2010-12-09 / Editorial

Taxpayers’ applaud negotiations by teachers, committee

VIEWPOINT
By John Pagano

The School Committee and the Jamestown Teachers Association recently renegotiated the teacher contract for new terms effective through June 30, 2012. Negotiating contracts is normally diffi- cult, and this time around was no less so given the dynamics of a slow economy coupled with rising costs across the board. Jamestown schools are certainly taking an approach similar to other cities and towns trying to cut costs in difficult times.

The Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown (TAJ) would like to acknowledge the work of the School Committee in this effort, specific to the healthcare portion of the contract, and appreciates the consideration given to our concerns raised last January after we prepared a presentation on healthcare costs to the Town Council. Likewise, during the past year, the TAJ has been vocal with our concern as to how these costs, left unchecked, could shift an unfair burden to our taxpayers.

One of the major goals of the TAJ is to educate its members and the public on key issues affecting taxes. Given that healthcare costs are doubling every five years, we decided to focus on this section of the teachers’ contract.

At the January 2010 Town Council meeting we presented a benchmark study to compare municipal healthcare costs with those in the private sector. After highlighting wide disparities between the two, we made several recommendations as how both school and town could cut costs and still maintain a comprehensive benefits program. Cathy Kaiser, president of the School Committee, attended that meeting and has since worked to include many of our recommendations into the contract.

As a result, the new teacher contract makes reasonable benefit changes that for the first time add a $250/$500 deductible, eliminate reimbursement of some copays, increase teacher premium co-share, and eliminate double coverage for married employees working within the school system. These changes improve costs for the short-term, but contain longer-term costs too.

These changes are an indication of the sacrifices made by the teachers in these challenging times and are a good model for what has to be achieved in all areas of municipal contracts in the future, bearing in mind that our taxpayers are already making similar sacrifices in their own lives.

It’s important to note that these changes were made before the first stages of healthcare reform were realized. As healthcare reform unfolds over the next several years, experts predict that costs will continue to increase at an even higher rate. One thing is for certain, healthcare costs will be an even larger piece of the school and municipal budgets in 2012 so continued collaboration is needed by all sides to manage these costs further.

There are still other areas to explore together for the next contract in 2012, and it is not too early to begin this dialogue. For example, competition is one of the most effective ways to contain healthcare costs, but because of contractual language, healthcare is not open to competitive bidding. As a result, we really don’t know if we are overpaying for the healthcare package available to teachers, and for that matter, town employees. This is an area the TAJ emphatically recommends be bid on an annual basis – and further suggest all insurances including medical, dental and life insurance be bid also. While the former contract was negotiated for a term of three years, and the current is reduced to two, we recommend that the contracts be negotiated on an annual basis, particularly as healthcare costs increase annually and the insurance carriers will only agree to these terms.

Moving forward, it’s important to continue to build upon and promote healthy dialogue among the Town Council, School Committee and the TAJ.

The TAJ is a non-partisan organization and has grown to 100 members and is represented by several individuals with backgrounds in healthcare, education consulting, financial services, marketing, law, accounting and executive management – these individuals have joined the committee to lend their professional expertise in many areas to help all of us make the tough decisions that will be needed in the next decade if we are to maintain the quality of life here in Jamestown that we all so enjoy.

While we have focused only on healthcare costs at this juncture, a very important conversation for the future will evolve around ballooning pension costs plaguing our state and local government. We need to start educating ourselves about how to tackle this issue. Stay tuned.

The author is the president of the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown.

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