Equality or sacrilege?

After a tense March 19 public hearing, the Buncombe County commissioners narrowly approved extending benefits to both same- and opposite-sex domestic partners of county employees.

Democrats David Gantt, Holly Jones, Brownie Newman and Ellen Frost supported the measure; Republicans David King, Joe Belcher and Mike Fryar opposed it. The partisan vote highlighted the significance of Frost's hotly disputed 17-vote margin of victory in last fall's election, which gave Democrats a 4-3 majority on the board.

The Buncombe County Diversity and Inclusion Committee, created last September at the direction of County Manager Wanda Greene, had recommended offering domestic partners the same benefits available to family members of married county employees. Those benefits include health insurance, life insurance, use of leave time and all entitlements under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

After several months of study, the committee (consisting of 11 county staffers) unanimously endorsed the move to help the county "fulfill its commitment to supporting and promoting diversity in the workforce as well as attracting and retaining the best talent," according to the group's report.

The new policy defines domestic partnership as "a committed relationship between two individuals of the same or opposite sex who are legally competent and at least 18 years of age, who live together in a long-term relationship of indefinite duration, who are not legally married to each other or to anyone else or, in the case of same-sex couples, are legally prohibited from marrying each other in the state of North Carolina or have an out-of-state marriage not recognized by the state of North Carolina, and are jointly responsible for each other’s common welfare and financial obligations."

That wording, Assistant County Attorney Curt Euler told Xpress later, is intended to put married couples and domestic partnerships "on the same playing field" and ensure that these relationships are "something above" two people merely living together.

To qualify for the benefits, domestic partners will need to sign an affidavit declaring their relationship status and demonstrate that they've shared the same primary residence for at least 12 consecutive months. Couples who keep their finances separate wouldn’t qualify, Euler explained.

Before casting his vote, Newman called the issue "a simple matter. Employees doing equal work should receive equal benefits and compensation for doing their job."

Unchristian?

About one-third of the roughly 100 people who attended the contentious public hearing spoke, with approximately half of them urging the commissioners to vote against the measure. Several local ministers said it amounted to using taxpayer money to condone behavior that violates Christian principles.

None of the Republican commissioners, however, cited religious reasons in explaining their opposition. Fryar, while noting that his deceased brother was gay, said the county can't afford to pay for more benefits as it faces a major budget crunch.

Mission Health System, the county’s largest employer, began offering same-sex domestic-partner benefits last year. And Asheville resident Aaron Sarver, communications director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, asserted during the public hearing: "If you want to follow best practices in the private sector, you have to pass this." A majority of Fortune 500 companies, he said, have such policies.

Fryar, however, countered: "We're not a business. We sell nothing. We take money from the taxpayers of Buncombe County."

Human Resource Manager Lisa Eby, who headed the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said it's hard to know how many employees will take advantage of the policy. Since Asheville began offering similar benefits in early 2011, she noted, only a handful of city employees have applied. Buncombe County, said Eby, spends an average of $7,075 per covered person, per year on health insurance.

In explaining their "no" votes, Belcher and King referenced the folks they represent. Both men serve District 3, which encompasses the western   and most conservative   parts of the county.

"I don't think any of us sit up here in judgment of anyone," noted King. "We try to reflect the will and desire of those people in our districts."

Belcher, sounding a similar note, added, "My constituents would not want me to vote for this."

Jones, on the other hand, said the policy marked one of her "proudest moments" as an elected official, “because this is about quality and fairness and human rights.” Her district encompasses the city of Asheville.

The policy, she added, will also boost economic development efforts, saying it "sends a strong message to the best and the brightest, and that’s what we want.”

Buncombe becomes the fourth county government in the state to offer such benefits, following Durham, Mecklenburg and Orange counties.

Be respectful

Another recommendation of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee proved less controversial.

The commissioners unanimously approved a "respectful workplace policy" to help maintain "a safe, supportive and inclusive work environment that is free of offensive remarks, material or behavior." The policy specifically bans behaviors such as "yelling, belittling or embarrassing" co-workers and adds to a grievance process for county employees.

"We're shutting those behaviors down," declared Gantt, who chairs the Board of Commissioners. At their April 2 meeting, he said, the board will consider adding language to the county's personnel policy banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A similar proposal failed to win approval last year, but none of the commissioners who opposed it are on the current board.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at jfrankel@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 115.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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