The White Plains Common Council Debated proposed legislation from Councilwoman Milagros Lecuona that would no longer require many retired White Plains firefighters to pay a portion of their health insurance premiums at a Nov. 25 special meeting.
The issue is on the agenda for a vote at the Dec. 2 Common Council meeting.
For the past several months many retired firefighters have attended the Citizens to be Heard portion of Common Council meetings to seek the policy change. Due to a difficult financial period, the city required firefighters to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premiums beginning in 2010, which affects more than 100 retired firefighters. In 2015 the Common Council restored the benefit to active firefighters but not to retirees of the fire department.
The draft resolution written by Lecuona stated, “The city has recovered financial stability in this regard and the retired firefighters have respectfully requested the city to reinstitute full healthcare insurance benefits, relieving the retired firefighters of their 15 percent contribution.”
The resolution stated firefighters have provided proposals to city officials “to fairly address the concerns of all parties.”
The legislation would no longer require all retired firefighters 70 or older to pay a portion of their premiums and that would apply to all future retired firefighters when they become 70. The elimination of the premium payments would also be dropped under the legislation for those with financial hardship.
No retired firefighters would be required to pay any past due premiums if the legislation is approved and the city would not be obliged to refund any past premiums previously paid by any retired firefighters.
Under the original legislation, the ordinance would take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
At last week’s meeting Corporation Counsel John Callahan said he reviewed the legislation with Finance Commissioner Sergio Sensi and Budget Director James Arnett. Callahan said in July 2010 the city required union and non-union management employees to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premiums due to the financial difficulties of the city at the time. Those hired before July 1995 were required to pay a portion of their premiums in retirement, he noted.
Callahan said there were several legal challenges to the health insurance premium contribution, which were won by the city.
The 15 percent requirement for retirees hired before July 1995 ended in March 2017 because all city employees negotiated the end of the 15 percent requirement, Callahan said.
The cost of not collecting past owed payments from retired firefighters would cost the city about $1.5 million, Callahan said. Due to a lawsuit filed by the firefighters’ union, the city could not collect health insurance premium payments until the suit was settled, he noted. If the legislation was approved the city would lose an additional $145,000 in the 2020-21 fiscal year because the retired firefighters hired before July 1995 would no longer be required to pay a portion of their health insurance premiums, he said. The cost of those with financial hardships no longer being responsible for paying a part of their health insurance would cost the city an additional $55,000 in 2020-21, he said.
Councilman John Kirkpatrick said in 2010 the city had a large deficit that required the loss of jobs through layoffs and attrition. Currently some employees are continuing to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premium costs, while other city workers no longer pay it because they made concessions as part of their contract negotiations to make up for the lost revenue. “We have a very mixed bag since 2010 of who pays what,” he said.
Lecuona said she voted for the change to require firefighters, including retirees, to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premiums because of the budget deficit in 2010, which would have resulted in a tax hike of about 16 percent without spending cuts. The Common Council was told nine years ago that the requirement for retired firefighters to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premiums would not hurt them much because the union would have a different health insurance company. “That was not the case,” she said.
Because the firefighters were given incorrect information about the cost of their health insurance, it “is a matter of fairness” to end the policy of having retired members of their union pay a part of their premiums, Lecuona said.
Kirkpatrick said the Common Council should look into potentially ending the requirement that retired firefighters pay a portion of their premiums. But Kirkpatrick said he wanted “a comprehensive picture” of how much ending the requirement would cost the city. Callahan said ending the requirement for retired firefighters would translate into a tax increase of 2.5 percent. “We have to know that our taxpaying public is willing to pay that,” Kirkpatrick said.
Retired firefighters have been attending Common Council meetings for several months presenting information to the city. “Your question has already been answered,” Lecuona told Kirkpatrick.
Councilman Dennis Krolian said the issue of dropping the health insurance payment requirement for retired firefighters to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premium costs has been discussed by city officials for over a year. “I don’t think we need any delays,” he said, adding the council should vote on the issue before the end of the year.
Krolian said the city would not collect the $1.5 million from firefighters who did not make payments for their health insurance due to the court injunction unless they were sued by the city. “It’s the taxpayers’ money,” Mayor Tom Roach said. “It’s not our money.” The Common Council always speaks about taxpayers’ money, Krolian replied.
Roach asked council members who supported the concept of ending the practice of requiring retired firefighters to pay part of their health insurance to consider the other city employees who either continue to pay the 15 percent or who have negotiated the end of the requirement by making concessions to pay for it. “It is a question that is not a problem for the firefighters who are here tonight,” Krolian replied. No other employees have been asking the city about not having retirees pay a part of their health insurance, Krolian said. The promise of lifetime benefits was made to the firefighters, he said.
Roach said there was a court ruling that the city could have required its municipal employees to pay half of their health insurance premiums. “Is it fair to a police officer in the same circumstance that gets no benefit from this?” he asked, referring to the proposed legislation. The city’s other workers have not asked for what the firefighters are seeking for their retired colleagues and they have not asked for information from the city as the firefighters have. Lecuona replied. “This was unfair,” she said.
Roach said court rulings regarding suits from other employee groups sided with the city and employees of those unions had never stopped paying for 15 percent of their health insurance premiums.
Council President John Martin said the legislation, which would go into effect in the current 2019-20 budget year, needs to provide a funding source. Martin said he needed to know what effect the legislation would have on the city’s tax cap for 2020-21 before he could vote on it. Lecuona said she would be willing to move the date that the legislation would become law to the start of the next fiscal year on July 1, 2020.
Councilman Justin Brasch also wanted to know how the legislation would impact the 2020-21 budget. “If we give this to the firefighters, what do the others (city employees) do?” Brasch asked.