It’s not just in Washington where political partisans refuse to talk to each other.
For years, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell has tried to engage the City Council on the topic of lowering the cost of health insurance for city employees by adopting a state law passed in 2011. But for years, the council has given him the back of its hand on the subject.
This year, with inflation set to saddle New Bedford with at least a 7% increase in health care costs (on average the increases are said to be about 5% a year over the last 20 years), the council has incredulously refused to even discuss the topic with the mayor.
By a 7-3 vote on May 24, the council voted down Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey’s proposal to send the mayor’s suggestion to adopt a money-saving update to the state’s health insurance law to the Finance Committee. There, the councilors could have heard from the state’s Group Insurance Commission and about the legislation that gives Massachusetts cities and towns more leverage in negotiating health care costs with government unions.
Mitchell as far back as 2018 supplied the council with facts and figures about the alleged benefits of the plan, including that in the first few years of accepting the state law, Fall River saved $3.7 million; Dartmouth $511,000; Fairhaven $540,000; and Acushnet $190,000.
But the council, with the exceptions of Markey and freshman Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira, showed absolutely no interest in even hearing the details.
Here are some facts to consider in light of the council’s disinterest in discussing ways the city could save money in health care costs. It’s important to note here that New Bedford employees are at a variety of stages of life and health and some of them might even get a better plan by examining the state options.
The council, however, seems to be hoping the problem will just go away. But it won’t.
In the last 10 years, the property taxes on the average single-family residence in New Bedford have jumped from $2,761 to $4,055. During that same time, the property taxes on the average commercial property in the city jumped from $11,575 to $16,918. Also during this same time, the city and employees’ contributions to the health care plan (a 75% to 25% split) took an even bigger jump.
Simply put, the property taxpayers and the city employees of New Bedford are both caught in a death spiral of escalating health care costs.
Now, it’s budget season, and the City Council is always very good about scrutinizing the individual department heads to see if they are carrying an extra $50,000 job or two here and there, but they are not quite so interested in scrutinizing the way the city buys its health care. But if you go by the savings that the mayor says were realized in Fall River, New Bedford could save upwards of almost $4 million in just a year or two.
In fiscal year 2017, when the city’s health insurance costs increased by 8% in just one year, the cost to city taxpayers was about $3 million. There’s the savings in inflationary increases right there.
“Virtually every community in Greater New Bedford has accepted Sections 21-23 (the updated state health care law) in recent years and has achieved significant savings while meeting the obligation to provide their employees with the health coverage they deserve,” wrote Mitchell in 2018 when he previously had asked the council to move on the matter. He included the same letter again in this year’s budget message to the council. “Fiscal realities make it necessary for New Bedford to follow suit.”
Yet when the proposal went before the council, Ward 3 Councilor Hugh Dunn, sounding every bit a spokesperson for the city unions, quickly said “Motion for no further action,” on the matter. Dunn’s suggestion was followed by a chorus of councilors seconding him, with Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta’s voice being the loudest.
It was not lost on anyone that representatives of some of the city employees’ most influential unions were sitting directly behind the councilors. Those union members are part of the Public Employee Committee, which has the role of negotiating with the mayoral administration over health care insurance.
The PEC members said nothing, but they didn’t have to. The majority of councilors were as anxious to dispose of this problem as are Republican senators to dispose of discussions of gun control. Their goal, first, last and always, is to kill any proposals that would give the city a more level playing field in negotiating health care costs for city employees.
Markey and Pereira tried without success to bring a voice of reason to the issue.
But with the PEC members sitting right behind them too, even they sounded almost apologetic for wanting to examine whether there were any savings to be had. Both councilors began their remarks by saying that city employees deserve the best health care that the city can provide. (Or course they do, but one would hope the good councilors feel the same way about the property taxpayers. Many of those taxpayers work in the private sector and are paying the bills for city employees who have better health care plans than they themselves do.)
So Markey apologized.
“Putting this into committee, would be to ask questions, (to) see what this entails, (to) see what we could do. Is there going to be some savings?” he said. Markey, himself, by the way, has accepted some $700 worth of contributions from the firefighters union over the last three years so one wonders just how serious he was. He must have known his motion would fail.
But at least Markey wanted to hear about any savings. By the way, the savings would be realized by early on introducing an arbiter into the process who would decide between the administration and union positions.
For his part, Pereira told a story about his grandfather and grandmother, working people whom he said had struggled to pay expensive medical bills toward the end of their lives. He was the sole councilor who seemed to understand the bind the city is in, and why it is in that bind.
“Folks, health care is a national problem. That is evident in my own life experiences.” said the 24-year-old, who said he had watched his mother and aunts and uncles bring groceries to his grandparents when they could not afford their medical bills.
“My meme and pepe worked hard all their life only to have our federal government in Washington turn their backs on them. Hard-working Americans,” he said.
The youngest councilor is right that the health care crisis needs to be solved at the national level and that everyone deserves health care as a right. The new Ward 6 councilor, however, did do some more genuflecting to the city unions but he at least seemed to understand there is a limit to what property taxpayers can pay for ever-escalating municipal health care.
“We have a chance tonight in this city, to investigate New Bedford’s role on this national issue,” he said.
Then after yet one more obligatory bow to the police, firefighters and teachers Pereira added, “We also have a duty to our taxpayers and the resident of this city,” adding that he would not be doing his job correctly if he did not allow the Finance Committee to examine whether the city “could save money while also providing excellent health coverage for our hard-working employees.”
That last sounded like even if the motion had somehow been examined by the council, Pereira would in the end have found a way to reject it to keep the unions happy.
It was also not clear why Markey and Pereira were so mystified about how the state’s insurance law would save the city money. Clearly, it had to be something that gave municipalities leverage over the unions.
Anyway, those councilors at least went through the motions of trying to find out if there was a more reasonable way to provide health care. But after 10 years of Mitchell pleading with the unions to go along with it, it’s pretty clear they are never going to.
Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima tried to argue that it’s not necessary to adopt the section of the state law that would bring in the arbiter because the PEC could work out any problems with the mayor. But with average property taxes increasing by almost $1,300 over the last 10 years and insurance contributions increasing at an even faster clip, it’s clear that that’s not happening. And it’s not as if New Bedford is so much wealthier than the surrounding communities that it can simply afford the higher taxes and premiums.
In reflecting on why New Bedford has come to this deadlock on taxes and health care costs, it is perhaps helpful to examine how much money city councilors have accepted from the two unions — police and firefighters — that drive most of city employee bargaining.
City Council President Ian Abreu, who was silent throughout the insurance discussion, but who voted against examining the mayor’s proposal, is the most aggressive courter of the unions. He has accepted $1,500 from the firefighters’ union over the last three years and $490 from the police union.
Councilor Hugh Dunn has accepted $500 from the firefighters and $500 from the police
Councilor Lima has accepted $500 from the firefighters; Councilor Brian Gomes has accepted $500 from the police union; Councilor Linda Morad has accepted $240 from the firefighters; Councilor Naomi Carney $200 from the firefighters and $200 from the police; and Councilor Pereira himself has gotten on the firefighters’ union bandwagon to the tune of $100. Perhaps they are just testing him out.
And we have not even begun to talk about which councilors are themselves recipients of the city health care plan they are voting on. Councilor Lima acknowledged that he is on the plan. Who else may be?
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