Virgil Gay, James Shattuck and Donald Bartels sat together on West Contra Costa Unified's school board way back when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon.

So why almost 45 years later are taxpayers still spending thousands of dollars a year on their health insurance?

The last of them left office in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president, but they are among more than 200 former officials in the Bay Area still benefiting years -- and sometimes decades -- later from what government watchdogs call a "dirty little secret'' of local elected office: taxpayer-funded medical coverage for life.

An investigation by this newspaper found Bay Area taxpayers spent more than $1.5 million last year on health benefits for former part-time elected officials -- and, in many cases, their dependents. In fact, the newspaper discovered, in 19 instances, taxpayers still paying for dependents' health care for politicians who not only are no longer serving the public -- they are no longer alive.

"I really don't think that voters in California know about this," said Sabrina Brennan, an elected commissioner for the San Mateo County Harbor district, one of 13 agencies providing benefits for dependents of deceased politicians.

The newspaper found at least 65 agencies big and small across the greater Bay Area, from affluent Palo Alto to blue-collar Concord, from BART to the Santa Clara Valley Water District, that are on the hook for taxpayer-funded health policies for former politicians that can cost as much as $20,000 to $50,000 yearly.

While more and more agencies are ending the perk for future elected officials as an unjustifiable expense in a time of tight budgets, the newspaper discovered 161 elected officials currently sitting on part-time city councils, special districts or school boards who still qualify for lifetime health coverage.

"Why shouldn't we have that benefit? We're no different than any other (city) employee," said Daly City Mayor David Canepa, 38.

In fact, local elected officials are different. With a few exceptions like county boards of supervisors and the city councils in San Jose and Oakland, most are part-time, a status that in the private sector rarely qualifies one for such generous post-employment benefits.

Canepa insisted the part-time designation is not reality, saying he works more than 40 hours a week for an $18,000 salary he called "extremely meager.'' That's why he said he deserves the $9,300-a-year health care perk once he leaves office, even though he was unaware of it until informed by a reporter.

Another Daly City council member, Carol Klatt, 75, said she was unsure whether she would take the medical coverage when she leaves office, acknowledging it was "probably not" a good deal for taxpayers.

Data collected by this newspaper from governments in 12 counties shows:

  • Who paid out the most? Palo Alto topped the region, paying $115,275 in insurance costs last year to provide medical benefits to 13 former politicians and their dependents. Each will receive the benefit for the rest of their lives. Former council member and Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, 58, received $21,575 worth of coverage in 2012 after serving eight years in office. She was quick to point out that she voted in 2004 to stop offering the benefit to her city's future elected officials. But she and others on the council stopped short of stripping themselves of the perk. "It is ironic that I am of the last generation that is getting that benefit," she said.

    From left: Daly City Mayor David Canepa, who cites his ’extremely meager’ salary in defending part-time officials’ lifetime health
    From left: Daly City Mayor David Canepa, who cites his 'extremely meager' salary in defending part-time officials' lifetime health benefits; Yoriko Kishimoto, a former mayor of Palo Alto, the Bay Area city that has spent the most on former officials' benefits; and Lynn Woolsey, who opted for lifetime benefits from Petaluma after she moved on to Congress. (Bay Area News Group file photographs)

  • Which school district paid most? West Contra Costa paid more than any other school district -- more than $97,000 to cover nine former trustees, including Shattuck, Bartels and Gay, all of whom couldn't be reached or didn't return calls. That's equivalent to what the district spends to educate 11 students a year.

  • Who received the most? Former six-term Santa Clara Valley Water District Director Patrick Ferraro, 74, who left office in 1995, received benefits that cost nearly $50,000 last year that covered himself and two dependents. He is one of three former board members who receive the perk.

  • Elected when Kennedy was president: Eight former politicians still drawing benefits first took office in the 1960s. First among them was Frank Borghi, 89, of Union City, who was elected in 1962 to the Alameda County Water District and stayed in office 30 years. His insurance cost $11,676 last year.

  • Better than Congress care: Even a retired member of Congress got vision and dental coverage last year from her time on a city council more than 20 years ago. Petaluma paid $160 in administrative fees to its self-insured plans for former Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey, 76, who served on its council from 1985 to 1992. However, the city refused to reveal how much taxpayers actually paid for her vision and dental bills, claiming that would violate medical privacy laws.

    Woolsey said in a phone interview that she opted for the lifetime benefit when she left the council for Washington, because "I was having some dental work done and honestly, the federal plan isn't very good. ... I kid you not.''

  • Elected to new office but still covered by old post: San Rafael's school district doesn't pay for board member Paul Cohen's health insurance, but the city of San Rafael shelled out more than $32,000 for his family's coverage last year. That's thanks to the lifetime benefit the 57-year-old received during his time on the City Council from 1991 to 2007. In all, San Rafael paid $102,000 for health insurance last year to seven former officials and one current one drawing benefits from a previous term in office.

  • Services cut but not lifetime benefits: Fairfield, a struggling Solano County city that closes its City Hall on Fridays to cut costs, paid more than $76,000 last year to insure three former council members.

    Just how lucrative the lifetime benefit can be depends on how long an elected official served, when they left office, and the nitty-gritty of each agency's rules.

    In some cases, governments pay the entire cost of coverage, while others pay a share of it through the California Public Employees Retirement System. But while the insurance cannot be taken away once it is provided, the former politicians can be required to pay more of the cost.

    A government "can lower the amount of its health care subsidy even after the former elected official enters retirement," said CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco.

    But dozens of governments paid far more than the required minimum CalPERS health insurance contribution last year, which was $1,344.

    There is little public discussion of how much governments end up paying for the perk. Government watchdogs said the practice is fraught with secrecy, potential conflicts of interest and self-dealing, and creates ongoing strains on government budgets during times of layoffs, furloughs and cuts in public services.

    Officials in one city, Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, reported spending more than $63,000 last year to insure five former politicians but refused to identify them.

    "It's a dirty little secret,'' said former state Assembly member Joe Nation, who's now a Stanford public policy professor. "People who do this know, deep down, that it's wrong."

    In all, 65 agencies that responded to the newspaper's survey reported that they provided insurance coverage in 2012 for at least one former board member, or in a few cases for other part-time elected officials like clerk or treasurer. That's 23 percent of the agencies that answered the newspaper's request. (About 150 agencies did not respond to the survey.) A 1995 state law banned special districts from providing benefits to former elected officials who took office after that year. It didn't strip the benefit from those already receiving it, though. Cities and school districts can still offer the perk.

    The head of a national government watchdog questioned why former part-time elected officials would receive such benefits in the first place.

    "It's impossible to imagine part-time people in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors getting health coverage when they leave (employment)," said Thomas Schatz, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste. "It's something taxpayers should be outraged about. It should be stopped. This is one of the reasons why a lot of governments in California are having problems."

    However, some former officials were quick to defend the benefit.

    "Don't you get into this with me," said Peter Snyder, 79, who left office in 1996 after serving 16 years on Dublin's council. Last year, the city contributed $9,200 to his health insurance. "There were agreements that were in place. Don't you know how government works?"

    Snyder took office when Dublin became a city in 1982 and voted two years later for the policy that allowed himself and other council members to receive medical benefits when they left office. Three other members of the council who received benefits last year also voted for that policy, records show.

    Snyder said he didn't consider that to be a conflict of interest because the benefit was not limited to him specifically. Six other former elected Dublin leaders also got health coverage form the city last year for a cost $46,100. The city no longer offers the perk to elected officials.

    Robert Stern, the former general counsel to the state ethics watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, said votes where officials give themselves benefits need to be viewed through a prism of "who else is there to approve it?" But he was critical of officials taking benefits after they leave office as a matter of public policy. "They bury it so no one flags it and questions it."

    Offering such a perk to potential hires for full-time government jobs may be proper "to attract the best candidates," said Stern, also the former director of the defunct Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "But what's the justification for giving health benefits to someone 30 or 40 years after they left office?"

    Both Nation and Stern said local governments should take the decisions about benefits out of the hands of politicians by appointing citizen commissions to decide them. That would also remove potential ethical dilemmas of elected officials voting on medical benefits they receive while in office, which are often the same as full-time government employees receive.

    Those benefits can clearly be pricey.

    Ferraro, who served on the Santa Clara Valley Water District from 1973 to 1995, was shocked to learn his family coverage cost taxpayers nearly $50,000 last year.

    "Get out of here. That's ridiculous. I had no idea the cost of our insurance is so high,'' he said. "Hopefully with the Affordable Care Act it will go down."

    Unlike many agencies that provide insurance through CalPERS, the district purchases its employee insurance directly from Kaiser and Blue Shield.

    After leaving office in 1995, Ferraro worked for the water district for eight years. But, he said, he had already qualified for the same health coverage.

    Since Ferraro stopped working for the district in 2004, his health coverage has cost the public $397,000.

    "It's because I had my kids late in life," he said. "I hope my neighbors don't start throwing rocks at my house now.''

    If governments won't stop offering lifetime health benefits, there's one other group who could say no: the politicians themselves.

    Brennan, the harbor commissioner, declines to take any taxpayer-funded medical coverage, period. She says politicians who accept lifetime benefits are looking out for themselves, not the voters.

    "There is a sense of entitlement when people get elected," she said. "It's like a disease."

    Staff writer Daniel J. Willis contributed to this story.

    Contact Thomas Peele at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.