“In budget-cutting season, politics can be brutal,” wrote the author of a recent View from Prospect Hill column in the Somerville News. With an $8.1 million budget gap, it is imperative that the city cut costs. However, the current, shortsighted approach, with its focus on outsourcing hourly jobs, will sow the seeds of discord for years to come.
In his opinion piece, “Beacon Hill is not a Monolith”, Mayor Curtatone writes of the city’s staggering health care costs, and the saving that we would realize if city employees and retirees received health insurance through the Commonwealth’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC). Unfortunately, the Mayor tells us, many of the politicians on Beacon Hill lack the courage to give mayors unilateral authority to move employees into the GIC plan. Changing to the GIC plan requires renegotiating the city’s contracts with the unions that represent many municipal employees. The Mayor reports that this would take up to 16 months to negotiate, and that 70 percent the city’s union current employees and retires would have to agree to the change.
Cities and towns in Massachusetts have been able to join the GIC health insurance plan since 2007. While negotiating labor agreements, or any agreement for that matter, takes time, and requires the hard work of honest give and take, it is possible to negotiate changes in health care insurance. The town of Brookline has done exactly this. Why not Somerville?
By proposing to fire the custodians and outsource the custodial services in our schools, the Mayor undermines the city’s relationships with its union employees, and sets the stage for the city’s lawyers to square off with lawyers for SEIU Local 615. In this time of economic crisis, is litigation a wise use of the city’s resources? Wouldn’t working with the unions in an atmosphere of mutual trust make it easier to move to the GIC insurance plan?
The Mayor has asked for suggestions on how the city should cope with the budget shortfall. I suggest that furloughing senior managers would save money, and demonstrate to hourly employees that the burden of the current crisis will not fall exclusively on those who have less. This would put the city in a better position to work with union members to move to the GIC plan, and perhaps achieve other cost-saving measures. The Mayor might also improve relations with labor by taking the proposal to outsource the city building custodians and the sign crews’ jobs off the table.
The city’s health care insurance costs are the largest single item in the budget, and there is no end in sight to these rising costs. The savings that would be realized by outsourcing custodial services are peanuts by comparison. Moving to the GIC health care program is the big enchilada. As the writer of the View from Prospect Hill points out, Mayor Curtatone has built up a lot of political capital in six years as mayor. The city’s long-term interests would best be served by Mayor investing his political capital in working with the members of the city’s 17 unions to score the big enchilada.