Tupelo workers: Too many perks?

TUPELO – The perks of being a city of Tupelo employee are good, but not extravagant, according to an annual survey of Mississippi municipal benefits.
Despite claims by some City Council members that Tupelo’s benefits package is “too rich,” the survey shows the city’s plan is in line with those offered by other communities of roughly the same size.
Tupelo spends about $5.3 million annually on employee perks for its nearly 480 full-time workers.
That includes health insurance and life insurance fully paid by the city, 10-20 days paid vacation annually depending on tenure, 12 days paid sick leave a year, 10 annual paid holidays, and a retirement package where the city matches 12 percent of employee costs.
Fire Department employees have more paid vacations – 37 days annually after 15 years of tenure – because of their different work schedule.
The city’s plan is comparable to those offered by most large cities in the state, according to Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government 2009 Municipal Salary and Benefits Survey.
Some municipalities, like Biloxi, offer even more generous options – like 100 percent employer-paid health insurance for spouses that includes dental and vision plans. The Gulf Coast city also gives employees three weeks of paid vacation after one year and four weeks after 10 years.
Biloxi spends about $10 million annually on personnel perks.
Still, some Tupelo officials want the municipality to reduce benefits as a cost savings to taxpayers.
“It’s a very rich package,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington. “I’ve never heard of vacations and sick benefits being able to roll over from year to year. You could accumulate those days and, at the end of your tenure, you could retire a year early and continue to get those benefits.”
Whittington also criticized the city’s full coverage of employee health insurance as well as its 12 percent retirement match.
“We want our benefits to be good,” he said, “but not so good that it breaks the city.”
Joined in his call for reduced personnel costs were Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell and Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan. All cited those costs when voting against the city’s $32.7 million general fund budget, which went into effect Oct. 1.
Tupelo has no choice in its retirement match, said the city’s human resources director, Cassandra Moore. It’s set by the state’s Public Employees Retirement System, which also mandates that employees contribute 9 percent.
And the city did, in fact, trim one of its employee benefits this year. Starting this month, Tupelo no longer offers long-term disability insurance, which it previously had paid at 100 percent.
City employee Renee Autumn Ray termed Tupelo’s benefits as “fair” compared to the private firms and the one other municipality for which she previously has worked.
“I kind of view them as middle of the road,” said Ray, a senior planner in the Department of Development Services. “I worked for a consulting firm that had incredible benefits – it was cream of the crop insurance. But I’ve had other private-sector jobs where you didn’t get any benefits at all. Only having worked for one other city, it’s pretty close” to what Tupelo offers.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal