Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Tuesday that the city's public employee negotiating committee have not accepted any of her proposed changes to workers' health insurance coverage. That means, the Mayor said, that there is no room in the proposed fiscal 2012 budget to back off any of the 76 anticipated full and part-time job cuts.

"At the end of the day, the public employee negotiating committee decided to stay with the status quo," said Kirk in an interview.

Kirk's comments came Tuesday afternoon before city and School District officials spoke at the City Council's public hearing on the budget last night, expressing concerns about funding and employee health insurance, among other issues.

Kirk highlighted contributing factors to Gloucester's budgetary shortfalls resulting in cuts proposed this year, including a total layoff of 76 employees, and a request to the school department to cut $350,000 below level funding. The City Council, said President Jackie Hardy, will vote on the final budget late next month. With 30 days left until the end of the fiscal year, there's still way to go before the fiscal year 2012 budget will be set in stone.

The budget gap stems from a significant loss in School District Federal Stimulus funding, nearly $1 million in wage increases for city and school employees, a cut in state aid, a hike in the budget for the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, and upwards of $500,000 in other increases, including pension payments, school building utilities, and school choice sending tuition. The city's revenues will only increase a little over one per cent next year.

The budget gap also includes $750,000 in rising costs for employee health insurance, and the increases total $4 million in expenses, with only $1 million coming in new revenue, according to an e-mail from Kirk.

The budgeted health insurance increase represents an over nine per cent hike above current health insurance expenses and keeps with the current heath care policy through Harvard Pilgrim. The increase comes after the city's Public Employee Committee, with representatives from each of the city's myriad unions, voted not to accept the administration's proposed shift to Pilgrim's "best buy" plan. Kirk said the shift would have saved 17 positions on the city payroll.

The city's current system has the city paying seventy-five per cent of health care costs. The Administration's plan would have kept that system but added a deductible up to $500 per individual and $1,000 per family. It also would have increased medical office visits to $20 and emergency room visits to $75. The plan, said Kirk would have reduced the insurance hike to a .71 per cent reduction in overall costs.

But, Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Aiello, president of the Public Employee Committee, said the committee made a counter proposal that would save the city slightly less than the Administration's proposal, and the city rejected that plan. Aiello also said the employees were willing to make concessions, just not the amount the Administration requested.

"We felt as employees that we made a fair offer, allowing them to level fund health insurance," said Aiello. "We didn't feel that we could get 70 per cent of employees to agree to that (the Administration's proposal."

He said the committee's looking to open negotiations up soon and will listen closely to the legislature's proposals for dealing with rising employee health insurance costs. He said that if the plan has a open enrollment policy, the city could shift even during the upcoming fiscal year.

But, Kirk said any savings that legislative change to the way municipalities manage employee health costs wouldn't begin until fiscal year 2013.

"By all accounts, the relief that we are anticipating form the State House will not impact the budget," she said in a prepared statement. "There is a slim chance that a mid year change could take place, however, we should not budget basked on that assumption."

Representatives from Gloucester's Public School District, including Superintendent Richard Safier, School Committee Chair Val Gilman, and several principals from the elementary schools spoke about the need for the city to invest in education. The Mayor's budget will cut over 36 positions from the District, and drop funding $350,000 below level funding. The school district proposed a level service budget, which officials said would allow the district to maintain current services.

Safier, said Gilman sent out an address over the school's "all call" system, usually used for relaying school cancellations, and asked parents to come to the hearing and support the District's proposed school budget.

The Mayor's budget also proposes no increase to the water rate, but increases the sewer rate by $.38. She also said the city would not use stabilization funding to close the budget gap. She said the city rejects the use of one time funding to aid in operating expenses.

Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or sfletcher@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.

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