NEW BEDFORD - Healthcare coverage is a hot button issue on the national level. The same can be said in New Bedford as the costs to provide healthcare to its employees has city officials and employee unions still at odds.

Mayor Jon Mitchell joined members of City Council at City Hall on Wednesday morning to hold a press conference announcing the city's decision to make use of a 2007 state law that allows municipalities to negotiate health insurance plans with local public employee unions through the use of a neutral arbitrator.

The decision to utilize the law comes as the cost of providing health insurance to city employees is rapidly rising, something Mayor Mitchell describes as a “front-burner issue”. Mitchell also called employee health insurance a “budget buster” during the press conference, citing the costs to provide coverage as the source of pressure on the city budget and tax levy.

“The big budget drivers here in this city are healthcare, pensions, and charter schools. That's what's driving the budget right there,” explained Mayor Mitchell. “If you want to know why things are going up, it's not because peoples' salaries are fat, it's not because of waste or fraud and abuse and all of that stuff, sorry, that's not the case, not here in New Bedford. Its healthcare, its pensions, and its charter school mandates.”

A bar graph depicting the "budget drivers" in New Bedford described by Mayor Mitchell. Tim Dunn/TSM

With the Mayor announcing that he would be filing a request to City Council to approve the use of the 2007 state law, some warn that the request may not make it past council chambers. City Council President Linda Morad says that she's been pushing for the city's use of the law for almost a year. During the press conference, Morad described the City Council as “very split” on the issue.

“Frankly, when this item came forward at the end of 2017, I'm not positive that there was enough dialogue, I'm not sure if there was enough understanding on both the council's part and other peoples part as it relates to what was being proposed,” Morad said. “I believe the council is still very split as it relates to how this discussion should move forward.”

New Bedford's Chief Financial Officer Ari Sky provided some clarity to what he says is disinformation surrounding a growing concern amongst some about changing the health insurance plan.

“There is some disinformation out there about what is involved here. The city is not looking to change the contribution rates at all,” explained Sky. “In fact, health plan redesign doesn't allow you to do that. The Municipal Health Reform Law makes it very clear that the current split of 75% to the city and 25% to the employee in the redesign that would have to be negotiated through collective bargaining.”

Mitchell and Morad also pointed the finger at the union representing city employees. They say they've “gotten nowhere” over the past year in negotiations, further driving the decision to come threaten the use of arbitration, to force both sides to the table and to find a solution.

“I use my time here at the podium to say to those members of the union that have the ability to sit at the table and negotiate that it's time, between now and January 11th, to have some serious dialogue with the administration and the city about how we together can work,” Morad said.

Mayor Mitchell stressed the importance of solving the healthcare cost issue soon; referencing similar sized cities in Connecticut who have fell into bankruptcy due to the cost of coverage.

“New Bedford has the ninth highest commercial tax rate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That's not good. That doesn't make us competitive. When it comes to residential taxes, they've gone up and up over the last few years,” Mitchell said. “A host of budget figures make it clear that the current situation is not sustainable. We need to be able to make reasonable changes to the way we provide our health insurance benefit to employees, and the current process is not allowing us to make that happen.”