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Claremont Council Rejects Report

Officials Say Taxes Would Rise  With Proposed Worker Health Plan

Claremont — The City Council voted 7-1 to reject a fact finder’s report last night that made recommendations aimed at ending the impasse between the city and the police and public works unions over a new contract.

The unions have been without a contract since 2008.

“This means we go back to the bargaining table and try to reach an agreement,” Mayor James Neilsen, who is on the city’s negotiating team, said last night after the meeting.

The council had just two options before it: accept the proposal from fact finder Allan McCausland, which means it would become the new contract, or reject it.

Police officer Andrew O’Hearne, the union representative for the police, said after last night’s meeting that the council’s decision will continue to impact the department.

“We will lose more employees. We are losing a sergeant soon (Jeff Burnham),” O’Hearne said, adding that veteran officers are leaving and new hires receive less than the base salary to start.

Earlier this week, O’Hearne said he liked what he read in McCausland’s report because it validated his contention that police were underpaid. He was hoping the council would view it favorably as well. But a report from Finance Director Mary Walter projecting the additional costs to the city if the report’s recommendations were part of a new contract ended any hope of the council accepting the proposal. Walter also said the city would have to layoff between 13 and 20 employees if the fact finder’s recommendations were implemented and the city wanted to avoid increasing the budget’s bottom line.

“The administration’s negotiating team feels the city cannot support a proposal that will knowingly result in layoffs,” Walter wrote.

Neilsen said the council wants to avoid layoffs.

“We want to give raises but in a reasonable fashion that does not result in layoffs,” the mayor said.

McCausland’s report only addressed the issue of health insurance, one of the main sticking points between the parties. The city wants the unions to begin paying part of their health insurance premiums and switch to a different plan in exchange for pay raises during the next three years.

McCausland recommended employees pay 1.25 percent of their base salary the first year of a contract for health insurance, 2.5 percent the second year and 4 percent the third year with the premium co-pay never to exceed 10 percent of the premium. The city wanted 5 percent the first year and 10 percent premium co-pays the next two years, a different policy with $500 to $1,500 deductibles and an increase in medical visit co-pays. McCausland rejected the new policy with deductibles and co-pays on medical visits, saying those additional costs would eat up any salary increase.

Neilsen said the percentages of premium co-pays were insufficient.

“Those percentages don’t do anything to recover the cost (for the city,)” Neilsen said, adding that unless employees move to the lower cost plan, the city cannot even afford raises.

In her report to the council, Walter said if the city accepted the fact finder’s recommendations, the additional cost for three years for the public works employees would be $359,000 and for the police, $368,000. Overall, Walter said the cost citywide would be $1.47 million if the same contract were given to the other unions, including firefighters. Those same numbers for health insurance alone, assuming a 7 percent increase in rates over three years, would be $194,500 for public works, $135,300 for police and $724,000 city-wide.

Finally, Walter estimated that if the city does not reach a new contract with the unions there would still be increase of $103,000 for public works, $133,400 for police and $449,350 citywide the next three years.

At the council meeting, Neilsen said he has been getting calls from residents saying “please, please don’t increase taxes. So where do we get the money from? This is a real quandary.”

Councilor Chris Irish and others were hopeful that an agreement could be reached.

“Nobody has won here,” said councilor Vic Bergeron. “Not the city. Not the unions. Now we have to go back and get a compromise that helps everybody.”

City Manager Guy Santagate said he too wants an agreement.

“We agree, they do deserve some kind of raise but we have to do something on health insurance,” Santagate said.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.