When New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell delivered his state of the city address last month, he mentioned renegotiating what the city pays for employee health care as one of his priorities. cost reduction. When he presented his $471 million budget to New Bedford City Council last week, he again insisted it was one of the few areas with potential for savings.
On Tuesday evening, the council took up Mayor Mitchell’s third attempt to get the city to pass Sections 21-23 of Chapter 32B of the Massachusetts General Laws, which would allow the city to negotiate these health care costs with public union representatives. through a neutral arbitrator, and for the third time the board rejected it.
First, a vote on whether to send the motion to the council’s finance committee failed 3-7, with councilors Brad Markey, Linda Morad and Ryan Pereria the only votes in favor. A second vote on whether to proceed with the motion was approved 8 to 2, with only councilors Markey and Morad voting against. Ward 4 Councilor Derek Baptiste was not present.
During his weekly appearance on WBSM on Wednesday, Mitchell shared his disappointment with the board’s decision.
“There aren’t a lot of levers the city can use to save taxpayers money on non-discretionary spending. You provide health care, and it’s there, and you have to pay the bill. We provide our employees with very good medical coverage, but we provide it inefficiently,” he said. “State law provides us with the opportunity to negotiate effective and efficient health care for our employees and we have not taken advantage of it.”
Mitchell particularly took issue with the fact that the board didn’t even bring the matter to the finance committee for discussion.
“Not only did they reject it, they didn’t even vote to discuss it. Now think about it,” he said. “The merits of the case should be discussed in open session so that people can weigh the costs and benefits of this, but last night the fire and police unions filled the room in the council chambers, as they have done before when this came, and the councilors come to shoot down not only the measure itself, and I can’t stress this enough, shot down the very opportunity to discuss it.
Mitchell says health care costs for the city have increased by about $1 million a year since 2012, from $35.2 million to $45.7 million, and he expects that these costs increase by another 7% in the immediate future. He said without renegotiating the percentage of an employee’s health care paid by the city, it would result in higher taxes for city residents and business owners.
“Look, the board can’t have it both ways. The council can’t say we’re against raising taxes, but on the other hand, not taking meaningful steps to do something about it,” he said. “Instead they said, ‘No, we’re not even going to discuss it,’ and I think that’s a real problem. It’s going to make it harder in the long run for taxpayers, for taxpayers. municipal services I’m disappointed, but I think all the taxpayers in the city are also disappointed.
City Council chairman Ian Abreu said he voted against the motion because he believed savings could be made without having to refer the matter to arbitration.
“I have always believed that our Public Service Committee exists for one purpose: to work with our administration to analyze costs and to work with our executive to find common ground. All parties need to come together around the table to help find a solution,” Abreu said. “I have very serious concerns about what changing our health care benefits would mean for our retirees, paraprofessionals, food service workers and custodial staff who are already stretched thin. Between 2019 and 2021, the PEC saved taxpayers $2,700,000 in healthcare plan concessions. However, savings only happen when both parties come together and negotiate.
General Counsel Shane Burgo voted against the motion and also cited PEC as a viable option.
“Rising health care costs are a national problem and will not be solved by cutting benefits or increasing out-of-pocket spending. The New Bedford Public Employees Committee (PEC) continues to bargain in good faith, I encourage this administration to do the same,” Burgo said. “PEC has made many concessions that have saved them almost $3,000,000 over the past three years. I will continue to support their bargaining position to negotiate fair and equitable health care.
Ward 3 Councilman Hugh Dunn, who also voted against the motion, suggested an ulterior motive in bringing the idea of negotiating healthcare costs back to council.
“The proposal is a tired and perennial red herring tabled again to distract from administration spending in the annual budget. There has been no tax rate reduction in any municipality where this proposal has been enacted. The only thing that has been cut is essential health care coverage for city workers,” he said. “I support the right of our employees to negotiate their health care – and I refuse to compromise that commitment, especially during a pandemic.”
Mitchell said that despite the council having rejected this motion three times, he will continue to bring it forward until he decides to act.
“What we’re trying to do is not wait for a financial crisis to put in place these useful reforms, these meaningful reforms,” he said. “That’s what we do in New Bedford, wait until there’s a big hole in the roof before we go fix it. I happen to follow the saying fix your roof while the sun is still shining, because we don’t want to get to a point where things are so tight, finances are so tight, that we actually have to cut things that really matter to people or unduly tax taxpayers and/or both.
“That’s why I preach the long term. This is a long-term measure that will put the city on a better footing,” he said. “Unfortunately the council missed that opportunity (Tuesday) evening.”