The city is looking into offering health benefits to the domestic partners of its employees, including same-sex couples.
Although offering benefits to gay and lesbian domestic partners is increasingly common in local governments on the East Coast and West Coast and in parts of the Midwest, Missoula would be the first municipality in the northern Rockies to do so.
Ward Two Councilman Jim McGrath made the referral to the city last week to begin exploring offering the benefits. He was inspired by the events of the last two weeks in which a lesbian couple’s home was burned after they and another couple sued the Montana University System for not offering same-sex domestic partner benefits.
“I think it’s important for the city to set an example,” McGrath says. “I think it’s important for the University to set an example. As public institutions we should be at the forefront of civil rights.”
McGrath says that the arson and the lawsuit have generated more interest and activity among his constituents than any other issue he can remember. When people first asked him about the city offering same-sex domestic partner benefits, McGrath initially assumed it was something the city already did. After checking and finding the city did not offer the benefits, he made the referral.
City staff members are now examining the cost and legality of extending the benefits.
“In general I’m supportive of the notion, but I want to take a look at all of the legal and tax type of implications,” says Mayor Mike Kadas.
In addition to speaking with the city’s insurance company and reviewing the law, Kadas says Missoula is looking at policies in other cities.
Nationwide, about 90 cities and towns and another 30 counties offer some type of benefits to same-sex domestic partners of their employees. According to a list maintained by the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based national gay rights organization, no municipalities in Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming offer such benefits.
If Missoula were to extend its benefits to include gay and lesbian partners, it would fit the trend of college towns leading the way in rural states. Iowa City, Iowa and Lawrence, Kan. are the only two cities in their states to offer same-sex partner benefits.
McGrath says he does not know how long it will take to review the issue and bring it before the council. Much will depend on the level of resistance.
“I know that there is some support and there is some resistance, I wouldn’t say opposition at this point,” McGrath says. “My hope is we’ll just do it and it won’t be a big deal.”