MABTON - During a special meeting held last Friday night, Mabton City Council members voted to extend insurance benefits for the dependents of police officers until the end of March.
But what should have been a five-minute meeting lasted for close to an hour, with several comments heard from Mabton residents, as well as the police officers themselves.
Student Resource Officer Mike Britton said, "I don't think it's right that these officers lose (insurance coverage for their families) at this time."
Mabton Councilwoman Vera Zavala said, "We didn't want to do this, but it's something we had to do because of the budget."
Officer Anthony Russell told council members that the insurance benefits compensate for the low pay he receives as a Mabton officer. "We do not get paid enough and that was a big component."
Russell did say that he understood the city's financial situation. "I think it's important. Whatever has to be done, has to be done. I would like it to be reasonable." He also added that he'd like council to consider re-instating insurance coverage for dependents in the future, during better budget years.
Councilman Mario Martinez explained that the city didn't want to cut benefits. But, he said, "Spending has been so out of control. It was well beyond what we budgeted (in the past) in several different departments."
Said Councilman Angel Reyna, "We were put in a squeeze."
Mabton officer Carl Ramirez expressed concern when he said, "We just don't want to have our children (not be covered)...If my daughter gets hurt or something happens, what do I do?"
Ramirez also expressed dissatisfaction at the fact that officers didn't get a chance to voice their opinions on the matter before it was announced there isn't enough money in city coffers to continue paying for the dependents' insurance premiums.
Britton said he wanted to know why the city is unclear about its finances. "Are we at the bottom?"
Martinez answered, "Right now, we're off by a million."
Mayor Velva Herrera said the city's finances aren't just off for one year, but more.
Following the Friday night meeting, Martinez clarified that the numbers may likely increase for the better once the city's books are straightened out.
Council members and department heads worked on the 2008 budget for close to three months. Because of the city's financial dire straights, the decision was made to eliminate coverage for officers' dependents.
But the officers weren't informed of the change. Because of that, Interim City Clerk Ret Stewart asked council to continue the coverage until the end of February.
By the end of February, the situation hadn't been resolved. Carol Wilmes, Employee Benefit Trust Program Coordinator for the Association of Washington Cities, attended the regularly scheduled Feb. 26 meeting to discuss possible options and talk about insurance coverage for the city's employees in general.
Insurance benefits have been extended until the end of this month. In the meantime, Wilmes will sit down in a group meeting with the officers to discuss how their families will be covered in the future.