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City Kills Plan to Offer Benefits to Non-Traditional Families : Gay rights: The overburdened budget was cited as barrier to council approval. Proponents said they lacked time to rally forces before the 5-3 vote.


LONG BEACH — The City Council has killed a proposal to extend family health benefits to city employees in domestic partnerships, including gay and lesbian relationships, citing the potential costs to taxpayers.

The 5-3 vote on Tuesday came three months after the City Council approved a "statement on family" that recognized non-traditional families such as unmarried or gay and lesbian couples.

Gay and lesbian activists said they had hoped the statement would open the door for such couples to receive the benefits reserved for traditional families, and that Long Beach would become a model employer.

But this week, the council majority said the cost of extending health and other benefits to non-traditional households would be too high for a city that already plans to spend nearly $7 million in reserves in the coming fiscal year.

The cost of extending benefits for domestic partnerships was not known, officials said. The city contributes about $400 a month for health, dental and life insurance coverage for each of its 4,300 full-time employees. The amount would increase if more dependents were added.

"If we keep expanding insurance coverage, where will the money come from?" Councilman Douglas S. Drummond asked.

However, Councilman Alan S. Lowenthal, who voted with the minority, said the city should have determined the cost of extending the benefits before burying the proposal.

"Philosophically, I'm supportive of it," Lowenthal said.

He said he would introduce other proposals to benefit city employees in domestic partnerships, including bereavement leave, which is now limited to traditional families.

More than 100 people, many of them from local churches, attended Tuesday's council meeting to oppose extending benefits. While unmarried, heterosexual couples would have benefited from the proposal, it was apparent that most of the opposition was sparked by the prospect of extending benefits to gays and lesbians.

"I believe by them extending insurance benefits to domestic partnerships, they take one step closer to the legitimization of same-sex marriages," the Rev. Mark Chappell of the First Baptist Church of Long Beach said after the meeting. "I see it as part of a movement of acceptance of that lifestyle."

Chappell said he urged his parishioners during services Sunday to attend the council meeting. He said about 90 attended.

Gay activists said they were disappointed by the vote but glad the issue was aired.

"I don't think you'll see the issue go away," said Paul Self, president of the predominantly gay Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club. "It may take a little bit of the back seat for a while, but it will come up again."

The proposal was one of 63 recommendations in the Human Relations Commission's report regarding strengthening family relationships in Long Beach. The City Council has approved some of the recommendations in recent months. The statement on family, approved by the City Council on March 2, was one of those recommendations.

There was virtually no debate on whether to extend the employee benefits, but council members argued for more than an hour about whether they should decide the issue Tuesday.

The proposal was considered in April by the council's Neighborhoods and Housing Committee, which is composed of Lowenthal, Drummond and Doris Topsy-Elvord.

On a 2-1 vote, the committee decided to send the proposal to the City Council with the recommendation that it be received and filed--that is, killed. Lowenthal dissented, saying the city should first study the costs.

Lowenthal, the chairman of the committee, wanted the City Council to wait to consider the proposal as part of a package with other recommendations from the Human Relations Commission.

But Drummond broke with the tradition of deferring to the chairman and put the matter before the council.

Drummond accused Lowenthal of stalling because he lost the committee vote. Lowenthal denied the allegation, saying he wanted to present the recommendation, along with others, in an orderly manner.

Supporters of the proposal said they were caught off guard and did not have time to rally forces at Tuesday's council meeting. Only a handful of supporters were present.

Council members Evan Anderson Braude and Warren Harwood voted with Lowenthal.

Braude said he also wanted to look at the costs of providing benefits to employees in domestic partnerships. "I tend to favor that," he said.

Harwood said he favors a city policy that would bestow some benefits on domestic partnerships, saying it would provide "flexibility without endorsing a lifestyle."

Tuesday's proposal would have affected only city employees, but activists on both sides of the issue saw it as a litmus test.

Gay and lesbian activists would like to see the City Council officially recognize the domestic partnerships between gay and lesbian couples as San Francisco does.

Although such recognition carries no legal benefits or obligations, it could help gays and lesbians obtain privileges sometimes restricted to traditional families. Some hospitals, for example, allow only family members to visit critically ill patients.

Chappell said he and his supporters will try to ensure that such recognition does not occur, calling homosexual partnerships immoral.

Over the years, the City Council has extended other rights to gays and lesbians, who account for an estimated 15% of the city's population. In 1987, it passed an ordinance that prohibits employers from discriminating against gay and lesbian workers.

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