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Jul 4, 2012 12:17 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Former Westhampton Beach Trustee Will Keep Health Insurance Benefits

Jul 4, 2012 1:06 PM

A former Westhampton Beach Village trustee’s decision to keep her health insurance benefits, even though she left office last week before serving a full decade on the board as is now required to qualify for such a benefit, has angered at least one of her old colleagues.

Toni-Jo Birk, who was elected to the Village Board in 2006 and left office on June 30 after losing her reelection bid last month, has opted to continue paying out of pocket for her full health benefits until she turns 55—at which time she will no longer have to contribute to maintain the policy for the rest of her life. Ms. Birk, who is 52, said she must pay approximately $20,000 a year for the next three years in order to keep her insurance.

But Village Board member Hank Tucker, who was just appointed deputy mayor—Ms. Birk’s old title—on Monday night objected to the move, noting that Ms. Birk voted in July 2007 to change the village law so it requires that a village trustee serve at least 10 years before qualifying for lifetime health benefits. Prior to that change, which was seconded by Ms. Birk and approved 4-0, trustees had to serve only five years before earning such benefits.

“Five years of service is not a long enough period of time,” said Mr. Tucker, who voted in favor of the resolution in July 2007, during his first board meeting after being elected. “She agreed to that when she agreed to the resolution. The law you approve should be good enough for you if it is good enough for everyone else.”

Mr. Tucker, who has served on the board for five years and was in office before the policy was changed, could opt to do the same thing as Ms. Birk even if he does not serve on the board for a full decade. However, he said this week that he has no plans to do that.

Ms. Birk, who is unemployed and whose family owns Bike ‘N Kite on Potunk Lane, pointed out that when she was first elected to the board in 2006, the rule was that a trustee had to serve only five years to qualify. “When I was in office, the terms were five years, and I served for six,” she said. “This is all totally legitimate, and I am going to keep my benefits.”

According to Village Clerk Rebecca Molinaro, Ms. Birk’s decision is legal as long as she agrees to pay for her health insurance until she turns 55, retirement age in the state. Ms. Molinaro said village trustees who took office after July 1, 2007, must serve 10 years before qualifying for lifetime benefits.

“She receives benefits pursuant to the procedures that the village has established for when she reaches retirement age,” Ms. Molinaro said.

It was not immediately clear how much it will cost the village to insure Ms. Birk once she reaches retirement age.

Mr. Tucker said it is unfair for taxpayers to have to pay for Ms. Birk’s health insurance after she turns 55 considering that she has not put in 10 years of service to the village.

“This is not fair for the residents and the taxpayers,” Mr. Tucker said. “We need to start going the other way, we need to start saving money and cutting back. For the first time in history we had to lay employees off to work within our budget and we should have to tighten our belts, not give people full lifetime benefits.”

Ms. Birk still agrees with the policy she supported five years ago, but said it applies only to those elected to the board after July 1, 2007.

“That was years ago. I don’t look back, I look forward,” Ms. Birk said. “At the time it was the right decision for the village.”

Her decision did not seem to bother newly elected Village Trustee Ralph Urban, who said he has no problem with what Ms. Birk did as long as she continues to pay into the system until she reaches retirement age.

“I think it is fine as long as she is paying the premiums,” Mr. Urban said. “As long as the insurance company doesn’t have a problem with it then I don’t have a problem with it.”

Mayor Conrad Teller said he also supports Ms. Birk. “She was there when the rule went into effect during a previous administration,” he said. “She is keeping her health benefits, but she has to pay for them, so she is getting nothing for free until she is of retirement age.”

Still, Mr. Tucker said his former colleague has simply found a way to skirt a rule that she helped usher in.

“If 10 years is the law, and it is what she voted on, then she should be held to the same standard,” he said. “We make these laws so it is different—if it is good enough for everyone else then it should be good enough for you.”

Village Trustees Patricia DiBenedetto and Charlie Palmer did not return calls seeking comment.

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Toni Jo is legally entitled to the benefits-enough said. I sick and tired of Hank's personal attacks aimed at selected people.
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Jul 5, 12 8:58 AM
Good for you hank. It's comments like this and actions of of our politicians that are bankrupting out country. What nerve to think she should get her benefits paid for life.
By realistic (472), westhampton on Jul 5, 12 7:06 PM
I guess that EastEnd 68 is not a taxpayer, but a crony of Ms. Birk. This situation is shocking and outrageous! One year in office prior to voting to increase the eligibility for lifetime health benefits from 5 years to 10 does not make it legitimate for Ms. Birk to qualify. Now we see just what her public service was all about. Why doesn't she go out a get a job that offers health benefits like everyone else has to do. For a three year investment of $60,000 she will be eligible for free lifetime ...more
By beachgirl11978 (18), Westhampton Beach on Jul 5, 12 9:52 AM
1 member liked this comment
Sad part is that this woman had no interest in public service. She only became a trustee to prevent CVS from being developed in the former bowling alley property that is now vacant.
By Summer Resident (251), Manhattan on Jul 5, 12 10:14 AM
1 member liked this comment
EastEnd68 thinks that Toni Jo is legally entitled to lifetime health benefits.Not only do I question whether it is actually legal, I know that it is morally wrong. She voted in 2007 to raise the eligibility for the benefit, now she claims it applies to everyone but her. She came into office as part of the Teller administration. Yet, Mayor Teller is trying to deceive the taxpayers by saying "she was there when the rule went into effect during a previous administration. She served one year along with ...more
By surfer (3), westhampton beach on Jul 5, 12 4:43 PM
Did I read the article wrong? Ms. Birk wants to pay the health premium herself. She would probably get cheaper insurance thru WHB rather than purchase on her own. I have no problem with it if she is paying the premium herself and it isn't the taxpayers paying it.
By baywave (22), Westhampton Beach on Jul 5, 12 4:58 PM
Do you get the taxpayers will pay past age 55- which is in 3 yrs for the rest of her life. Let's get the bill to you to pay then
By realistic (472), westhampton on Jul 5, 12 7:08 PM
Toni Jo Birk had an honest interest in public service and would still be there if not defeated by one vote. For the time she was there she did a good job and deserves the benefits as defined when she was first elected. Others have received lifetime benefits for 5 years service and so does Toni Jo.
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Jul 5, 12 6:18 PM
By casting her vote in support of raising the eligibility to 10 years, Toni Jo told us voters that she opposed the lifetime health benefits for elected officials with only five years of service. It was the right thing to do and the community supported that change. Whether she did " good job or no" does not matter. She did not have any vested rights to the five year eligibility with only one year of service prior to the change. It is absurd to make such a claim. The residents should demand a legal ...more
By surfer (3), westhampton beach on Jul 6, 12 8:18 AM
Do you people realize this is exactly whats destroying this country. Lifetime benefits for searving 5 years as Trustee. Are you kidding me. Who ever approved these rule should be fired. taken out of office. Even lifetime benefits after 10 years. DISCUSTING. I work to hard every day - pay my own benefits- save for my own retirement- and now I have to pay for this persons benefits for the rest of her life? What did she do that was so great? How do contracts like this get put in place? Is this done ...more
By realistic (472), westhampton on Jul 6, 12 10:55 AM
If the rules are changed where you work, do you have the option not to follow them because you were hired beforehand?

Most likely not.

Toni, you approved ten years, you agreed with ten years, you made your bed; now you have to lie in it. Ex post facto, indeed!!!
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Jul 7, 12 1:15 PM
Ther is never a circumstance where an elected official. Especially a 5 or 10 yr Trustee of a small little village- deserves lifetime benefits for anything. This will cost the tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars. do you get this? Do you live in this village and pay taxes? When are these rules made and when does the become public aware of this? I guess I'm not surprised this country is in so much trouble financially. You all seem to think the money is printed in the basement of the Village ...more
By realistic (472), westhampton on Jul 7, 12 9:52 PM