Thursday, December 22, 2005

Laurel Hester's Wonderful Life, Part Two

(Link) This is the second part of our three part series about Laurel Hester, the woman whose terminal cancer has embroiled her in a domestic partnership benefits controversy with the local government in Ocean County, New Jersey.

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LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By Michael Jensen
The Big Gay Picture

Part Two: The Five Grinches of Ocean County

A year ago, Laurel Hester learned she had terminal lung cancer. You can hear it in her voice when she speaks. She talks softly, almost in a whisper, taking long pauses between sentences to marshal her strength.

Thanks to a recent change in New Jersey state law, counties in that state have the ability to grant their employees domestic partner benefits. Ocean County, long a Republican stronghold, did not do so.

After learning her cancer was terminal, Laurel, assisted by her former co-worker, Dane Wells, approached her supervisors about changing the county rules so she could leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree. Without it, Laurel fears Stacie will lose their home in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.

About the reaction of her supervisors, Laurel says, "It wasn't that I expected them to react badly. I just didn't expect it [their reaction] to be so good. I haven't had one single bad experience with them."

Her supervisors and co-workers may have been supportive, but the decision to offer domestic partner benefits wasn't theirs to make. That decision rested in the hands of Ocean County's "freeholders", elected county representatives with both administrative and policy making powers.

Laurel and her supervisors made the formal request to the county's five Republican freeholders--John C. Bartlett, John P. Kelly, James F. Lacey, Gerry P. Little, and Joseph H. Vicari--last June.

The freeholders knew Laurel was dying, but they chose not to respond for almost six months.

Finally, Laurel and two dozen supporters went to a freeholders meeting to again request action be taken. The freeholders said the matter had been under advisement the entire time and that they were now choosing not to act on it.

Since then, the freeholders have offered a series of reasons for denying Laurel's request.

Granting the request would "violate the sanctity of marriage," Freeholder Kelly told the Asbury Park Press.

Despite repeated requests from the media and county residents, Freeholder Kelly has refused to elaborate on what Laurel's request has to do with other marriages. Needless to say, the county doesn't require any other employees to prove the "sanctity" of their marriages.

Next, the freeholders claimed the financial burden would be too much for the county to absorb. They made this claim even though Ocean County administrator Alan Avery later told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that the county never studied the issue and, at the time, had no figures to back up the claim.

Still grappling to find a plausible excuse, the freeholders turned to the overburdened New Jersey pension system. Granting Laurel's request, they claimed, would put undue stress on the state's pension system.

This dodge particularly bothers the freeholders' critics who note that each of the five men are entitled to generous pensions. And not everyone approves of how New Jersey politicians come by those pensions, including the five freeholders. The Ocean County Observer, in an editorial excoriating the freeholders' treatment of Laurel, said, "Never mind that the freeholders have demonstrated stupendous greed through their own history of feeding at the public trough, often in jobs that helped boost their own pensions."

"Tacking" and "kiting" are two terms to describe how public officials in New Jersey can boost their pensions. Tacking involves acquiring a variety of part-time, but high paying jobs that, taken together, can add up to a generous pension. Kiting refers to the fact that New Jersey pensions are based on a person's three highest years of income. It is not unknown for public officials to give each other high paying jobs for three years to create--or "kite"--the highest pension possible.

Laurel Hester never sought to enrich herself at the expense of others. She never "tacked" jobs together or attempted to "kite" herself to a better pension. Instead, she did her job for twenty-four years and all she wants is what she earned. When asked how she feels about the freeholders citing New Jersey's troubled pension system as a reason to deny her request, Laurel says, "It's outrageous. It's a well-known fact that the pension system has suffered many egregious abuses. I am not one of them. And I resent being lumped in with them."

Offering up yet another excuse for their behavior, the freeholders tried to blame the state. "It's the fault of the Legislature for not mandating [domestic partner] benefits for all public employees," Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari told the Ocean County Observer. He added, "I anguish with this every day. It hurts me. Why I can't do the right thing now was caused by the state Legislature."

Five other New Jersey counties have not found themselves similarly hindered. Indeed, two of them--Mercer and Union--have extended domestic partner benefits to their employees as a direct result of how Ocean County has treated Laurel.

On a final note, Freeholder Vicari added, "I am praying for her."

At this point, Laurel and her supporters didn't think they could be any more disgusted by the behavior of the freeholders. They were wrong.

At the freeholders' last public meeting, on Dec. 7th,, a crowd of over a hundred people arrived to question them about their decision. Among the crowd were ministers, decorated war veterans, and law enforcement officials.

After twenty people spoke in favor of Laurel's case (and none against), the freeholders chose not to respond. Instead, they literally ran out the back door rather than face any questions.

"It had to be the most despicable act of cowardice--political or otherwise--that I have ever witnessed," says Mr. Wells of the event.

Even then, the freeholders weren't finished trying to spin themselves out of the situation. On Dec 15th, the Ocean County Observer reported that the freeholders finally had a dollar figure as to how much the benefits would cost.

The amount? $114,000 to $200,000 a year, or roughly 23 to 46 cents per county resident per year--an insignificant amount in the county's $300 million annual budget.

Nonetheless, Freeholder Kelly called the cost "tremendous". He went on to extol everything the county had done for Laurel. In fact, her salary continues to be paid, and the county provides life insurance for her.

"The life insurance...and the money Hester put into the pension system amounts to about $450,000," Freeholder Kelly told the Ocean County Observer. "She can leave that to her partner."

The freeholder left out a few details. Hester continues to receive pay only because her co-workers have donated a year's worth of sick leave. The sick leave is Laurel's as a result of the decency of her co-workers; the freeholders themselves had nothing to do with it. Of the freeholders' comments, Dane Wells says, "I was sickened by them. Outraged at how misleading they were."

Even worse, Laurel only receives the life insurance benefit as long as she is on the payroll. Her sick leave runs out in less than two weeks and at that time, she will legally "retire." In other words, in order to collect the life insurance Freeholder Kelly touts as a benefit from the county, Laurel must die before she retires at the end of the year.

When I asked her how that made her feel, she was quiet for a long moment. "It's really unfair of them," she says. "I'm hurt that they're trying to portray me as some sort of greedy, public servant. I'd say it's a gross effort to mislead the public."

But not everyone in Ocean County is unhappy with the freeholders' behavior. John Tomicki of the League of American Families, a state group that opposes domestic partner benefits, told the New Jersey Star Ledger "It's their [the freeholders] decision, which is what the law allows. They're obviously reflecting the values of their community."

Laurel and her supporters sincerely hope that is not the case