County judge sees minimal cost, says it’s ‘the right thing to do, both from an equality standpoint and from a competitiveness standpoint’

DOMESTIC DISPUTE | Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, left, says he wants approval from an intergovernmental agency before moving forward with domestic partner benefits. But openly gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons says that approval isn’t necessary and the Commissioners Court can act on its own.

ANNA WAUGH  |  Staff Writer

Gay and lesbian Dallas County employees may be able to add their domestic partners to their health plans in January if two key votes go according to plan.

County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who chairs the Commissioners Court and supports offering DP benefits, said budget shortfalls and a vote by the Public

Employee Benefits Cooperative prevented the county from moving forward in the past.

The county is a member of the PEBC, a government partner agency that helps keep the cost of benefits affordable. Other members include Tarrant, Denton and

Parker counties, and the North Texas Tollway Authority. The PEBC board voted down allowing its members to offer DP benefits by one vote last year, Jenkins said.

But Jenkins is determined to offer the benefits in 2013.

He said there is a possibility Dallas County will have only a small budget shortfall this year. He’s hoping the PEBC board will vote to allow DP benefits in August, followed by approval from the Commissioners Court before the county budget is finalized in September.

The Commissioners Court has a 3-2 Democratic majority, and last year the body voted along party lines to add LGBT employees to the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

Jenkins said he thinks adding DP benefits would make the county more competitive as an employer. The city of Dallas has offered DP benefits to gay and lesbian employees since 2004.

“I support the inclusion of domestic partner benefits for people who work for the government because I think that’s the right thing to do, both from an equality standpoint and from a competitiveness standpoint of having a competitive edge in the marketplace,” Jenkins said.

The Board of Managers at Parkland, Dallas County’s public hospital, approved DP benefits last year.

Parkland’s DP benefits took effect in January, and 21 of the hospital’s 9,408 employees have enrolled in the program at a cost of roughly $26,000, spokeswoman Veneta Lusk said.

The Commissioners Court appoints Parkland board members, and Jenkins said last year he wanted to use the hospital’s DP benefits as a pilot program before the county made the benefits available to its roughly 6,000 employees.

With a projected cost of $696,635 for Parkland’s DP benefits for the 2012 fiscal year, Jenkins said actual cost was “very, very small” for Parkland.

Jenkins said based on the Parkland figures, he thinks it’s possible for the county to add DP benefits at a low cost, though he said the issue of equality is more important than cost.

“I think cost takes a secondary importance to issues like equality, fairness, security, public health, and I think that is one of these issues,” Jenkins said.

But a PEBC board vote is required for changes in eligibility, even though Jenkins said the court can vote to leave the PEBC or the board could vote to interpret its bylaws to allow Dallas County to offer domestic partner benefits.

“My position is that the question is a question of law, not a question of interpretation for the majority of the PEBC,” he said. “The contract I say allows us to do it and the PEBC needs to agree that it allows us to do, or in the alternative, we need to change the bylaws. Otherwise Dallas County is going to have to find more progressive partners to work with.”

Openly gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons has been outspoken in his support of Dallas County offering DP benefits to its employees in the past. He said that while there is a process to deciding if the benefits should be offered, the county is self-insured and can choose what to cover.

“Dallas County can decide what it wants to cover and not cover without being subject to review by an outside agency,” Fitzsimmons said. “We’re self-insured. We can do whatever we want. These are choices that are well within the purviews of the court.”

Fitzsimmons said that Jenkins is “serious about moving forward” with making DP benefits for the county a reality and said with a projected budget shortfall of only about $3 million — compared to $30 million last year — the court could very well approve them.

Jenkins said the Commissioners Court could  go ahead and vote to offer DP benefits and see whether the PEBC challenges the vote. But he said the present strategy is to follow the PEBC bylaws by bringing the topic up for discussion and a vote.

“The plan is at this point is to try to get the PEBC to agree we (Dallas County) have the power to do it or change their bylaws so that we can do it and then do it,” Jenkins said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 6, 2012.