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A prolonged fight over $12,000 in uncollected insurance contributions from La Grange city employees has seemingly run its course.
After an hour of discussion, the La Grange City Council voted 5-4 against a committee proposal to authorize reclamation of the missing payments from the checks of city employees, with Mayor Bill Lammlein breaking a tie on the council.
“It’s over, I made the deciding vote tonight. It is over,” Lammlein said after the vote. “They wanted me to do something that I can’t do. I can’t take money out of people’s checks without a court order to do that.”
At issue is $12,000 in payments city employees should have been making toward their health insurance after an ordinance was passed in September 2012 increasing employee contributions from five percent to ten percent.
Reducing the city’s share from 95 percent to 90 percent was projected to originally save the city $30,000.
But in August, it was revealed the city had not been collecting the extra percentage from employees due to an oversight in accounting procedures.
Lammlein has accepted the blame for the oversight and the $12,000 debt. The city is now collecting the full 10 percent from employees, he’s previously said.
An ad-hoc committee of four council members had spent a month on the issue, before voting 3-1 to authorize the city to collect the money from city employees’ paychecks over a period of 12 months.
But Lammlein stifled the proposal as soon as it was offered for a vote by committee chair Jason Taylor to the full council, saying he would not take money out of city employees’ checks and would veto any action the council took to that effect.
“I believe it’s probably illegal for us to take something out of anyone’s check without a garnishment,” Lammlein told the council. “It’s my decision to have this repaid and I said I would not be taking anything out of anyone’s check.”
After debate on whether it was right or wrong for the mayor to take such action, councilman Tad Humble offered a motion to forgive the $12,000 debt.
That proposal failed 5-3, with council members Taylor, Lee Phillips, Tom Goldsmith, Jean Knight and Melanie Woosley voting against the proposal.
Supporters of forgiving the debt argued collection would unfairly burden some employees more than others. Councilwoman Debbie Pollard said the repayment per month could be $40 or more for some employees.
“For some people that’s a hardship,” she said.
Even those who voted not to forgive the debt wished there was another way around the issue.
“I would love to forgive it,” Knight said. “But people would be all over it. I would love to say they don’t have to pay anything back but we’re trying to get this resolved.”
After Lammlein repeated his stance to veto any such collection measure, the council then debated the legality of such a move with city attorney Steve Emery.
Emery said he believed the council would have to authorize him to take legal action to recoup the money, not pass a resolution for the mayor to do so. He said the committee action didn’t spell out enough details to do so.
That opinion led some who voted not to forgive the debt to change their minds when it came to reclamation.
Both Goldsmith and Knight, who voted against forgiving the debt, publicly announced they weren’t in favor of a lawsuit to get the money.
“I don’t want to go to court over this,” Goldsmith said.
Others said it wouldn’t be worthwhile to litigate the issue.
“It’s ridiculous we’re sitting here arguing about this and to pursue a lawsuit when that’s going to cost more than $12,000 anyway,” Pollard said.
The council then split 4-4 on Taylor’s motion to authorize collection, leading Lammlein to cast his first tiebreaking vote in years. He voted against the proposal, effectively killing collection efforts.
Voting for reclamation were council members Taylor, Phillips, Woosley and Knight. Voting against were Humble, Goldsmith, Davenport and Pollard.
“What sense does it make to spend $10,000 dollars to collect $12,000 and piss a lot of people off? Now, obviously tonight I probably pissed off a lot of taxpayers,” Lammlein said after the vote. “Again, it’s my job to represent the people who work here, not just the taxpayers. And it’s been my opinion if we treat our employees like that everyone will suffer.”
Lammlein said he knew of at least one city employee who would quit if the city tried to collect the insurance contributions in future checks, which would cost the city even more to train a replacement.
“Yes there was a mistake made, the buck stops at my desk but I’m not going to go back and punish these employees,” Lammlein said.
But the issue may not be settled, since two votes were taken, Taylor said.
“It was interesting because there were two different votes,” Taylor said after the vote. “The council voted not to forgive the amount but also voted not to pursue it. So it does leave it a little in limbo.”
Taylor and others argued that taxpayers were owed those missing dollars since they pay for the city budget. But Lammlein repeatedly said he would not take money out of future paychecks to make up for the mistake.
With the council taking a vote to not authorize collection, Taylor said it’s back to square one for those efforts.
“It’s somewhat in limbo but the committee has not talked about or I have not thought about other options,” Taylor said. “If there are other options I’d love to hear them because the taxpayers are owed that money.”
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