There is growing support among Columbia Council members to restore village workers who were abruptly stricken from the Columbia Association employee rolls more than a year and a half ago, Councilman Adam Rich said yesterday.
But village officials - who have complained about reductions in their health benefits and the sudden and secretive manner in which the change was implemented - would lose some autonomy under the new arrangement, he said.
If the Columbia Association takes back bookkeeping, human resources and other functions from the villages, it also would assume the power to hire, fire and set policy for the villages, Rich said.
"There is a strong undercurrent moving quickly toward reinstating the employees," Rich, of River Hill, told his village board Monday. He elaborated on his comments in an interview yesterday.
Other members of the 10-member council either could not be reached or declined to comment on a matter they consider highly confidential.
Rich said he does not see a reason for secrecy, but he added that he does not know the full story on the workers' removal.
For years, village workers were employees of the village associations, with the Columbia Association funding their salaries and benefits as part of the village budget. That changed in 1989, when workers in nine of Columbia's 10 villages were made association employees. One village, Long Reach, opted to continue employing its workers directly.
In February 1999, 10 years after they were made association employees, workers in the nine villages were told they had to become village employees again. They were told that the reason was too sensitive to disclose at the time, but that it eventually would be revealed.
The workers did not lose their jobs as a result, but the change caused some problems with health benefits and village administration. When village employees were under the Columbia Association umbrella, they were able to take advantage of the association's administrative services for such things as payroll, human resources and accounting. Workers could take part in the association's medical benefits and plans.
The change affected about 70 full- and part-time village workers and made the villages more expensive to run, in part because they now buy medical benefits for small numbers of employees instead of participating in a large insurance plan.
The move also strained relations between the Columbia Association and the villages, which together administer services for the 87,000 residents of Columbia.
The reason for the change has not been disclosed, despite a vote by the Columbia Council in July seeking a legal opinion on whether it could be disclosed.
Sources have said that the arrangement threatened the association's status as a tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation with the Internal Revenue Service.
Rich said the village workers, while they were technically Columbia Association employees, answered to their respective village boards instead of to the association. He said that arrangement somehow threatened the association's nonprofit status.
"My understanding was, while legally they were employees of CA, in practice they were not 'factual employees.' They were actually serving at the pleasure of the board," he said. "They were sort of receiving benefits from CA while CA was not their 'factual employer.'
"To prevent any infraction of our nonprofit status, you must either be the employer or not be the employer," he said. "There is no middle ground."
Anne Dodd, village manager for Kings Contrivance, said she did not think the villages could give up their power to hire and fire to the association even if they wanted to.
"It does not sound appropriate because of the way our individual charters are written," she said. "We are an individual corporation, and the hiring and firing of the village manager is expressly delegated to the village board."