ST. PETERSBURG — The city is on the verge of extending same-sex health benefits to rank-and-file police officers.
The move — which is included in the new labor contract officers will vote on today — could pave the way for the rest of the city's workforce to be able to share benefits with their domestic partners.
The St. Petersburg Police Department is the third major law enforcement agency in Tampa Bay to offer same-sex health benefits, joining the growing ranks of organizations and corporations who do so.
It's another sign of the growing clout the city's police unions are enjoying with Mayor Bill Foster, who has relaxed restrictions on high-speed pursuits, allowed take-home police cars and now approved domestic partner benefits — measures the unions have long sought.
It also represents a sea change for a city more accustomed to conservative policies. But the mayor said offering same-sex health benefits makes fiscal and business sense for the city.
And he added: "It's the right thing to do."
There's no official estimate of how many employees could take advantage of the benefit or what it will cost. But police departments in Tampa and Orlando offer the benefit, so St. Petersburg compared its police force to theirs to estimate what it might cost the city.
"When we studied the impact it had a De minimis economic cost," Foster said, using the Latin for minimal importance.
"It wasn't a tough decision," he said. "It's something I said I'd do during the campaign. Quite frankly, I want to make sure that our police officers' compensation packages are competitive."
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It's even more important than that to St. Petersburg Lt. Markus Hughes. The 33-year-old patrol supervisor and his partner, Alexander Baker, 27, will mark nine years together in February. But Baker has been without health benefits for the last two.
Baker lost his benefits, along with his full-time job as a customer service supervisor with Albertsons, when Publix bought half the supermarket chain in 2008. Hughes said Baker kept his part-time job at Best Buy but hasn't gotten full-time there yet and can't afford the health insurance offered to part-timers anyway. Baker's health care plan: the nurse practitioner at CVS, or for emergencies, a walk-in clinic.
"It's a huge benefit," Hughes said. "If something were to happen to him I'd have to take up the whole cost.
"Now I won't be so worried about him getting hurt or getting into a car crash or just getting sick and getting hospitalized."
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The lieutenant and his partner should enjoy shared health benefits in the coming months.
The Suncoast Police Benevolent Association will ask for same-sex health benefits when it negotiates the next contract for sergeants and lieutenants in the fall. The St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters asked for the benefit in its next contract.
The Florida Public Employees Services Union, which represents the city's administrative and maintenance workers, can follow suit when their contract expires in 2011.
Together the three unions represent 74 percent of the city's 2,678 full-time employees. The mayor expects that eventually all full-time workers will gain the benefit, and that the City Council will approve the new 3-year contract for rank-and-file officers.
"The private sector has been doing this for years," said City Council member Karl Nurse. "It's just the fair thing to do. I don't think the cost will be too much because I'm assuming there won't be too many who take advantage of it.
"But the benefits would outweigh the costs by communicating that this is a tolerant city."
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The Tampa Police Department was the first bay area law enforcement agency to offer domestic partner benefits in 2004.
Mayor Pam Iorio offered it to all city employees to fulfill a campaign promise she made after the partner of Officer Lois Marrerro — shot and killed in the line of duty in 2001 — was denied pension benefits. Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats followed suit in 2007.
St. Petersburg Detective Mark Marland, president of the Suncoast PBA, said he doesn't know how many members will use the new benefit. But he knows they've waited a decade for it.
"There are members that want to keep their own personal life personal," he said. "But this is something that our members have always wanted, but the city never moved on until now."
The St. Petersburg Times asked former Mayor Rick Baker why it wasn't offered during his eight years. He declined to comment.
The current mayor said he was "surprised" the city never agreed to the benefit before. But Foster is also a Christian conservative who once called homosexuality a lifestyle choice. As a council member he was against the 2001 effort to add protections for gays and lesbians to the city's human rights ordinance.
But during the mayoral campaign Foster made overtures to the gay community and said he would approve same-sex health benefits for city employees if they were affordable. He said Thursday that his personal beliefs are "irrelevant" to this issue. When asked if he expects the measure to bring controversy and protests, he replied:
"When people call for a police officer, I generally believe that sexual orientation is the last thing on their minds."
Said Hughes: "It just seems fair. We put our lives on the line just like everybody else does."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.