BENTON — A local version of the national health care debate played out in a big way at Saturday’s Town Meeting as residents argued for more than two hours about whether to raise $75,000 so three Town Office staff members will be covered by health insurance.

The town had not offered the staff health insurance before, and some officials noted that surrounding towns offer it. To stay competitive and keep good employees who are trained and certified, it is important to offer health benefits, they said.

About 50 people turned out for the 3.5-hour meeting, held at the Benton Grange Hall. They passed all but one item on the 92-article warrant and approved a budget of about $600,000.

Rick Lawrence, who retired this week as the town’s treasurer and tax collector and has held a selectman’s post and other positions in the town for many years, supported the idea of offering two full-time and one part-time worker health benefits. Before the meeting, he said the staff has been working hard, and though the town appropriated $83,000 for office personnel for the past year, only $74,178 of that budget was spent.

“We’ve never been in better shape as a town as for how the office is run and the quality of people working there,” he said.

However, several residents balked at the idea, saying they did not think it appropriate for the town to pay 100 percent of the health insurance premiums for the employees — that they should pitch in part of their paychecks.

Several people stood to say they have to pay a lot of money for their health insurance, so the Town Office workers should, too. Some said the packages are not just for the employees but also for their families, and they recommended the proposed packages be cut back to include just a single person.

The health care packages recommended for the three staff members would come from Maine Municipal Employees Health Trust. Several residents stood to suggest the packages offered be of less quality so it would cost the town less money, even though Lawrence said the recommended packages were middle-of-the-road. Several residents also suggested the town employees pay so much per week for insurance to reduce the amount the town would have to raise, but at least one Town Office worker said she makes only $25,000 a year and cannot afford to pay $125 a week from her paycheck for insurance.

Resident Audry Lee called the Maine Municipal insurance package a “Cadillac” plan and insisted the employees pitch in money if they want to have it.

When it looked as though the request might be quashed, Selectwoman Robin Cyr proposed reducing the $75,000 to $60,000 and allowing selectmen to research the health care packages offered and decide appropriate ones for office staff.

“Let us go back and get what is best for the employees,” Cyr urged.

Lee wouldn’t budge. She said she has had cancer herself, has had to pay for a portion of her premium, and others should also.

“But the employees need to help us,” Lee said. “Sorry — nothing in life is free. … I mean, we don’t get free health insurance. Everyone has a premium. Why can’t you help us out?”

As amendments were proposed and shot down, meeting moderator David Bernier, a Waterville lawyer, was forced several times to tap his gavel on the podium, ask for order and request that attendees stop holding multiple debates in the room. Resident Allan Fuller stood and uttered an assessment of the situation, which seemed to mimic heated debates people are holding all over the U.S. on the health care issue.

“I think this is a good example of fighting (over) the crumbs that Washington gives us,” Fuller said. “I think we need national health care.”

Like Lawrence, Budget Committee member Dwight Lanning urged residents to approve the health insurance request, reiterating that it is important to retain good-quality employees and it is the right thing to do. He disputed claims that the insurance plan requested is a Cadillac plan, saying it is actually reasonable and it’s members of Congress who are getting the Cadillac.

“The rest of us are getting crap, …” he said, adding that Canadians have a national health plan and the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t take care of people, even though it is one of the richest countries on Earth.

By a show of hands, residents approved Cyr’s recommendation to appropriate $60,000 to allow selectmen to find the best packages possible for the three town employees.

After that vote, about half of the 50 people who attended the meeting left.

In other matters, residents voted to approve a request to spend $11,000 to develop a conceptual design of a fish harvesting facility near the Benton Falls fish lift, which would be installed to make harvesting of river herring easier and more effective. Lawrence, who also is the town’s alewife warden, had recommended approval.

In the municipal election Friday, Patterson, the selectwoman, was re-elected, as was Road Commissioner Leroy Littlefield. Sarah Kate Flood-Gerow was re-elected by write-in votes to the School Administrative District 49 board of directors. Flood-Gerow had filled the SAD 49 seat that became vacant when longtime board member Harry Fitzpatrick died last May. Fitzpatrick’s photo appears on the cover of this year’s town report, which says he was on the school board 18 years and served as the town’s Cemetery Committee chairman for 18 years.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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