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Should commissioners accept benefits?

Mel Kaplani, a new Redington Shores commissioner, thinks the benefits subvert the town charter's pay limits.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

REDINGTON SHORES -- The day after Mel Kaplani was sworn in as a new commissioner, he stopped by Town Hall to sign some paperwork.

He was surprised at the benefits the documents offered to him. He could choose to receive life insurance, health insurance and retirement benefits. Kaplani turned down the perks, then waited until his first meeting as town commissioner to ask his colleagues why they don't do the same.

His question rekindles the classic question of small-town politics: How much are local politicians worth? Redington Shores commissioners earn $400 a month for salary and expenses -- the mayor gets an extra $100 -- which is about the average among the 10 small towns that line the Pinellas beaches.

Yet the addition of perks such as health insurance add another $15,000 or so to the town budget. The town's charter establishes the salaries, and commissioners cannot get a pay raise without going to the voters first. Mayor J.J. Beyrouti said the insurance and retirement benefits were added at public Town Commission meetings without a referendum.

Kaplani said he thinks the commissioners subverted the charter by giving themselves benefits.

"We checked all that when we did it a few years ago," Beyrouti said. "We checked it with the lawyer."

Town Clerk Donna Draper said all commissioners except Kaplani are enrolled in at least some of the benefit plans.

Stacked against other beach municipalities, Redington Shores does offer more benefits. On the rest of the beaches:

-- Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore do not pay their elected officials a salary, much less provide benefits. Belleair Beach is now studying whether the mayor, vice mayor and commissioners should be paid and, if so, how much.

-- The beach municipalities that offer their elected officials a salary but no benefits are St. Pete Beach, Redington Beach and North Redington Beach.

-- The other cities and towns on the beach offer elected officials some benefits, but none offer as many as Redington Shores. Madeira Beach, for example, offers a retirement benefit, which costs the city $691.20 annually. Indian Rocks Beach allows commissioners to participate in the city employee health insurance program, but commissioners have to pay the full cost and the city pays nothing.

Beyrouti attributed Kaplani's objections to the fact that Kaplani hasn't been on the commission long. He pointed out that commissioners not only make little money for all the work they do, but they also lose out on money in their private jobs because they turn down money-making opportunities that would be a conflict of interest with their commission work.

"I get emotional about that when somebody sits here and tells me I'm taking advantage of you," Beyrouti said to residents at the Commission meeting Tuesday night. "That's an accusation that I would not take lightly."

Said Kaplani: "People find it hard to believe that some people are not takers, they're givers, and I happen to be one of them."

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