The Council Chamber was packed with retired Chelsea municipal employees and their counterparts still working for the city who descended upon City Hall Monday night to protest the raising their cost for their city paid health insurance.
The city is short of money and is looking at almost doubling the rate that these present and former employees pay in order to sustain the current level of health insurance. But those who assembled in the council weren’t interested in negotiating.
The council chamber was filled and tensions rose high as a spate of very angry speakers derided the city government – and for a moment – it looked as though they might explode, when Councillor Stan Troisi ended all debate by offering a motion to put off any changes the city is thinking about for three months.
A collective sigh of relief swept the chamber.
“This will give everyone involved a chance to look more closely into the situation and to offer input about how best to resolve this issue,” said City Manager Jay Ash.
“If an agreement can be struck to reduce city costs elsewhere or in a different fashion, I would gladly agree to pare back or totally eliminate the proposed retiree health insurance increase,” Ash added.
“I will commit myself to work toward that end.”
Former and present employees believe that the cost of their city provided health insurance should be treated as an untouchable and should be immune from the city’s fiscal crisis.
Many retirees expressed anger over the potential increases, citing their previous contributions as dedicated city employees with limited means to absorb such a hike in their portions of the premium to be paid.
However, Ash insists that the city’s overriding goal has to be balancing the budget – an effort made more difficult by the increasingly unwieldy burden of rapidly rising health insurance premiums, which the city can no longer afford.
Ash said he was dismayed that the retirees did not send a representative to discuss the issue with him in the months and days preceding this meeting — a situation, he hopes, will change so that common ground can be reached.
“My insurance is $120 a month,” said a 31 year city hall employee now retired who wished to remain unnamed. “If the city goes ahead with what it is planning to do, my husband and I will be paying $240 a month for the same insurance.”
Health insurance costs have been the fastest growing expense facing cities and towns and in the private sector as well. In Chelsea, city paid health insurance for retirees has gone from 5% of the city budget in 2000 to 13% this year, with double digit increases crippling The city’s unions have refused to join the GIC, the state-wide initiative designed to allow cities and towns to join the State’s health insurance system. That option, which requires the approval of at least 70% of local unions, could save the city as much as $2 million or more on annual health insurance costs.
But the city’s unions refuse to join the GIC.
Ash himself gave up wage increases and benefits due to him this year in order to set the example to municipal employees here.
“I remain committed to talking with any and all who wish to engage in fruitful dialogue which can lead to mutually beneficial goals for Chelsea and for all those who have an association with it.”