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Small town divided over big healthcare stipends

A finance board meeting Tuesday in small-town Woodstock, Conn., grew contentious as members criticized other town officials for offering employees large health insurance stipends – only to end up receiving the stipends themselves.

Board of Finance Vice Chairman Michael Dougherty said the stipend battle is “causing a lot of hate and discontent that’s totally unnecessary.”

The town’s labor contract gives employees who opt out of the town health insurance plan a stipend worth nearly $14,000 toward purchase of their own insurance. While some other towns offer similar stipends, Woodstock’s stipend is much higher.

The stipend costs the town of Woodstock almost $98,000 annually. Employees who receive the stipend must provide documentation that they have healthcare insurance through another source, such as a spouse.

First Selectman Alan D. Walker negotiated an increase in the amount of the stipend in 2013 but also receives the benefit.

The stipends have been contentious since they were found by David Richardson, a board of finance alternate member, who noticed the town’s healthcare costs were unusually high. The stipends were lumped in with health insurance costs in a single line item. After uncovering the payments, Richardson brought them to the board’s attention last year.

The meeting Tuesday became heated when the board allowed the public to speak. Preston Shultz urged the board not to fund the stipends even though the board members are politically connected to some of the town officials who get the payment.

“These are also the people that are on the candidate nominating committees that are picking the candidates,” Shultz said. “These are also the people that like to pick on people who ask too many questions.”

Selectman Chandler Paquette accused Shultz of pushing a “conspiracy theory.”

Critics accused First Selectman Walker of violating the town’s ethics code, which says “a public employee or public official shall refrain from voting upon or otherwise participating in any manner on behalf of the municipality is s/he, a business with which s/he is associated, an individual with which s/he is associated, or member of his or her immediate family has a financial or personal interest in the transaction or contract.”

Paquette countered that state statute gives the first selectman authority to negotiate union contracts.

Shultz said that the first selectman should have recused himself.

“Or else, why have an ethics agreement at all,” Shultz said.

The board of finance voted unanimously to draft a letter to the board of selectmen recommending renegotiation of the stipend when the union contract is renewed in July of 2017. The Woodstock Board of Selectmen has three members, two of whom were in attendance. Walker did not attend.

Dougherty said that ultimately the decision rests with the voters. “The taxpayers vote on the budget, they’re the ones that approve it or reject it. And I think it’s the responsibility of the taxpayers and us to understand what is going on in the budget.”

Schulz says it is difficult for the townspeople to know what’s going on when the board of finance doesn’t even know. “This is a one-party town. It’s all GOP and we don’t have a newspaper or anyone who wants to cover what goes on here. How are people supposed to know?”

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