The Finance Committee was supposed to meet with the Lanesborough School Committee on Wednesday for a public hearing on the budget but school officials canceled because the budget wasn't available to the public prior to the meeting.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — With an increased focus on cutting budgets, resident Rich Cohen wants the town to look at health benefits — particularly among schoolteachers.
Cohen, a former School Committee member, outlined to the Finance Committee last week research showing the town pays a significantly higher amount in health insurance than other schools in the state.
Additionally, 60 percent of Lanesborough Elementary School's staff is over the age of 49, and he said those numbers will increase.
"We have a big problem coming in the future," Cohen said. "Here is a $1 million line that is growing."
The town negotiates the same benefits package for all town employees so those figures are not included in the school budget. Lanesborough Elementary School is looking at a $2.5 million budget for the upcoming year and an additional $1 million for retiree and employee health insurance sits in the town's budget.
With the teachers' contract ending on Aug. 30 and the Police and Highway department contracts ending on June 30, Cohen wants the town to renegotiate the 80/20 split of costs currently in place.
However, Town Administrator Paul Sieloff said the package had just recently been negotiated through a long process for all employees and, this year, the town isn't asking for more. Six years ago, the town had a 90/10 split and has since, through difficult negotiations, pushed 10 percent more of the burden onto the employees.
"You can't do it piecemeal. It has to be with everyone in town," Sieloff said.
The town would need to bring all bargaining units to the same table to hash out a new deal. After going through such a process when the state passed a law three years ago allowing towns to renegotiate those benefits, Sieloff said they are taking this contract cycle off before taking benefits up again.
Cohen's data — culled from the state Department of Education — shows Lanesborough pays the 16th most in the state for employee and retiree health insurance per pupil. The town pays some $4,000 per student for employee health insurance benefits, Cohen said. That higher cost isn't on the administrative side, but with the teachers.
The Finance Committee agreed with Cohen that they "need to get the ball rolling" but any changes likely wouldn't happen this contract cycle, as the unions are already deep into the negotiating process. The committee members said the private sector and other municipalities are dropping that shared ratio and Lanesborough should align with that trend.
Committee member Al Terranova said addressing the split may not result in that much of a savings, though, because to change the rate, the town would have to give up something else during the negotiations — so essentially, they would be "buying" the change.
"If you do it, you'll need to give something. That's negotiating," Terranova said.
In other business, the committee continued to discuss what to do with the American Legion building. The town is paying the utility bills on the aging structure at a cost of $5,500 per year. A few years earlier, the Legion asked and received money to repair the septic system, which led to questions of ownership and responsibilities for the property.
Recently, it was determined that the town does not own the building. A proposal was made to cut that budget account by $3,000 and use it toward the underfunded veterans services account. But Legion officials say cuts would make it impossible to stay open all year.
The Legion operates a food pantry and holds meetings in the building. The Finance Committee said there are other places to hold meetings, so if the Legion can find a building in better condition to operate the food pantry, the building altogether could be shut down.
"According to them, they can't afford the electricity and heat but they own the building," said Finance Committee member Bill Stevens.
The building's utility bills are not going to go down — especially with a lack of insulation — and it is unknown who would pay for any needed capital repairs. The committee is now hoping to talk with George Himmel, commander of the Legion, about other options.
"The building is falling apart," said member Ronald Tinkham.
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