When New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell gave his State of the City address last month, he mentioned renegotiating what the City pays for employee health care as one of his cost-cutting priorities. When he presented his $471 million budget to the New Bedford City Council last week, he again urged that it was one of the few areas with the potential for savings.

On Tuesday night, the council took up Mayor Mitchell’s third attempt at having the City adopt Sections 21-23 of Chapter 32B of the Massachusetts General Laws, which would allow the City to negotiate those healthcare costs with public union representatives through a neutral arbiter, and for the third time the council voted it down.

First, a vote on whether to refer the motion to the council’s finance committee failed 3-7, with Councilors Brad Markey, Linda Morad and Ryan Pereria the only votes in favor. A second vote on whether to take no further action on the motion was approved 8-2, with only Councilors Markey and Morad voting against it. Ward 4 Councilor Derek Baptiste was not in attendance.

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In his weekly appearance on WBSM Wednesday, Mitchell shared his disappointment with the council’s decision.

“There aren’t many levers for the city to pull to save taxpayer dollars on non-discretionary spending. You provide healthcare, and it’s there, and you have to pay the bill for it. We provide our employees really good healthcare coverage, but we provide it in ways that are inefficient,” he said. “State law provides us an opportunity to be able to negotiate efficient and effective healthcare for our employees and we haven’t taken advantage of it.”

Mitchell especially took exception to the council not even bringing the issue to the finance committee for discussion.

“Not only did they vote it down, they voted not even to discuss it. Now think about that,” he said. “The merits of the matter should be discussed in open session so that people can weigh the costs and the benefits of this, but last night, the fire and police unions filled the room in the council chambers, as they've done before when this has come up, and the councilors just shot down not only the measure itself, and I can’t emphasize this enough, shot down the very opportunity to discuss it.”

Mitchell contends that healthcare costs to the City have increased about $1 million per year since 2012, rising from $35.2 million to $45.7 million, and that he expects those costs to rise another seven percent in the immediate future. He said without renegotiating the percentage of an employee’s healthcare the City pays, it will lead to taxes increasing for city residents and business owners.

“Look, the council can't have it both ways. The council can't say we’re against raising taxes, but then on the other hand, not take meaningful measures to do something about that,” he said. “Instead they said, ‘Nope, we’re not even going to discuss it,’ and I think that’s a real problem. It’s going to make things harder in the long run on the taxpayers, on city services. I’m disappointed but I think every city taxpayer is disappointed as well.”

City Council President Ian Abreu said he voted against the motion because he believes savings can be found without having to send the matter to arbitration.

“It has always been my view that our Public Employee Committee exists for a purpose - to work with our administration to analyze costs and work with our executive branch to find common ground. All parties must come together to the table to help find a solution,” Abreu said. “I have very serious concerns about what amending our healthcare benefits would mean to our retirees, paraprofessionals, food service workers and custodial staff who are already stretched financially thin. Between 2019-2021, the PEC helped save the taxpayers $2,700,000 in healthcare plan concessions. Savings only occur, however, when both sides come to the table and negotiate.”

Councilor at Large Shane Burgo voted against the motion and also cited the PEC as a viable option.

“Rising healthcare costs are a national issue and will not be solved by reducing benefits or increasing out of pocket expenses. The New Bedford Public Employees Committee (PEC) continues to bargain in good faith, I encourage this administration to do the same,” Burgo said. “The PEC has made many concessions resulting in savings totaling nearly $3,000,000 over the past three years. I will continue to support their bargaining position to negotiate for fair and equitable healthcare.”

Ward 3 City Councilor Hugh Dunn, who also voted against the motion, suggested an ulterior motive in bringing the idea of negotiating healthcare costs back to the council.

“The proposal is a tired, perennial red herring filed again to distract from the administration’s spending in the annual budget. There has not been a reduction in the tax rate in any municipality where this proposal has been enacted. The only thing that has been reduced is critical healthcare coverage for city workers,” he said. “I support our employees’ right to negotiate their healthcare – and decline to compromise this commitment, especially during a pandemic.”

Mitchell said despite the fact that the council has voted down this motion three times now, he will continue to bring it up until it decides to act.

“What we’re trying to do is not wait for a financial crisis to bring up these useful reforms, these meaningful reforms,” he said. “That’s what we do in New Bedford is wait for a big hole in the roof before you go fix it. I happen to follow the proverb of fixing your roof while the sun is still shining, because we don’t want to get to a point where things are so tight, finances are so squeezed, that we actually have to cut things that really matter to people or impose unduly on taxpayers and or both.”

“That’s why I preach the long term. This is a long term measure that will put the city on better footing,” he said. “Unfortunately, the council missed that opportunity (Tuesday) night.”

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