BROCKTON — “Into the bone.”
That’s how School Committee Vice Chairman Thomas Minichiello described the cuts members made to operations funding in order to avoid cutting teachers.
After 13 meetings of the finance subcommittee, the committee pored over the numbers again last week before finalizing the FY-2013 budget, which goes into effect next month.
“It's not at the bone,” said Minichiello. “It's into the bone.”
Committee members had to scrounge for savings – sacrificing new textbooks, new technology and some janitorial services – mostly because of a $6.4 million surge in health insurance costs. The increase, and the cuts in the school services, were both avoidable, city officials say.
City government controls the school district’s health insurance costs and sends a bill to the district to cover payments. Next year’s bill will be $21.8 million.
“I’m frustrated, I’m angry, but it is what it is,” said Ward 4 School Committee member Patti Joyce. “We can only control what we can control.”
COUNCIL IN CONTROL
Joyce said control of health insurance costs lies with the City Council, which voted unanimously in February not to adopt the state municipal health insurance reform law. The law would have given the city the authority to force unions to accept health insurance cuts if savings could not be achieved through traditional collective bargaining.
But councilors, instead, voted against the provision, hoping for the city’s 17 unions to eventually make concessions on their own.
“The employees are going to have live up to their promises,” said Council President Thomas Brophy, a councilor-at-large. “The unions are going to have to come to the table and negotiate a compromise or there are going to be massive layoffs. Next year we can’t afford it.”
Brophy was the council’s lone vote for reconsideration in rejecting the health care reform law – and wanted the measure tabled, although he still voted against the law.
The council’s vote to reject the law outright ensures that the city cannot use the law until 2014, based on City Council rules. Brophy said Friday that if a deal is not reached to lower costs, the 2013-2014 budget could hurt the city.
Last week, the city’s 17 unions presented a consolidated proposal to reduce health insurance costs, giving the plan to officials from city and school government to consider.
City Chief Financial Officer John Condon said in an email that the proposal is serious, comprehensive and substantive, but does not reach the same savings that the health reform law could have achieved.
OTHER BUDGET ISSUES
Aldo Petronio, the school district’s executive director of financial services, said on Friday the district faced other issues that contributed to budgetary woes. Brockton’s budget is calculated on Oct. 1 enrollment, and already has about 300 more students than last year. The district also must pay for raises and step increases to teachers, about $1.25 million this year.
But the multi-million-dollar increase in the cost of employee health insurance – a combination of price increases, employees including their spouses, and the city’s benefits trust fund not being able to provide a “health holiday” – was a “major factor” in the district’s budget, Petronio said.
“I think a lot of that could have been averted with this Group Insurance Commission-type plan,” Petronio said.
The increases in costs meant that Superintendent Matthew Malone’s request for $157.4 million for net school spending met a counterproposal from Mayor Linda Balzotti of $150.5 million.
Petronio said that even if the City Council approved the state reform law in February, he did not know if there would have been enough time to reach an agreement by budget time.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation pointed out in March that Brockton was one of just four communities statewide to reject the health insurance reform law. As of March, 94 communities and regional school districts in the commonwealth adopted the 2011 law.
“Many other cities and towns have moved forward with reform and will save millions on employee health insurance, allowing them to maintain services in (2012-2013),” said Carolyn Ryan, a policy analyst for the group. “On the other hand, Brockton faces another year with unnecessary cuts to basic services.”
Calling it one of the hardest votes in his career, City Councilor Jass Stewart said the city showed a commitment to the collective bargaining process and to its workers by voting down the state law.
“(City unions) all understood that they needed to compromise on health care costs,” said Stewart, a councilor-at-large.
He added that in his view, the city has greater leverage by rejecting the law until 2014.
“Certainly if you don't work it out, the City Council is not going to be favorable at all if you have to address this in the future,” Stewart said.
Councilor-at-large Robert Sullivan said the collective bargaining process is working.
“The different unions are meeting to hopefully reach some kind of compromise,” he said. “Both sides are talking. ... There’s a dire need to (curb) the escalating cost of health care. You just hope it’s done in a timely manner.”
Malone said in May that while he’s optimistic the school district will reach an agreement to cut health insurance costs with its seven unions, he believes the City Council made a “strategic error.”
“If I was on the City Council, I would have voted a different way on that,” Malone said.
Reporter Erik Potter contributed to this story.
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