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Tampa offers benefits to same-sex couples

The decision to extend benefits to unmarried partners is the fulfillment of a campaign promise by the mayor.

BILL VARIAN
Published March 12, 2004

TAMPA - Mayor Pam Iorio signed an executive order Thursday extending health benefits to unmarried domestic partners of city employees, including same-sex couples.

With the order, Tampa joins a handful of other local governments in Florida offering the benefit to employees with domestic partners.

Iorio said the decision was the fulfillment of a campaign promise stemming from the shooting death in July 2001 of Tampa police Officer Lois Marrero, whose domestic partner later was denied pension benefits.

Iorio said the decision was made after months of fiscal and legal analysis. It does not extend to pension benefits, which are set by state law.

"This is not a new concept. It's been around for years," Iorio said. "It's an addition to employee benefits that I think is important."

The order came amid increasing national debate on gay rights issues.

The California Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a halt to same-sex weddings in San Francisco, and Massachusetts lawmakers gave tentative approval for banning gay marriage through an amendment to that state's constitution.

In Tampa, director of human resources Sarah Lang projected that about 25 of the city's roughly 4,600 employees may use the benefit. The estimate is based on private industry analysis of rates elsewhere. Lang estimated it would cost less than $60,000 annually.

The measure would take effect Jan. 1, after the city's open enrollment period in October. City Council approval is not required, said Darrell Smith, Iorio's chief of staff.

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The decision puts Tampa among a few governmental entities that offer similar benefits.

Gainesville, West Palm Beach, Broward County, the city of Miami Beach and Monroe County are among them, according to Equality Florida, a statewide education and advocacy group focusing on issues relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Several Florida companies, including the St. Petersburg Times and Disney World in Orlando, also offer domestic-partner benefits.

"The first thing we want to say is "Thank you,"' said Brian Winfield, communications director for Equality Florida, which is based in Tampa. "It's very fresh in the minds of people in Tampa. ... I think it falls very nicely into Mayor Iorio's plan of making Tampa a culturally diverse community."

Tampa police Officer Mickie Mashburn was denied death benefits after Marrero, her longtime domestic partner, was gunned down by a fleeing bank robber. Marrero left no will, and the benefits were awarded to her parents.

David Caton, executive director of the Florida Families Association, was quick to condemn the measure. His group opposes pornography and strip clubs and helped lead a successful push in the 1990s to rescind a Hillsborough County ordinance that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Caton said the city does not extend similar benefits to employees caring for a sick parent or sibling. He called the decision discriminatory.

"I think it's offensive for Mayor Iorio to extend special benefits to employees based on how they have sex," Caton said. "It's an issue of fairness and relevancy. The people being treated unfairly are people with real bloodlines. It's legitimizing a homosexual relationship."

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To qualify for health benefits for a domestic partner, an employee must prove that the relationship is his or her only one and that the couple intends to remain together indefinitely, according to a draft of the four-page application form.

The couple must have a common residence, and they must have lived together continuously for six months. The couple also must share responsibility for a significant measure of each others' "common welfare and financial obligations." And they must notify the city within 10 days if the relationship dissolves. Failure could result in disciplinary action.

To demonstrate their dependent domestic partnership, they must furnish two of the following:

- A joint lease, mortgage or deed of common residence; joint ownership of an automobile, or a regularly used bank account.

- Designation of the partner as a beneficiary for life insurance, retirement or deferred compensation.

- Designation of the partner as the primary beneficiary of an employee's will, or joint wills.

- Designation of the partner as holding power of attorney for health care.

"We want the city of Tampa to have good employee benefits," Iorio said. "That's important to attract and retain good people. Not all employees are married, and I believe it is important to recognize the employee who is not married but may be in a committed, long-term relationship."

The decision is sure to spur discussion around the bay area.

Hillsborough Administrator Pat Bean said the issue was recently raised by an worker through the county's Employee Communications Council. But Bean said that the matter is not on top of her priority list, given other benefit considerations the county is analyzing. However, she said the county may look at health benefits for domestic partners later.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker did not return phone calls seeking comment.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird and reporter Carrie Johnson contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

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