Friday, October 24, 2014 · 8:46 a.m.
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Chattanooga may become the third Tennessee city to provide health insurance to its employees’ domestic partners.

The City Council voted 5-4 Tuesday evening to approve the Extended Benefits and Equity Ordinance, proposed by Councilman Chris Anderson. The legislation extends health benefits to the domestic partners of city employees, including those in same-sex relationships. A second legislative component adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s nondiscrimination policy.

"I’m excited that our city took a great step toward equality and fairness for all our employees," Anderson said to reporters after the vote. "It’s a great day for Chattanooga." 

Mayor Andy Berke issued a statement Tuesday evening that praised the City Council’s decision.

"In the 21st century, we must ensure we attract talented employees and remain competitive with local, regional and national employers," Berke said. "That means hiring employees based on merit and offering a benefits package that retains and recruits the very best employees possible."

Chattanooga’s human resources department expects between 20 and 25 new enrollees to the city’s health plan as a result of the ordinance. The estimated cost of the enrollees is $168,000, or 1 percent of the city’s current health plan, human resources director Todd Dockery said. Couples must sign an affidavit affirming that they meet the city’s criteria for domestic partnerships. An open enrollment period will begin in the spring to offer health, vision, dental and supplemental life insurance.

Months of divided public debate preceded Tuesday’s vote. Most of it centered on the legislative language to extend benefits to same-sex partners. Supporters said the ordinance provides equitable treatment to city employees. Opponents said it puts a stamp of approval on a lifestyle they disagree with.

"I am happy as crap. It is unbelievable that this city is finally progressing," said Lt. Corliss Cooper, a 26-year Chattanooga employee who plans to marry her female partner in Washington, D.C., next week.

Council members questioned city administrators, debated procedural motions and gave statements that recognized the strong public reaction before the vote.

"Chattanooga is a true renaissance city—beautiful landscapes, a resurgence in manufacturing, tourist destinations, a vibrant arts community and the country’s fastest Internet speeds," Anderson said. "Shouldn’t we also set an example for how we treat our employees?"

Councilman Chip Henderson described his time on the campaign trail. Constituents’ primary concerns included safer neighborhoods, improved infrastructure and better youth education, he said.

"Offering extended benefits to couples who are not married siphons taxpayer dollars from the issues Chattanoogans said that they are most concerned about," he said.

Council members Ken Smith, Larry Grohn, Russell Gilbert and Henderson made a last-ditch, procedural effort to vote separately on domestic partnership benefits and changes to the city’s nondiscrimination policy. The effort was unsuccessful.

Smith supported the separation because he wants the city’s nondiscrimination policy updated.

"I believe that discrimination during the hiring practice is not the same as the benefits being proposed," he said. "I’m guessing that the benefits portion of this ordinance will be more heavily utilized by opposite-sex couples than same-sex."

Grohn added a separate ordinance to the council’s agenda dealing only with the nondiscrimination policy late last week. Council members tabled that proposal.

Council members Carol Berz, Moses Freeman, Jerry Mitchell, Yusuf Hakeem and Anderson voted in favor of the ordinance. Smith, Grohn, Gilbert and Henderson voted against.

Support for domestic partnership benefits is growing locally and statewide. Major Chattanooga employers like BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Unum and Volkswagen already cover employees’ domestic partners, according to a recent presentation by the city attorney. Collegedale became the first Tennessee city to cover employees’ partners in August. Knoxville plans to do so in January. A 2013 poll by Vanderbilt University found that 62 percent of Tennesseans think gay and lesbian domestic partners or spouses should receive employee health benefits.

The ordinance will come before the City Council again next week. The council approves ordinances twice before they are signed into law by the council chair and mayor. Anderson told reporters he anticipates another 5-4 vote.

Updated @ 8:17 a.m. on 11/13/13 to add more information.

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