Delegation awaits response on benefit repayment

Kevin Boozer Staff Writer

September 22, 2013

WINNSBORO — Fairfield County Council Chairman David Ferguson and Councilmembers Mary Lynn Kinely and Mikel Trapp have until Sept. 25 to respond to a letter from Rep. MaryGail Douglas and Sen. Creighton Coleman concerning when or if they will repay funds they were paid in lieu of health insurance compensation.

The letter, dated Aug. 26, included an attachment of the attorney general’s opinion that the health benefit payments were “in excess of the amount that can be accepted by elected public officials.”

The letter made a repayment request of council members by the county legislative delegation “with the support of the people of Fairfield County” and noted that the health benefit issue was raised during public comments in 2005-06 but that “apparently council made no attempt to research the legality of the matter.”

The repayment of taxpayer money has been a lightning rod issue at recent county council meetings.

Ferguson said he and the other council members were assured by then-County Administrator Phil Hinely that council members could legally receive a payment in lieu of state health insurance if they already were covered by a state health insurance plan.

According to Ferguson, Hinely presented the compensation as a way to save the county money.

In Ferguson’s case, he confirmed to The Herald Independent that he used the payment to pay for hip surgery that was not covered by his insurance. He also questioned the fairness of council members being required to pay back a means of compensation which he previously has said was given in good faith.

“I don’t see where it is fair that four members would receive health benefits and three would not,” Ferguson said.

As of the Sept. 16 county council meeting, he had not made plans to repay the $24,255. Neither had Kinely ($23,505) or Trapp ($22,200).

“I have to consider,” Ferguson said, “if I have to pay the money back what recourse I would have. How fair is it if the other council members continue to get health insurance but I am asked to repay money (that was part of my compensation) and that I was taxed on? What about the four members who got insurance at two times the rate of compensation that we got?”

As for calls that he resign as county council chairman, Ferguson refused.

“I won’t quit. I’ve never quit anything in my entire life,” he said.

Kinely voiced her support of Ferguson at last week’s county council meeting during council time. Kinley also said Interim County Administrator Milton Pope is collecting legal research and that he would be in touch with county council on those findings by the end of this week.

“Mr. Pope needs a full report and council is taking his lead to let him follow up on that end (of the insurance controversy),” Kinely said.

The letter from Douglas and Coleman addressed the “in good faith” defense.

“Whether you accepted the payments ‘in good faith’ is not the issue,” the letter reads. “The issue is the misuse of taxpayer money. Taxpayers in this county want the money returned. The question to you: When and how do you plan to return this money to the general fund of the county?”

Trapp has agreed to have $100 deducted each pay period to repay the county for college tuition reimbursement ($22,200), but he said he will know in a week or two about possibly repaying the health benefit payments. He also mentioned he might work out a different repayment plan for the college tuition, although he had not worked out those details yet.