Chapel Hill mayoral rivals differ

Staff WriterOctober 9, 2009 

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— As the nation debates how to cover more people with health insurance, mayoral candidate Matt Czajkowski wants to scale back coverage for town employees as part of his plan to freeze the budget for the next two years.

He and rival Mark Klein schmidt, both current members of the Town Council, sparred over the issue during budget talks last spring. Czajkowski said that taxpayers need relief and that health-insurance premiums cost the town $5 million a year, about 10 percent of its operating budget. Kleinschmidt said the town committed decades ago to taking care of its employees.

Czajkowski and Kleinschmidt, considered the leading candidates to replace Mayor Kevin Foy in the Nov. 3 election, are offering voters a clear choice: the fiscal conservative versus the liberal activist.

Czajkowski is a retired pharmaceutical industry executive who lives in The Oaks near Chapel Hill Country Club and raised more than $17,000 in the first two months of the campaign. An unaffiliated voter in this nonpartisan election, he wants to limit residential taxes by promoting business development and cutting expenses such as employee benefits.

"The terms of our [health-care] plans are better than just about anything," said Czajkowski after a recent candidates forum.

Kleinschmidt, a Democratic anti-death-penalty lawyer receiving most of his campaign money through the town's "voter-owned election" program, counts civil rights, social justice and maintaining the town's diversity among his priorities.

"I wish we could have provided for an ordinary cost-of-living increase for our employees," Kleinschmidt said, responding to Czajkowski at a meeting last June. "We got a fair price to be able to provide an excellent benefit. We can say, 'We're not going to strip that from you.'"

The two Republicans in the mayor's race diverge on campaign strategy.

Kevin Wolff presents himself as a potential Czajkowski ally, urging voters to "Keep Matt where he's at" -- on the Town Council but not in the mayor's seat for the last two years of his term. Wolff hasn't challenged Czajkowski on substantive issues.

Augustus Cho, on the other hand, has distanced himself from his own conservative-minded 2008 Republican congressional campaign and has focused instead on local issues. He calls Czajkowski's health-care proposal a "low blow" and a "cheap shot."

"The dedicated town employees were not present to defend themselves [Matt knew that] because they were busy working and doing their jobs," Cho wrote in a blog entry after the candidates forum. "They are not widgets to be manipulated; they are residents, citizens trying to raise and sustain their families like the rest of us."

Last spring, Czajkowski called for a health-care plan more like those offered by UNC Healthcare and the State of North Carolina.

All three employers pay the full premium for their employees, but the town has lower co-payments on doctor visits and prescription drugs and provides 100 percent coverage with no deductible or coinsurance. By contrast, the UNC plans cover 70 to 80 percent of the costs of service, have co-payments at least three times as high as the town's, require annual deductibles of at least $600 per person, and require employees to pay up to $3,250 a year toward medical services.

The better coverage costs the town almost $100 a month extra for each of the town's 700 full-time employees, which exceeds $650,000 a year.

As an employee of both the town and UNC Healthcare, Maggie Burnett, 56, is familiar with both plans.

"It does not compare," said Burnett, who has worked for the town for 33 years. "It's a cherished benefit. It is not a benefit that I take lightly."

Breast cancer led to a mastectomy, blood disease, hysterectomy and plastic surgery for Burnett in the past few years. Recent studies found the average mastectomy and breast reconstruction cost more than $30,000.

"It took a year to complete that surgery," Burnett said. "The plastic surgeon said to me, 'Be grateful that you have good health insurance.' If I hadn't had the health insurance that I had at that time, it would have been devastating for me financially."

Every day Burnett takes drugs for Type II diabetes and high blood pressure, and she takes cholesterol medication every other day. Without insurance, these drugs would cost at least $400 a month, but she pays less than half that. Under the state plan, she'd pay about $60 more every month.

"It would have affected me more to get my health insurance benefits cut than not to get a pay raise," she said. "It's scary."

Debating the budget last spring, Czajkowski said the rise of health-care costs has been "unimaginable" and "unsustainable."

He said taxpayers understand that employees need health benefits but citizens might resent the town if they have to cut their own budgets while the town does not.

"We are all victims," he said. "We're all captives of our current health-care system. ... It's a very difficult challenge, but it's one we have to face head-on." or 919-932-8760

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