Governor Patrick is said to be planning a visit to Newton this Saturday. His campaign will be giving out bumper stickers and signing up supporters. Here’s what I hope he talks about: the cost of health insurance to cover city workers. It’s a case study in what ails local communities these days.
Newton faces an $11 million deficit. Eighty percent of the cost of running the city goes for payroll and benefits. A solid chunk of those benefits covers health insurance. Recent town hall meetings in all eight wards showed that taxpayers want something done about the costs of that health insurance.
For one thing, the city shouldn’t be paying over 80 percent of the premiums, leaving the city workers to pay a token amount. It doesn’t happen in the private sector, and it’s not fair for taxpayers struggling to pay their own premiums to face a tax increase to cover workers who enjoy greater benefits than their own. Refusing to do better at sharing premium costs will eventually mean laying off some of those very workers, whose services are essential to the city.
Increasing the employee contribution is just one possible solution. Ending the bar to cities and towns’ joining the state’s Group Insurance Commission should be a no-brainer. A recent study by The Boston Foundation found that the handful of communities that have joined the GIC have enjoyed significant savings. If Boston joined the GIC, it could save an estimated 16-17 percent on health premiums.
Unfortunately, when the state allowed local communities to join the GIC, it required that 70 percent of local unions had to approve. And, viewing their benefits as something they had bargained for, they refused to agree to join the GIC. The only solution now seems to be for state law to be changed to lower (or dare we wish it) eliminate that 70 percent approval requirement.
So, Governor Patrick, you’ve already responsibly taken on public sector unions on the issues of civilian flaggers and the excesses of the Quinn bill. Public employee health insurance is “where the rubber hits the road.” You’ve been a stand-up guy on some of the toughest issues facing our state - education, ethics, transportation and pension reform – all hot button issues. This is the big one for cities and towns and their hard-pressed residents. Tell the people of Newton on Saturday what you’re going to do on this issue. The great recession and shrinking local revenues made it impossible to fulfill your 2006 campaign promise to lower local property taxes, but , by leading a reluctant legislature into the light on this, you could help lower the rate of property tax growth.