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Local Governments Uncertain On Same-Sex Partner Benefits

Plans to offer benefits to partners of same-sex employees at the city of Charlotte have stalled as council members worry about legal questions. The recently passed constitutional amendment prohibits recognizing same-sex unions. That amendment has thrown the future of Mecklenburg County's benefits package for same-sex employees into question, too. The day before North Carolina voters decided to put a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution, Charlotte city manager Curt Walton made a pitch to offer same-sex partner benefits to employees. "This recommendation keeps us within the mainstream of comparable organizations and addresses an issue of recruitment and retention that is of concern in our organization," he said. Walton even set aside a total of $150,000 in his proposed city budget to cover those benefits next year. But heterosexual marriage is now the only union recognized by the state, so extending benefits to same-sex partners of city employees could actually be illegal. On Wednesday, city council members decided they didn't want to take a risk without getting a legal opinion first. They turned to City Attorney Bob Hagemann, who deferred to a higher office. "What they have asked me to do, though, is seek an opinion from the state attorney general, that's not an uncommon thing to do," said Hagemann. Unfortunately, Hagemann says it's unlikely the AG's office will respond before the city has to finalize its budget on June 11th. Council members could vote to set money aside anyway, in case the decision comes back in favor of offering the benefits. Meanwhile, Mecklenburg County continues to offer benefits to same-sex partners, but Commissioner Bill James has called for a legal opinion to determine whether or not the county is breaking the law. The county's attorney is looking into it. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are not alone in this quandary. A total of eight municipalities in North Carolina offer same-sex partner benefits to their employees.