“Say it isn’t so, Setti” by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

I’ve been a big fan of Newton Mayor Setti Warren, 19 months into his first term and now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Scott Brown. As BlueMass Group pointed out, Setti has “the requisite political skills: The gift of gab; charisma; a strongly presented, concise, and persistent message; a sense of being well-grounded and good-humored.” His excellent innate communication skills have extended to running regular Town Hall meetings in all Newton wards to discuss residents’ budgetary and other concerns.

I’ve also been a big fan of the state’s giving cities and towns the right to join the state’s Group Insurance Commission to provide health insurance more affordably for their employees. Setti’s approach was to restate his support of collective bargaining and to say that he’d prefer to negotiate savings that would be equivalent to what could be achieved through joining the GIC. In the wake of concluding contracts with all ten Newton unions, Setti announced success in that regard and further asserted that the increases negotiated were well within the Prop 2 ½ framework, and would save the city $6 million over the next three years.

I’m puzzled about how this could be so. The City maintains it would have spent $100,000 more buying health insurance for its different bargaining units under the state health pool, the GIC. (Savings from the GIC wouldn’t kick in during the first year.) But what the city may have saved in reducing projected growth in health care costs may well have been given away in other, salary-related provisions.

Take the three-year police contract, for example. While the average salary goes up only 1 percent the first year, by the time you add cost-of-living increases, step increases, longevity increases and lump sum payments, wages are up 2.8 percent. When you then add health insurance, the total package could well be over three percent. This could well compound and add to the city’s structural deficit. Plus, surprisingly, on June 30, 2014, the last day of this new three-year contract, the Mayor built an additional 10 percent pay raise over the ensuing three fiscal years, which weren’t even being negotiated right now.

Here’s another wrinkle. The Quinn Bill started out with the superficially appealing notion of increased police pay for increased education, with the state and cities sharing the costs. But it proved unaffordable at the state level, leading the state to defund it. Not so Newton. Now Mayor Warren has agreed to extend Quinn-like benefits to Newton firefighters for the first time. They are now slated to get ten percent more pay if they get an associate’s degree, 20 percent for a full bachelor’s degree and 25 percent for a master’s degree. With this provision, it’s difficult to see how the contracts negotiated stay within the desired 2 1/2 percent increase.

I support our city workers, their right to bargain collectively and their right to a decent salary and benefits. Are they worth the deal? Yes. Can we afford it at this time? No. I also support the taxpayers’ right to have all the information, without spin, to know what their tax dollars are going for and the long-term implications.

It seems unlikely that the money saved in the growth of health costs is alone enough to solve the city’s long-term structural deficit. But even if these savings had a major impact on the fiscal 2012 budget, the other salary increases would seem to place a significant burden on the city in the out years. No wonder the unions stood by the mayor’s side at his announcement of the agreement and sang his praises.

The Aldermanic Finance Committee has already blessed the deal. The full Board of Aldermen is scheduled vote on the police contract this evening (August 8), and on other collective bargaining agreements later on. The aldermen with whom I have spoken are largely clueless about the content of the contracts. One even said to me, “In a strong-mayor government, we can’t get involved.” Huh?

An uninformed “yes” vote will probably make it difficult, if not impossible, to revisit the other contracts.
It would seem to make sense to delay the vote until the aldermen know what is in the contract and what its long-term impact will be.

It also seems reasonable to ask whether the mayor has given away the store in return for union support in the Senate race. It wouldn’t be the first time a politician has done this. That Setti Warren seems to have done so, given his great promise as a first-time candidate and newly elected official, is particularly disappointing. I tried reaching him for comment and clarification, to no avail.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.