CAIRO, Ill. -- City employees won a reprieve Tuesday when the town's health insurance carrier announced it would not suspend coverage because of an unpaid premium bill from 2004.
The announcement came after five members of the Cairo City Council walked out in anger over Mayor Paul Farris' refusal to issue them paychecks.
City employees will continue to receive their benefits and the city will answer in federal court, said Kenneth Kapper of the Southern Illinois Laborers' Health and Welfare Fund.
Kapper made his remarks about two dozen city employees and Cairo residents who remained in the council chamber after the walkout. "It is not your fault what is happening," he said. "We will continue to allow you to have insurance."
The fund had threatened to suspend coverage for the city on Friday.
Farris has been seeking council approval since early February for a bank loan to pay the $143,000 past-due bill. The payment would be the final installment to satisfy a federal court judgement the insurance fund won early last year.
But he has been withholding the paychecks of four city council members since January, after they announced they would boycott council meetings. The four -- Bobby Whitaker, Sandra Tarver, Linda Jackson and Elbert "Bo" Purchase --reversed course after missing two meetings and have challenged Farris at every meeting since.
They are suing Farris in small claims court for their pay. They lack of paychecks resulted in a stalled meeting Tuesday, and when Farris wouldn't back down, the four bolted, along with councilman Joseph Thurston.
"I don't know how we can conduct business tonight," Jackson said as the first action -- a usually routine vote on the minutes of the previous meeting -- came up. "You refuse to acknowledge our existence here."
When Farris said the issue of their pay is before the courts, council members angrily replied that he could end the court case by writing them paychecks immediately.
Farris, however, wouldn't budge. Instead, he ridiculed the imprecision of the language used by Whitaker. After Whitaker said "We are not children. We are not your employees," and added that the pay issue is "ludirous," meaning "ludicrous," Farris asked him what the word meant.
Whitaker, who was fuming, said "we don't drop down on our knees to you."
"I am glad you explained what ludirous meant," Farris said.
The heated exchanges prompted Carolyn Ponting, the only neutral council member, to urge both sides of the dispute to behave.
"We are hired to do a job," she said. "The job is not being done. There are good people here. It is on both sides."
The council members and Farris did briefly discuss the financial problems that put the town in the position of borrowing money to pay past-due bills. The city should have tightened its belt last year, Purchase said, dropping employees and refraining from additional hirings.
Before Farris could reply fully, however, the fight over paychecks had resulted in the walkout. Afterward, he said the council knew the bill was coming due and could have raised taxes enough to cover this year's installment.
The council will not receive their pay until they admit they made a mistake by announcing a boycott, Farris said. "They can't just consistently make a mess of things."
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