Cairo employees may lose health insurance coverage

Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Cairo, Ill., police chief John Bosecker, right, blocked council member Bobby Whitaker, center, Tuesday as Whitaker tried to enter city hall for a meeting. Whitaker refused to submit to a weapons search being conducted by Bosecker and Sgt. Kirk Snelson, left, while council member Elbert "Bo" Purchase watched. (Rudi Keller)

The city council rejected mayor's plan to borrow money to keep the program going.

CAIRO, Ill. -- Cairo public employees face a loss of health insurance coverage unless the city acts quickly to pay overdue premiums, Mayor Paul Farris said Tuesday.

Despite the warning, members of the City Council refused in a special meeting to consider a proposal to borrow $136,000 against revenue from the coming year to pay the bill.

Unless the payment is made by the end of March, Farris told council members, the Southern Illinois Laborers' and Employers Health and Welfare Fund will drop the city's coverage. The money is due because the city missed payments to the insurance fund during 2003 and 2004, Farris said.

Council members blocked Farris's proposal to borrow the money continued a battle between the mayor and a majority of the council for control of city government. Four of the six council members announced a boycott of meetings in December and demanded that Farris resign.

Council members relented on their pledge to stay away, but Farris remains defiant, withholding their pay and announcing Tuesday that he'll be a candidate for re-election in 2007.

The payment for health insurance isn't the only financial matter pressing this mostly poor town of 3,600 at the tip of Illinois. First National Bank of Cairo declared the city in default on its bonds Feb. 1 and froze its bank accounts.

On Jan. 27, a Illinois circuit court judge gave the city 30 days to pay $8,152 to attorney Rebecca Whittington of Carbondale, who successfully defended the city in a lawsuit alleging voter fraud in 2003.

And on Jan. 11, the four council members comprising the anti-Farris faction on the council -- Bobby Whitaker, Elbert "Bo" Purchase, Linda Jackson and Sandra Tarver -- filed a small claims lawsuit against Farris for withholding their pay.

An investigator with the Illinois Office of Attorney General visited Cairo last week to look into whether the mayor acted legally in ordering city employees to not give council members their paychecks, Whitaker and Purchase said.

Scott Mulford, a spokesman for the attorney general, said he could not comment on investigations.

Farris said he hasn't seen the letter from First National Bank detailing the decision to freeze the city's accounts and would not comment on a strategy for repairing the damage to the town's reputation. But he insisted that the insurance premiums must be paid.

The health insurance fund is associated with the Laborers' International Union, the union that represents Cairo city employees.

The health fund will drop the city if the past due amounts aren't paid, said Kenneth Kapper, representative of the fund. "We worked with the city for years and have tried to help them out in all possible ways," he said.

A councilwoman who's tried to remain neutral, Carolyn Ponting, said she's upset with the continued bickering. "It is ridiculous on both sides," she said. "It is killing us."

The meeting Tuesday included another round of the abrasive exchanges that have become common between the belligerents. Friction began when council members were met by Cairo police chief John Bosecker and other officers who sought to search them for weapons with metal detectors.

"I am not going to be scanned," Purchase said as he approached the door.

"The only way you can get in is to be scanned," Bosecker replied.

Jackson and Tarver agreed to perfunctory searches, as did Ponting. Purchase pushed his way in without submitting and Whitaker, the acknowledged leader of the anti-Farris faction, left after a brief confrontation with Bosecker.

Councilman Joseph Thurston did not attend the meeting.

As the meeting broke up, Tarver challenged the mayor to work together with the council.

"I can get along with anybody, but this is getting out of hand," she said. "You talk about us when we are not here, you say we are not council members, you cut off our pay. Right now, you are treating us like nobody."

Farris replied that he has faced a lack of cooperation from the day he won election in April 2003. Farris said he has tried to work for Cairo while facing opposition at every opportunity.

Only two council members -- Thurston and Ponting -- are acting professionally, Farris said. "We are going to move on, and we are going to continue to operate for the citizens of Cairo. Operations have to continue, and I will see they continue to operate with or without those people."

The refusal to seek the loan is an example of the kind of opposition he has faced, Farris said. The $136,000 would match a previous payment that eliminated half the past-due bill, he said.

Cairo operates on a fiscal year that runs from May 1 to April 30. The loan sought Tuesday would have borrowed from property tax revenue expected in the fall.

Neither council members interviewed after the meeting nor Farris seemed to view the idea of borrowing from future years as a problem. The practice has been common in the past, Purchase said.

While Farris complained that council members are loud, rude and disruptive, Purchase said their problem with Farris is that he won't operate the city in accordance with state law.

"When he follows the laws of the state of Illinois, we'll cooperate," Purchase said.

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