It was a full five years ago that negotiations between then first-term Mayor Carolyn Kirk and representatives of the city’s 16 municipal employee unions broke down into an embarrassing blame game, with both sides claiming the other was at fault for costing the city a potential $1 million in savings and costing each employee a $100 or so savings on his or her health insurance premiums as well.
At the center of the dispute was the state’s then one year-old Group Insurance Commission health insurance pool, which was already being touted as a taxpayer-friendly answer to soaring health costs, and soaring premium costs for employees.
Now, five years later, the city is, at long last, poised to join the so-called GIC systems, which already has more than 220,000 working members and provides coverage for some 400,000 residents across the state. The deal, agreed to this time by the mayor’s office and the unions, who jointly brought the proposal forward, is pegged to save the city a projected $3.5 million over the four-year duration of the pact, which takes effect Jan. 1. And it could well prove to be, as firefighters’ union head Steve Aiello called it, “a win-win situation for everyone.”
But that everyone, for once, shouldn’t just include city officials and workers; it should indeed include taxpayers, who, we’d like to think, can either get a break on their rising property taxes as this agreement goes forward to June 2017, or should see this savings pumped into city services, including the city’s top priority — the need to open and keep open its four outlying fire stations, even before the new Fire Department contract takes effect next July 1.
There are some questions hovering around just what the change will mean for city employees, whose union leaders have worked especially well with the city to forge new contracts in the Police and Fire departments in recent months. And the impact on those workers — and whether they continue to stand by the city’s insurance plans — will also determine the level of savings.
But by any count, this agreement should indeed prove a good step in stabilizing and reeling in health care costs for Gloucester, as it has for dozens of cities and towns across the state. And that should free up taxpayer revenues to provide the level of services residents deserve.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that the city didn’t become part of the GIC system before now. But the old adage — that it’s better late than never — may have never been more fitting.
The mayor’s team and the unions indeed deserve credit for a deal that should be a “win-win” scenario for all.