PAWTUCKET — In his budget for the coming fiscal year, Mayor Donald Grebien is proposing to eliminate all funding for health insurance and dental benefits for members of the City Council. He would also like to see this benefit eliminated for the School Committee.
While a few members appear to be on board with this already, a majority say they think the benefit is deserved for the long hours and amount of work involved and do not like to see the option taken away.
According to City Clerk Richard Goldstein, the practice of providing health/dental insurance to committee members is a long-standing one, although it is not specifically spelled out in any city ordinances. At one time, it was provided for free, but for the last decade or so, there has been a co-payment. In an ordinance approved by the City Council back in 2000, City Council members who take the health insurance benefit agree to pay two percent more than whatever the highest co-pay is among the city's collective bargaining agreements.
Currently, the annual premium cost for a medical family plan is $17,488 and $6,843 for a single plan; and for a family dental plan, $958.56 and $307.68 for a single. If a council or school committee member declines the health/dental insurance, he or she is currently entitled to a medical waiver in the amount of $3,000 per year for a family plan and $1,000 for a single plan, and a dental waiver of $300 per year for a family plan and $100 per year for a single.
Because the Grebien Administration had asked non-certified city employees to pay 25 percent in the way of a co-payment this year, the City Council agreed to to go two percentage points higher and contribute 27 percent of the premium per pay period while the School Committee contributes 25 percent.
On the City Council, all but two of the nine members receive health insurance and dental benefits. Councilors Mark Wildenhain and Christopher O'Neill do not accept either the medical and dental benefits or the waivers that are provided. Councilor Lorenzo Tetreault also does not receive medical or dental benefits but accepts half of the waiver amount for each.
Councilors David Moran, Thomas Hodge and Albert Vitali receive family medical and dental plans from the city and Councilors John Barry, Jean Philippe Barros, and James Chadwick accept single medical and dental plans.
On the School Committee, four out of the seven members receive municipal health and dental benefits. Committee members Joanne Bonollo and David Coughlin accept family medical and dental plans and Raymond Noonan and Nicole Nordquist receive single medical and dental plans. Michael Araujo and Alan Tenreiro do not take the medical and dental benefits but receive waivers that are pro-rated for their time on the committee, while Raymond Spooner does not accept either the medical/dental plan or the waivers.
Grebien defended his cutback plan, which he floated during his campaign, and which shows up now in the FY12 budget as “zeros” in the line items for health and dental for the City Council. The current year's budget showed $94,935 being spent on health benefits and $5,587 for dental for the City Council members who take the benefits.
The School Committee's health insurance and dental benefits are included in the school department's FY12 budget, where Business Manager Thomas Conlon said he has set aside $55,582 to cover both the medical and dental costs of members.
The mayor said he is revisiting the topic of health and dental benefits elimination for the council and school board because he is concerned about being consistent in his message that cuts are needed “across the board.” Particularly if he is going to be involved in contentious and possibly legal battles with some of the city's bargaining units over contracts, Grebien said, “I didn't want anybody to say that there are part-timers getting full-time benefits.”
Grebien said he knows there are some who are angry over the proposal, and noted that, if he wanted to get his budget passed, it probably would have been easier to keep these benefits line items intact. “But, at the end of the day, it was the right thing to do,” he stated.
Grebien noted that since he has not budgeted for the benefits, at least for the City Council, he would expect to see the council restore those line items only if they have found the revenue somewhere else in the budget. He said he is expecting a balanced budget, and that if the council makes any changes, “I expect them to tell me what they're going to do.”
While the health/dental benefits for the part-time City Council and School Committee seem an easy target of criticism, especially during such cash-strapped times, several of those on the receiving end say they are earned and deserved in a position that is both demanding and time-consuming.
City Council President David Moran pointed out that the council does not receive free health insurance, and, in fact, pays a higher co-pay than any of the other municipal unions. He further noted that while the council members receive a stipend for their service on the council ($7,372 for council members and $8,425 for council president), almost all of it ends up going toward the health care costs.
Moran points out the significant amount of personal time, even beyond the regular council meetings, that is involved in the elected role, and said he thinks the health care benefits “are certainly adequate for what we do.”
Moran acknowledged that the city is in a budget crisis and that the elimination of the health benefits would be a savings, but he also pointed out that with the 27 percent co-pays, “it's not as if we're not contributing—that's a major contribution.” He added, “It's a fallacy where people think the council receives free health care.”
Councilor John Barry also maintains that the councilors who opt to take the health insurance benefit do more than their share by paying a higher co-pay than any of the other city employees. He said the health and dental insurance availability has been a part of the benefits package included with the elected position since he has been on the council and thinks it should remain. “I don't think anybody runs for it, but the people who do take it are happy to pay the 27 percent co-pay,” he stated.
Barry also pointed out that Grebien was on the council a decade ago when the vote was taken on the ordinance that the council would always contribute a co-payment two percentage points higher than whatever the highest collective bargaining agreement was paying. Of the mayor's move to eliminate the benefits, he said, “I don't think the executive should be dictating to the legislative.”
Councilor James Chadwick pointed out that the council is a “hard-working body” that also hasn't taken a raise in stipends, and additionally noted that the council members pay the 27 percent co-pay. He noted that the council members put in a lot of time “for not a lot of compensation,” and said he personally feels that there is nothing wrong with taking a benefit that is provided.
Chadwick noted that in his own situation, he is currently working through an employment company as a contract employee and, despite his job search efforts, has not had a permanent job with health benefits for quite awhile. “I'm thankful I have that to fall back on,” he said, of the health insurance option.
Councilor Lorenzo Tetreault noted that everyone's situation on the council is different in regard to their ability to obtain health insurance. In his case, he gets the benefits through his wife, and therefore just takes half of the waiver money.
Tetreault said he understands what the mayor is doing, considering that the council position is part-time, but also notes that the health care provision has been part of the council package for a long time. “I see it as an individual's choice,” he said.
Councilor Albert Vitali noted that the issue of not taking the city health insurance was one of Grebien's campaign promises and said he understands that the mayor is trying to get part-time employees such as the council and school board members to follow suit. However, he said he doesn't think there has been enough discussion yet about it and hopes to see it analyzed more fully in the Finance Committee meetings that are part of the budget process.
“I think most of the council takes it (the health/dental insurance),” said Vitali. “But, everyone is an individual on the council and everybody has their reasons for taking it or not taking it.” He added, “I'm not opposed to looking at the issue, but I would like to have more discussion before I vote yes or no on this.”
Councilor Mark Wildenhain said he gets his health insurance through his job, and therefore chose to decline the city's health/dental benefits as well as the waiver “to provide tax relief to the residents.” He noted, however, that “this is my personal choice” and said he realizes there are some individuals who are not in the same position as he is in regard to obtaining health insurance.
That being said, Wildenhain stated that given the city's current budget crisis, he thinks as many municipal employees as possible who have the opportunity to get their health benefits through another source should be urged to do so. For example, he noted that some city employees, such as firefighters, work a second job that might also offer health benefits. “Everyone has to reevaluate their situation, but if someone can do this as a relief to taxpayers, I encourage them to do it,” he said.
In a poll of surrounding communities, health insurance benefits are provided to part-time elected officials in East Providence with a 20 percent co-pay, and were formerly provided to the city councilors in Central Falls prior to the receivership. Town council members do not receive health insurance in Cumberland, Lincoln or North Providence.
Mayor Donald Grebien, who does not take the city health insurance that goes with the mayor's job, said he is covered under his wife's benefits plan.