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The Belly of the Beast

Backlash against Colorado Springs foreseen as Council nixes same-sex benefits



Pam Jones didn't want it to come to this.

She didn't want to spread the word that Colorado Springs is once again "Hate City, USA" -- a place where, she says, gays and lesbians aren't made to feel welcome.

"I hate to be the one to give Colorado Springs bad publicity," Jones said this week. "I love this city. It's my home."

But now, it's exactly what she plans to do.

Jones is among a handful of people who will be directly hit by the City Council's decision Tuesday to take away health-care benefits from same-sex partners of city employees, which have been available only since Jan. 1.

Jones' partner of 10 years, Juliet Draper, is a Colorado Springs firefighter. In 1999 Draper won the World Firefighter Combat Challenge, making her "the world's fittest female firefighter" and bringing the city's fire department international recognition.

Next week, the newspaper USA Today, with more than 5 million daily readers, plans to send a reporter to hang out with Jones and Draper to learn what it's like for an African-American, lesbian couple to live in Colorado Springs. Jones intends to tell the reporter how a City Council indebted to religious special interests decided that because she's gay, she doesn't deserve health care; how Council members made repealing same-sex benefits their first order of business upon taking office; how, even though citizens offered to pay for the benefits out of their own pockets, the Council still went ahead and eliminated them.

"The world is going to hear about it," Jones promised.

A decade later

This week's Council move comes more than a decade after Colorado Springs grabbed national headlines as the epicenter of the campaign to pass Amendment 2, which barred local governments in Colorado from enacting laws to protect gays against discrimination. The amendment's approval by state voters sparked a national boycott of Colorado by gay-rights groups and their supporters. The amendment was ultimately declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

Just last December, it appeared the city might shed its old image when the City Council voted, 5-4, to extend domestic benefits to gay and lesbian city employees for the first time.

But of the Council members who voted for the benefits at the time, only one -- Richard Skorman -- now remains on the Council. Five new members elected this spring oppose the benefits, as does the city's new mayor, Lionel Rivera. Conservative religious groups that oppose gay rights are widely credited with having helped elect the new majority.

When the new Council held its first formal meeting Tuesday, Rivera put a resolution on the agenda declaring the Council's intent to cut same-sex benefits from the 2004 budget -- even though budget deliberations are months away.

Look in the mirror

More than 100 people flooded City Hall. Many spoke passionately against the Council's plans to cut the benefits, arguing it would be unfair and discriminatory, would send mixed messages to city employees about the importance of diversity, and could hurt the city's ability to recruit and retain employees and attract new jobs to the city.

Peg Richardson, co-chair of the city's Workforce Management Council, pointed out that more than 180 of America's 500 biggest corporations already offer same-sex benefits, and said many of them might think twice about opening offices in Colorado Springs if the city again becomes known for anti-gay attitudes.

Also among those opposing the resolution were the Colorado Springs Professional Firefighters union, and Dave Palenchar, board chairman of the city-owned Memorial Hospital.

Less than a handful spoke in favor of the resolution. One was auto dealer Will Perkins, the co-founder of the group that sponsored Amendment 2, who argued that sexual orientation does not meet the criteria for minority status. Perkins didn't supply the context for how status would apply to health insurance benefits.

Councilman Skorman noted that so far, just six city employees have taken advantage of the benefits -- at an annual cost to the city of a little more than $6,000. Skorman offered to give up his annual Council salary of $6,250 to pay for the first year's cost, and businessman David Sellon II offered to pay for next year's costs. Pastor Nori Rost of Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church said her congregation would pay for the third year.

Jan Brennan of the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado pledged that if the Council would delay its decision by 90 days, her organization would commission a study to examine the economic impacts of benefits.

Skorman implored fellow Council members to grant the delay. "Why are we rushing into this?" he asked. "Is it because of a campaign promise?"

Skorman said he'd be "ashamed" if the Council were to go ahead with the resolution. "You're going to have to live with yourself," he warned his colleagues. "You're going to have to look in the mirror."

But when Skorman moved for a delay, and Mayor Rivera asked for a second, the dais was silent.

No special rights

Most of the Council members who voted to eliminate the benefits explained their reasons.

"I believe everyone should have equal and fair treatment," said Larry Small. But same-sex benefits, he argued, amount to "special treatment."

Charles Wingate said he couldn't support same-sex benefits because state law doesn't recognize same-sex relationships. And Jerry Heimlicher noted that voters elected the current Council knowing that the candidates opposed same-sex benefits. "The people have spoken," he said.

Tom Gallagher said it would be wrong to expand city benefits when many taxpayers can't afford health care themselves. "The people we serve can't afford this," he argued.

Randy Purvis said he feared a "ratchet effect," in which "the more you offer, the more you're expected to continue to offer."

Mayor Rivera said it would be unfair to grant benefits to same-sex partners when benefits aren't offered to others who might also need them, such as a "disabled brother, or a disabled mother" of a city employee. "We don't cover those," he noted.

Council members Margaret Radford and Scott Hente said nothing.

Ripple effect

Frank Whitworth, a longtime community activist, said he believes Tuesday's decision will have a "ripple effect" beyond the city. To his knowledge, Colorado Springs is the first U.S. city to rescind same-sex benefits, he said. "I certainly think that this will be picked up by the national media."

Rocky Scott, president of the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corporation, said those who predict negative economic fallout for the city might be proven right.

"Clearly, if you look at the history of Amendment 2, there was a negative image created for the community, which created some problems for recruiting some companies here," Scott said.

On the other hand, employers who happen to agree with the Council's position might be more likely to come here, Scott noted. But on the whole, evidence suggests that "the level of tolerance in a community [is] correlated with its economic success," he said.

Rivera, meanwhile, downplayed the potential fallout. "I don't believe it'll be an issue," he said.

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