NEW BEDFORD — The City Council spent hours slashing $1.1 million from the 2018 fiscal year budget last week.
However, Mayor Jon Mitchell said he believes the council wasted an opportunity for even more savings, which would have taken mere minutes. The City Council voted unanimously, 10-0 (President Joe Lopes could not attend while speaking at a conference), against a motion that has saved other municipalities millions, he said.
“For all of the City’s Council's blustering about lowering taxes, the reality is they let taxpayers down when they failed to adopt Section 21,” Mitchell said. “Modest changes to health care plans could have saved the city millions.”
The June 22 City Council meeting began with Mitchell requesting the approval of Massachusetts General Law Chapter 32B, Sections 21 through 23. The jargon translates to granting the city ability to force the city’s union to negotiate health care plans. After a rise of $3.5 million from last year, the second largest jump in the budget, health care is projected to cost the city $43 million.
“If the growth in health care isn’t addressed, basic services including public safety will be crowded out of the budget,” Mitchell said.
Currently, if the city offers a revamped health care program to its employees, their union can decline the offer and continue with their current plan, Mitchell said.
Chapter 32B, Sections 21 through 23, forces the union and the city to meet with a three-person review panel if an agreement can’t be reached after 30 days of negotiations.
The panel’s role is to decide whether the city’s plan is favorable compared to the Group Insurance Commission’s standard. If it is better, the plan must be accepted by the union, even if it falls short of the union's current plan.
“What I proposed is something that literally dozens of communities have adopted within the last five years,” Mitchell said. “There’s nothing novel about it.”
The council, as evident by it unanimous vote, disagrees.
"I got phone calls from police, fire, and any of the workers right here in this building of city hall," Councilor-at-large Naomi Carney said. "So I could not go ahead pass something like that until I knew more about that."
According to a 2013 report by the state, 165 municipalities saved $193 million in total premium costs using the legislation. Fall River saved $3.7 million.
The City Council isn’t blind to rising health care cost, but is weary of a three-person panel deciding the plans for about 1,000 city employees.
“What I would like the mayor’s office to do is go do the research to find out what health care plans are out there that are affordable and then come back to the City Council and let us know what it is before they move forward with something,” Carney said. “That’s all I want to do. I want it to be completely transparent in what they’re doing.”
Mitchell, though, found it contradictory to cut the funding of the departments last week, citing rising taxes, but on June 22 not allowing cuts to the same departments’ health care plan, which would have saved taxpayers even more.
“We didn't cut their money. What we cut was money called government unclassified money,” Councilor-at-large Brian Gomes said. “There is real no scope of where that money goes to during the course of the year.”
The Council cut $369,236 from departments outside the government unclassified fund.
Sky admitted in years past the government unclassified fund had less of a scope. The CFO balks at the notion since he arrived.
In the FY 2018 Budget Book, government unclassified lists 19 items totaling the $9,524,290 proposed budget. Solid waste removal and FICA medical account for $6.77 million of the account.
“We’re going to have to come back to council at some point during the fiscal year to balance that account out,” Sky said.
Councilor-at-large Ian Abreu and Ward 5 Councilor Kerry Winterson also acknowledged the rising cost of health care, but before cutting into health care plans, they demanded aid from the state and federal levels.
“I don’t understand why we don't have the state delegation or federal, whether it be (Rep. William) Keating or anyone in regards to making things easier for us in regards to health care,” Winterson said.
The arguments didn’t sit well with the mayor.
The council “chose to pursue relatively minuscule and politically vindictive cuts, that’s only practical effect is to make municipal government less effective,” he said.
Follow Michael Bonner on Twitter @MikeBBonnerSCT.