Buncombe County Librarian Lauren Biehl was one of the only county employees who spoke out during a public hearing on a new domestic partner benefit policy; she urged commissioners to approve it. Photo by Max Cooper.
Buncombe County commissioners voted March 19 along party lines to extend employee benefits to both same- and opposite-sex domestic partners.
Board Chair David Gantt, Vice Chair Holly Jones, and commissioners Brownie Newman and Ellen Frost – all Democrats – supported the measure. Republican commissioners David King, Joe Belcher and Mike Fryar voted against it. It was the first 4-3 party line decision the board’s made since new members were elected last fall.
The Buncombe County Diversity and Inclusion Committee recommended the action, which will ensure that the county offers the same benefits to domestic partners that are offered to the family members of county employees who are married, including 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 unanimously urged the move in order for the county to “fulfill its commitment to supporting and promoting diversity in the workforce as well as attracting and retaining the best talent,” according to its 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 eighteen (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.”
In order to qualify for the benefits, domestic partners will need to fill out an affidavit declaring their relationship status and demonstrate that they’ve shared the same primary residence for at least 12 consecutive months.
Before casting his vote of approval, Newman called the issue “a simple matter.”
“Employees doing equal work should receive equal benefits and compensation for doing their job,” he added.
However, over the course of a long public hearing on the issue, about half the attendees urged the commissioners to vote against it, including several local ministers who argued that it amounted to condoning behavior with taxpayer money that is against Christian principals. (See samples of what speakers had to say during the public hearing here).
But none of the Republican commissioners cited religious reasons for voting against it. Instead, Fryar noted that his deceased brother was gay, but worried that the county can’t can’t afford paying out any more benefits as it faces a major budget crunch.
Mission Health System, the area’s largest employer, has offered domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples since early 2012. And during the public hearing, Asheville resident and Campaign for Southern Equality Communications Director Aaron Sarver asserted: “If you want to follow best practices in the private sector, you have to pass this.”
However, Fryar 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 estimate the how many employees will take advantage of the policy. Since the city of Asheville started offering similar benefits in early 2011, only a handful of employees have applied, she noted. Buncombe County spends an average of $7,000 per year on each employee’s benefit package.
Both Belcher and King represent District 3, which encompasses the western and most conservative parts of the county. And both argued that their votes against offering the benefits reflected the will of the people who elected them.
“I don’t think any of us sit up here in judgement of anyone,” noted King. “We try to reflect the will and desire of those people in our districts.”
Noting that the issue is “emotionally charged,” Belcher added: “My constituents would not want me to vote for this, so I’m going to vote against it.”
Meanwhile, Jones, whose district encompasses the city of Asheville, said the policy marked one of her “proudest moments” as an elected official “because this is about quality and fairness and human rights.”
“I’m excited about this policy, for what it’s going to do to for our economic development too,” she added. “This sends a strong message to the best and the brightest and that’s what we want.”
Buncombe County is the fourth county government in North Carolina to offer such domestic partner benefits, following Durham, Mecklenburg and Orange counties.
A separate measure recommended by the Diversity and Inclusion Committee proved to be less controversial.
The commissioners unanimously voted to pass 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 a number of “disrespectful” behaviors such as “yelling, belittling, or embarrassing” coworkers. It sets up a grievance process for those who feel they’ve suffered violations. Other than county employees, it doesn’t specify any particular type of groups or people who are protected or not.
“The policy says that the county will not tolerate disrespectful behaviors,” noted Gantt. “We’re shutting those behaviors down.”
In addition, Gantt noted that the board will consider adding specific language to its personnel policy banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity when commissioners meet next on April 2. A similar proposal failed to win approval last year, but all the commissioners who opposed it are no longer on the board.