to the City Council to fund the role of engineer.
“The city must have an engineer and the City Council must pay for it,” Mayor Thomas said. “Otherwise the work of the people won’t get done. It’s time for all the branches of government to come together to fund the critical jobs we need to run our city and to guarantee all of our workers have health care.”