The City Council adopted legislation to give the mayor more flexibility in negotiating insurance reform.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday night unanimously voted to adopt a state law that gives municipalities greater control over employee health insurance plans.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said his intention was to negotiate with the Public Employee Committee, created to speak on insurance on behalf of the municipal unions, outside the legislation. The adoption of the law was a backup plan.
North Adams Teachers Association President Marie Kelly-Whitney said teachers felt the adoption of the language "disrespected" them in light of the good working relationship between the administration and union. She asked that the vote be postponed.
"I've witnessed a great working force between the superintendent, administration and union," said Kelly-Whitney, who was allowed to speak during the meeting because of confusion over the hearing-of-visitors' rules. "Because of this collaboration, the union members met last week and ratified a new evaluation tool.
"I believe if given the opportunity to work together at finding the best health plan possible, all parties will benefit," she continued. "Passing this law now will make us feel very disrepected."
Alcombright said there was no intent to disrespect anyone.
"We just have a timetable between now and the end of the budget cycle," he explained to the council. Should negotiations fall through, there were deadlines of notifications and responses between the city, union and state that would have to be met, the mayor said, and adopting the legislation now would make that easier.
The changes to M.G.L. 32B, 21-23, were passed as cost-savings measures to give municipalities greater flexibility in providing health insurance plans.
Muncipalities and other governing bodies could join the state's Group Insurance Commission if the cost savings are at least 5 percent or design plans that meet GIC minimum and maximum benchmarks. In either case, there is a 30-day negotiation process and steps beyond that.
"This kind of put municipalities as employers on an even keel with the rest of the state," said Councilor Lisa Blackmer, who noted that health insurance takes a "huge bite" out of budgets and the changes are also forcing insurance providers to be more competitive.
Councilor John Barrett III called the legislation "courageous" and indicated that he fully supported adopting the law.
Alcombright said the plans being proposed show some significant savings.
"We all know that there's going to be some give and take on this," he said. "It's not the most money we can save it's how much money we can save and still provide a good quality health plan for the employees of the city of North Adams."
The council also passed to a second reading and publication changes in the compensation and classification plan related to the changes in a clerk's position and raises for nonunion workers, pending the city solicitor's review of the order's language.
The changes had been debated several times, most recently at last week's Finance Committee. Barrett, who had been outspoken about raises for city employees making over $60,000, a part-time public service clerk's post being upgraded and the wages of reserve police officers (which are not related to any of the changes proposed) went over that ground again.
The exchange between Barrett, the former mayor, and the current mayor again got testy. Alcombright told Barrett he should be ashamed of himself for insinuating that Alcombright had "pushed 80-year-old people out the door" in cutting part-time jobs in the past; Barrett said he'd been advised to go the district attorney over inconsistencies in the city's compensation plan.
Alcombright said those issues and others had nothing to do with the raises in front of the council. All but the part-time clerk (an estimated $1,000 for the rest of the year) were covered by grants or already approved budgeted funds.
"I ask the council to please act on what's before you," he asked. "This is not about reserve police officers, it's not about adjustments that I made in staffing three years ago.
"If you don't want to do it, don't do it, but please act on that."
In other business, the council:
• Delayed naming a successor on the Hoosac Water Quality District for former Councilor Ronald Boucher, who resigned. The mayor had put forward Timothy Lescarbeau but Barrett thought the council determined the appointee. Alcombright said the HWQD bylaws designated that the mayor appoints with confirmation of the council but would research the matter to make sure.
• Authorized the mayor to buy a strip of land, assessed at $8,300, in the rear of 177 River St. for $8,600 from M. Callahan Inc. The city had encroached on the land as part of the Houghton Street Playground and been in negotiations with Callahan for two years. Now that a price had been settled, Administrative Officer Michael Canales said the city will try to determine if an outside contractor was responsible for the error in hopes of getting some recompense.
• Appropriated $51,570 from the overlay surplus account to General Government-Assessor Expenses to cover the first payment of the state-mandated cyclical reassessment. The city has awarded the contract for the three-year process to Mayflower Valuation Ltd. for $154,700.
• Approved a taxi license for Jason Belanger to drive for Lori Smith.