Several cities and states have struggled with the issue of offering benefits to unmarried domestic partners of their employees. The city of Lakewood could be the first in the state of Ohio to provide those benefits. But the measure is causing a lot of controversy among its residents. While both sides say the issue is unrelated to sexual orientation, the proposal is becoming polarized in that very direction. 90.3's Yolanda Perdomo reports.
YP- This issue has been lingering for two years----since the union representing police and its dispatch units approached the city of Lakewood about providing domestic benefits to life partners of straight and gay couples. After months of research, the proposal was introduced as legislation last February. Council member Michael Skindell is the cosponsor of the ordinance.
MS- You have some folks that are strongly for this. You have some folks that are strongly against it. You have a large group of people that are asking more questions to find out more what are the criteria.
YP- That includes the actual expense, and how a domestic partnership is defined. Skindell says the cost would be anywhere from $16 to $35,000 a year to provide the benefits. Those applying would sign an affidavit stating they've been in a long term relationship. They also have to show utility or other types of bills as proof they're cohabiting. It's estimated that only 1 or 2 percent of city employees would take advantage of it.
Nancy Roth says giving health care and bereavement benefits would make Lakewood more attractive to job hunters. Roth, the vice president of city council is the proposal's co-author.
MS- One of the jobs we've had trouble filling has been in our computer area. We've upgraded our computers a lot and the people that we hire get hired away at high salaries or different benefits packages...we'd like to expand that labor pool, the people that we'd have to select from.
YP- But not everyone thinks that should come in the form of allowing those who are unmarried to get benefits usually reserved for married couples. At the last committee meeting on the issue, Lakewood resident Steven Tax says he would consider moving out of the city if benefits are given to gay or straight couples.
MS- For those who decide to shake up and live together whether it be those that are heterosexuals and those of the gays and the lesbian movements, I'm just completely opposed to that. I believe that the benefits go to the families. There's just no reason why extra money should be paid from our taxes.
YP- Lakewood resident Monica Sharma is also against it, but she says it has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but more to do with how her tax dollars are spent.
MS- My biggest concern is that it was going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money in the long run. Whether it's through legal fees or having to pay for benefits....the issue is what it's going to be costing the tax payers. There are a lot of different types of lifestyles in the city of Lakewood. And people's private business is just that, their private business. But this is matter of public record, a matter taxpayers for people who want benefits.
YP- But at the meeting, the arguments were polarized into two political camps-- those wanting benefits for partners of gays and lesbians, and those who believe the legislation would be a slap in the face to traditional marriages and families. For Revered Bob Stroman, it's an issue based on equality. He's a minister for the United Church of Christ.
MS- There are some who are apparently for more reasons they feel are opposed to providing any benefits to heterosexual couples who are not officially married. I assume they would say that's their moral stance. People getting any benefits unless they get married. I think that's somewhat narrow minded. And I feel that gay and lesbian people needed to be treated equally and fairly and their families should also be protected.
YP- John Farina agrees. While he doesn't think it should be tagged as a gay or straight issue, he does feel that giving benefits to those employees with unmarried partners is a fair proposal.
MS- It comes down to a lot of people are going to bring in their moralities and their personal opinions and try to sway a vote on something they have a personal problem with when it doesn't really affect them. If 5 city or 6 city or 10 city employees take advantage of these benefits, it doesn't really affect them in the long run. It doesn't really affect me in the long run. I'm not a city employee.
YP- Right now, more than 2800 government agencies and companies, as well as colleges and universities offer domestic partners benefits. Last year in Columbus, a similar proposal was passed by the city council, only be to be rescinded because of public pressure. If it doesn't pass in the Lakewood city council, it may resurface as a referendum. While some of those opposing the measure are all for a public vote, those who support it fear it would fail. Again, Lakewood council member Michael Skindell.
MS- When you're talking about putting on a referendum equalizing rights of a discriminated population, there's never a fair referendum. And that's a concern that we have to address. If you put a referendum when rights were given to African American community, there may not have been a fair shake on those referendums.
YP- The city of Lakewood would be the first in the state to provide benefits to gay couples and straight partners who are not married. But it is not the first Ohio city to face controversy over gay and lesbian unions. Now the state legislature will hear a bill by two lawmakers that would ban same sex marriages altogether in Ohio. They plan to introduce their proposal next week. Next Monday, the Lakewood city council will hold another public hearing on benefits for domestic partners.