Town employees may start paying health care contributions

Other towns already require premium payments

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Selectboard showed signs last month of moving toward making Williston’s municipal employees pay a portion of their health insurance costs, though convincing the local police union to first accept a change may prove challenging.

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs raised the issue of health care contributions at the end of the board’s meeting on Jan. 10, prompting a brief but lively debate. Fehrs suggested the board consider having non-union municipal employees — a pool that includes everyone but police officers — pay some percentage of their health insurance premiums in the 2005-06 fiscal year.

Currently, the town covers 100 percent of health insurance premiums for its employees, both union and non-union. Fehrs said making employees contribute to their health care costs would produce significant savings to the town, even if employees were only to pay a small percentage of the premiums.

An Observer survey of comparable Chittenden County municipalities reveals that several other communities already require employees to contribute to their health plans. For instance, Essex, Milton, South Burlington and Colchester each have policies that require munipal employees to pay a portion — albeit typically a small share — of their health insurance costs. Shelburne employees will begin making health insurance contributions on July 1.

Other board members and Town Manager Rick McGuire argued vigorously against including a new health insurance package in the proposed 2005-06 budget, which was finalized Monday night. They said it would be a rash decision and unfairly abrupt for municipal employees.

Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons said the change required more study and debate than time allowed before the budget was presented to voters. She said employees should be aware of the research and should be kept informed throughout the process.

“There needs to be some serious analysis done on this first,” Lyons said.

Selectboard member Terry Macaig suggested that having non-union municipal employees pay a portion of their health insurance while union employees did not pay anything would be unfair and would essentially encourage the non-union employees to unionize and bargain collectively.

The town currently has a three-year contract with the Williston Police Officers Association, a chapter of the Teamsters Local 597, that does not require officers to pay premiums for their health insurance.

Fehrs said Williston should have already moved to amend the employees’ health contributions policy, noting the rising cost of health care has led to increased costs for employees in the private sector.

“In my opinion, the time has come and gone to address this,” Fehrs said. Replied McGuire: “I would say the time is almost here.”

McGuire appeared to be referring to the upcoming police union contract negotiations, which will begin in March. The Selectboard seemed to support the strategy of attempting to develop a contribution plan first with the police union and then with the non-union employees.

However, McGuire said last week that the Jan. 10 discussion was just an exchange of views and the board did not adopt a plan on how to proceed with the matter of employee health contributions.

“The board hasn’t made that decision yet and, if they do, it won’t be made publicly,” McGuire said, noting the board discusses collective bargaining strategies in executive session.

McGuire said the board would likely form its strategy for the police contract negotiations in March after board elections have been held. The elections will produce at least one new board representative and possibly two.


A hard bargain

Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, a member of the Williston police union, said the union expects health insurance contributions to be a central aspect of contract negotiations, as they have been in previous talks.

“The police union has realized for years that we’re not just negotiating for ourselves, but, on matters of retirement and insurance, we are negotiating on behalf of the other town employees,” Chamberlain said. “The town has made it very apparent that it does not want other departments to unionize. And it would not want non-union members to contribute to health care if union members didn’t first.”

Chamberlain said the police union would not rule out contributions to health insurance premiums, but would likely take a fairly rigid stance in the talks.

“We have to maintain an open mind,” Chamberlain said. “We can’t approach any negotiation in the state of mind that we’re going to rule anything out. However, there would have to be a substantial incentive for us to change that, like an increase in pay.”

In fact, Chamberlain said, the union plans to seek a new health benefit in its next contract. He said the union hopes to secure a plan that would allow officers who retire in Williston to retain their health insurance with the town until their federal benefits kick in.

Chamberlain said the item would be rarely used because of the town’s high turnover rate for officers.

The municipalities that already require employees to contribute to health care have found varying ways of approaching the issue. Some have employees pay a percentage of the health insurance premium, while others require employees to contribute a percentage of their base salary.

In South Burlington, employees covered under the family plan contribute 2.5 percent of their salary, an employee under the two-person plan contributes 2 percent of salary and an employee covered under the single-person plan contributes 1 percent of salary. South Burlington City Manager Charles Hafter said the contributions amount to approximately 10 percent of premiums.

In Milton, non-union management and union public works and administrative personnel pay 6 percent of their health insurance premium. Milton police officers, who are also unionized, contribute 7.5 percent of the premium with a 1.75 percent cap of base wages. They will begin contributing 9 percent, with a 2 percent cap of base wages, on July 1.

McGuire said the town would work with non-union municipal employees before having them begin to contribute to health insurance. He noted the town worked with employees a few years ago before shifting them to a less expensive health insurance plan. The new policy provided a medical savings account to offset the costs to employees of the cheaper health plan, but still saved the town more than $20,000, according to McGuire.

McGuire said one benefit of having employees contribute to their health insurance would be to make the costs more apparent to them.

“It would increase their awareness of the costs associated with this benefit,” McGuire said. “They play a big role in the cost in terms of their utilization, so they can have an impact.”