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Divided Northampton City Council gives mayor authority to explore health insurance changes

The 6-3 vote came after a lengthy discussion that focused on the merits of adopting the measure, but also veered off course to include whether councilors should be offered health insurance and frustration with the limited number of ways they have to deal with the rising costs of health insurance.

Ward 5 City Councilor David A. Murphy criticized the state for leaving the city with a faulty option, but he said it’s the only option the city has right now.

“It appears that all of the players in this insurance drama are the victims of the state,” Murphy said. “No one is happy, but it’s the one tool the state chose to give us.”

The vote to adopt the local option under the state’s new municipal health insurance reform law allows Mayor David J. Narkewicz to launch a process that may lead to an update or change in health insurance plans for employees.

The mayor wants to explore whether such changes will help tamp down health care costs that have escalated to more than $10 million this fiscal year, compared to $6 million a decade ago.

As she did at the council’s last meeting, Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen T. Carney said the measure was unnecessary and would diminish the bargaining rights of unions.

“I’m not fully convinced that it’s something we need in Northampton right now,” she said.

Carney said she respected Narkewicz’s desire to save the city money and has confidence in his ability to deal fairly with union heads, but “that can still happen with traditional bargaining.”

Also voting against the proposal were At Large City Councilor Jesse M. Adams and Ward 4 City Councilor Pamela C. Schwartz.

Schwartz expressed concerns with giving Narkewicz and future mayors unilateral power in the decision-making process, though she acknowledged the hurdles administrators would need to clear before a plan reaches adoption.

“At the end of the day, it is a significant shift in the balance of power between labor and management,” Schwartz said, later adding, “I’m deeply concerned about that.”

Some who voted in favor said they understood concerns raised by those in opposition, but that they have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers to allow the mayor to explore the issue.

Others were troubled that the measure drew little opposition from the unions who would be directly affected by any changes the city makes.

City Council President William H. Dwight said union leaders bear some burden to make their concerns known.

“Their absence tonight actually speaks loud,” Dwight said. “I don’t want to diminish union strength but we do have a fiduciary responsibility.”

Two union leaders have voiced opposition in the last two weeks. Sharon Carlson, president of the Northampton Association of School Employees, argued against the plan two weeks ago. And Michael Hatch, president of Northampton Firefighters Local 108, wrote a letter in opposition late Thursday afternoon.

Hatch questioned why the council needed to give the mayor the authority to enter the process when he could accomplish the investigative analysis without such a measure. He also said such a deal would nullify concessions already made by the union, and moving into the state’s Group Insurance Commission would end up costing employees more money in the form of higher deductibles.

Before saying he would vote in support of the proposal, Ward 3 City Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels opened up a mini-discussion about whether councilors should accept health insurance from the city.

He joked that he is “probably the wealthiest person in Northampton,” referring to a comment from resident Kathleen Silva during public comment time. Silva told the six councilors who are on the city’s health insurance that they should be ashamed at burdening the taxpayers by doing so. She called them “some of the wealthiest residents of the city.”

Freeman-Daniels noted that the council’s $5,000 stipend has not changed since 1986. He added that state law requires everyone to have health insurance, and his employer does not offer it.

“I’m not ashamed of myself for taking the city’s health insurance and I applaud the city for offering it,” Freeman-Daniels said.

Adams agreed, adding that the benefit is not new, nor is it a secret. He said the city’s human resources department called him shortly after he was elected to the council to go over his benefits.

As for the measure before the council, Adams lauded Narkewicz for the decisions he’s made as mayor but in this case he agreed with Carney.

Thursday’s vote gives Narkewicz the go-ahead to study the issue. That would include examining whether to move into the state’s GIC, as well as to explore whether design changes to existing health insurance plans would save the city money.

Specific plans would come after this study. Those plans would then be vetted by a new Public Employee Committee that includes representatives from each bargaining unit, retirees and the city’s Insurance Advisory Commission.

Narkewicz conceded that the change will give him more power to make decisions and expedite the negotiating process — a key benefit to crafting a budget — but noted the city still needs to show how any plan can save money and mitigate the impact on employees.

He said it’s his duty to bring the idea forward, given the financial situation the city faces in the area of health care costs. Not doing so could leave the city with higher health costs next year and cause a budget gap, a prospect that could end in layoffs, the mayor said

“I believe this is an important tool for municipalities to deal with health care costs,” he said.

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