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Originally published June 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 5, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Bellevue OKs benefits for domestic partners

After a lawsuit and years of lobbying by gay-rights advocates, the Bellevue City Council Monday night approved employment benefits for partners...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

After a lawsuit and years of lobbying by gay-rights advocates, the Bellevue City Council Monday night approved employment benefits for partners of gay city employees.

The unanimous vote means that domestic partners — straight and gay — will receive the same benefits the city now provides to married partners. These benefits include medical, dental, vision, life insurance, mental-health counseling and family leave.

"It's definitely an exciting night and a giant leap forward for the city of Bellevue," said George Einsetler, a Bellevue 911 dispatcher who has been with his partner for three years.

Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights group, sued the city in April on behalf of Einsetler and two other gay city employees who said they were unable to get time off to attend family funerals or pay for health care for their partners.

In the days after the lawsuit was filed, Bellevue city leaders said they hadn't approved domestic-partner benefits because they were too expensive. But a week later, Mayor Grant Degginger said the city would provide the benefits, adding it had always been interested but just hadn't acted quickly enough.

The expanded benefits are "consistent with our policy of treating all employees fairly and equally," Degginger said Monday.

Several gay employees have left the city in recent years because of the lack of benefits, according to the employees involved in the suit.

Degginger said he hopes the new benefits will help the city retain and recruit workers. "It's a challenging job market out there," he said.

It will probably be two or three months before domestic partners receive the benefits. The council's vote changed city law, but the human-resources department still has to negotiate with employee unions and implement the changes.

City officials hope Lambda Legal will drop or delay its lawsuit, but the group said it still has to take a close look at the city's plan and will monitor how the benefits are implemented this summer.

"We have a lot of open questions," said Tara Borelli, a Lambda Legal attorney.

Bellevue joins many other public employers in Washington that offer domestic-partner benefits, including the state, cities of Seattle, Burien and Spokane, and King and Snohomish counties.

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City officials aren't sure of the exact cost of the new benefits, but they said that expanding medical, dental and vision will cost between $166,000 and $414,000 a year.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com

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