NEW BEDFORD — The City Council voted Thursday night not to consider changes in how the city negotiates employee health insurance benefits, once again rejecting a move that Mayor Jon Mitchell argues is the most significant step the city can take to control rising expenses. 

In a 9-2 vote, the council nixed committee discussion of a proposal to adopt provisions of a state law that, among other things, would allow binding arbitration on health insurance. It’s the third time since 2018 that the council has turned down the proposal that has been strongly opposed by public employee unions, who argue that it would weaken their hand in setting terms for health coverage.

In May 2022, a vote to send the same measure to the Finance Committee failed by a vote of 3-7 with one member absent. In January 2018, the council did vote 10-1 to send  the proposal to the committee, but minutes of meetings that year show that the committee never discussed it and 12 months later decided to take no further action. 


Councilor-at-Large Shane Burgo, who voted to kill the proposal last year, did so again on Thursday evening, after making the motion for “no further action” on the mayor’s request.  

“It’s been asked, it’s been answered,” Burgo said in brief discussion. “This is not about saving tax dollars,” he said, arguing that the mayor “wants to take away the little negotiating power the unions have.”

He said that the issue has been aired, even if the mayor is trying to “have the public think it hasn’t been discussed.”

Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima, one of the two “no” votes, along with Council President and Councilor at-Large Linda Morad, said during discussion that he was “appalled” that the item appeared on the agenda at all, as the mayor had to have known that it would go nowhere.

“This item has no chance of passing the City Council,” Lima said. He said the move would get media attention — “it’s going to be a show” — but accomplish little else.

Still, he said he would oppose the motion to take no further action because he felt the question should be put before the committee, although he did not vote to send it to the committee last year. Minutes show that move was supported by Morad, Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira and Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey.

“I’m also no fan of taking no action,” Lima said. “At some point something is going to happen.”

Markey told his fellow councilors Thursday night that he thought the measure should go to the Finance Committee. His motion to do that did not even get the “second” needed for a vote. 

In a brief statement released after the vote, Mitchell returned to the point he’s been making for years about facing rising health care costs.

“There’s no dispute that the rise of employee health care costs is crowding out the city’s ability to pay for essential services and is placing increasing pressure on taxpayers,” Mitchell said. While noting that almost all cities and towns in Southeastern Massachusetts have adopted these portions of state law to curb health insurance costs, he said the council’s refusal to do so will “exacerbate the problem and no doubt prompt the public to question whether city government is faithfully responding to its needs.”

In proposing his $513 million budget for the next fiscal year that is now being considered by the council, Mitchell said last month that controlling health care spending is the key to controlling overall rising costs. His administration argues that the savings the city needs cannot be realized by eliminating a few positions here or there, or by making cuts that would not hamper essential city services. 

Mitchell said in his budget message that the proposed health insurance allocation of nearly $52 million represents a 10% boost over current spending on this and that the cost of insurance has risen nearly $1 million a year since 2012.

“Without a doubt, healthcare reform is the area of the budget that would have the most positive impact on municipal finances,” Mitchell said in a statement released with the budget, adding that was why he would again ask the council to adopt three sections of a state law setting rules for cities negotiating employee health insurance benefits. 

Mitchell’s June 1 letter to the council asking for health care reform echoes letters he sent last year, and in 2018, emphasizing the urgency of the need for savings and the benefits of the procedure spelled out in state law, which he said would balance a process now tipped in the unions’ favor.

“Employee unions wield effective veto over any City proposal, enabling them to fully utilize their lopsided advantage at the negotiating table,” Mitchell wrote. He argued that the unions have agreed to changes only when pressed, which he said has saved relatively little money, leaving “major cost drivers untouched.”

Under the proposed changes, negotiations would continue, and the city would not be allowed to unilaterally impose conditions on the unions, Mitchell said. One key change would be to establish a Health Insurance Review Board that would settle disputes in terms that would be binding on the parties.

The unions play up the significance of the cost savings to which they have agreed in years past, and offer a vastly different interpretation of the changes outlined in the law.

In their view, the procedures for changing health insurance would undermine the unions, and the role of the Public Employee Committee (PEC). The committee, made up of a representative of all public employee unions and a retiree, was established specifically to negotiate health insurance benefits under a state law adopted by New Bedford in 2007.

“I’m happy that the union voice has been preserved,” Tom Nickerson, president of the New Bedford Educators Association, which represents public school teachers, said in the hallway after the vote was taken. He said the changes Mitchell supports “would have taken the voice from the unions of this city.”

Bruce Bettencourt, president of Local 851 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said he feared the change would raise the employees’ share of health insurance premiums above the current 25%.

Mayor Mitchell in the past has disputed that claim. He has said that any change to the 25/75 split could only be made in a separate agreement between the city and the PEC unrelated to the provisions of state law he is recommending be adopted. 

Bettencourt has not been swayed by any of Mitchell’s reassurances.

“The unions are not going to be able to negotiate on health insurance” under the mayor’s proposal, said Bettencourt, a diesel mechanic in the Department of Facilities and Fleet Management whose union represents some 300 employees who work in a range of roles, including office and airport staff, plumbers, animal control, and building custodians. 

Billy Sylvia, president of the New Bedford Firefighters, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 841, said on Thursday before the council meeting that the Public Employee Committee or PEC was established to conduct health care negotiations, and the changes would “take the PEC completely out of it…You just get forced into bad health care.”

The way to cut costs is to negotiate with the PEC, as the city has done in the past, Sylvia said, which “has saved the city millions of dollars.”

Mitchell in turn argues that most cities and towns in the state have adopted these changes, and in Southeastern Massachusetts, only Westport and New Bedford have not. In 2018, he cited a 2013 state report showing that health care reform had saved Fall River $3.7 million in a year, Somerset $900,000, Dartmouth and Fairhaven more than half a million each. 

The Massachusetts Municipal Association said Thursday that the organization did not have more recent figures on this. 

After Thursday’s meeting, New Bedford’s Interim Chief Financial Officer Michael Gagne echoed points he’s made to the council about facing inconvenient facts about health insurance costs. In a presentation to the council last month, he looked ahead two fiscal years, to 2025, when projected increases will bring the cost of health insurance to more than $57 million, “far outstripping what the city will have in new revenues.”

He pulled out a sheet of numbers showing that the amount the city paid in insurance claims from July 1 through April has risen from just over $35 million in 2022 to more than $42 million this year, a jump of nearly 19%

“That’s concerning,” he said.

Email Arthur Hirsch at

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