Health plan change to reduce Northampton budget gap
Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz, seen here discussing the budget March 12, told the City Council on Thursday that he intends to move the city into the state Group Insurance Commission to save $900,000. That would reduce the projected gap in next year's budget to $1.5 million. SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Shortly after several teachers begged the City Council Thursday not to slash the schools’ budget next fiscal year, Mayor David J. Narkewicz proposed a change in the city’s health insurance plan that will put a significant dent in its $2.4 million budget gap.
Narkewicz said he intends to move the city into the state Group Insurance Commission, a $900,000 savings that will lower the budget gap for fiscal 2014 to $1.5 million.
He said that’s still a significant gap and there are several unknowns related to the budget, but the new development pushes the fiscal picture in the right direction.
“That’s a significant change to the good,” Narkewicz said. “Obviously, not all the way to the good.”
Narkewicz said he intends use some of the savings to help the schools close their $1.25 million gap. School officials have proposed cutting up to 30 teaching positions districtwide.
“Initially, we’re going to let the school department know that a sizeable portion of that will go to help them close their gap,” Narkewicz said. “That would be a priority area given the cuts they’re facing.”
That will come as welcome news for the many high school teachers who attended the council’s Thursday meeting to describe what losing 10 teachers might mean for students and the morale of the school in general.
“The cuts that are coming, as you know, are devastating” said Susan Crago, an English teacher. She urged the council to consider allocating more funds to the schools.
Some teachers, like science teacher Donna Canuel-Browne, talked about the cumulative effect several years of cuts have had at the school. She said staff is smaller, class sizes are larger, and professional training is lacking, to name a few.
“Despite these cuts, and lack of financial and professional support, the faculty of Northampton High School has maintained a standard of excellence,” Browne said. “As you now threaten to further cut our staff, you make it impossible to protect our students from the lack of resources.”
Technology and woodshop teacher Robert Melnick, who brought a table and other items made by his students as props, said the classes he teaches, as well as other art and technology classes, are vitally important to students.
“It’s worth keeping these choices for our students untouched,” Melnick said.
In announcing that he will move the city into the GIC, Narkewicz took advantage of a local option, approved by the council last fall, under the state’s new municipal health insurance reform law.
The city is facing a 10 percent increase in health insurance costs for the coming year, based on initial quotes. That amounts to about $1 million. The GIC’s projected increase is in the 3 percent range.
The mayor said the GIC will provide employees with a plan comparable to the one they now have with Health New England, which also offers insurance packages through the GIC.
Specific plans will now be vetted by a new Public Employee Committee that includes representatives from each bargaining unit, retirees and the city’s Insurance Advisory Commission. The city must share 25 percent of the first-year savings with employees.
Because the GIC only allows enrollment twice a year, the city will ink a deal with Health New England for the first six months of next fiscal year, and then transition to the GIC plan starting Jan. 1, 2014.
The plan will likely help the city keep health insurance increases in check in future years by taking advantage of the GIC’s group buying power.
“We believe this is a very responsible move to make,” Narkewicz said.
The mayor cautioned after his presentation that there are still many unknowns surrounding the budget. The next big piece should fall into place within two weeks when the Legislature releases its budget and gives the city a clearer local aid picture.
Other issues that have yet to be budgeted for include new contracts with the school unions for next fiscal year, with the police patrol and sergeants union for this year and next, and with the firefighters union.