By TYGER ALLEN Different proposals to fix what is being called the unsustainable cost of municipal retiree health care benefits - which went from $23 million a year ago to $34 million now in annual required contributions, according to City Council
Editor's note: In "Hot debate on retiree health care," published in the Feb. 27 edition, Council Rule 19 was said to be used during Rob Cote’s speech about the health insurance commission. Councilman Anthony Sinapi invoked Rule 19 because of personal attacks, not because Cote said the process would take too long.
Different proposals to fix what is being called the unsustainable cost of municipal retiree health care benefits – which went from $23 million a year ago to $34 million now in annual required contributions, according to City Council President Steven Merolla – spurred debate at Monday’s council meeting.
On the one hand, Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur and Merolla have advanced an ordinance that would require retirees to co-pay for health care based on the amount of their pension. Not wed to his plan, Ladouceur said he wants to open the issue to discussion.
“Let’s have the debate right here on the floor,” he said.
On the other hand, Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi wants to hit the pause button. He is calling for the creation of a commission to study the issue and report back to the council.
Neither of the proposals reached the council for a vote. After more than an hour of discussion, Sinapi agreed to amend his resolution that would come before the council on March 9 and Ladouceur agreed to table his and Merolla’s ordinance until March 23.
Sinapi’s proposed resolution aims to create a commission that would review and study the health insurance benefits of all unionized municipal employees. His resolution lists him as the chairperson leading eight other individuals. Beside him would be one representative each from the police, fire and city staff unions; Mayor Joseph J. Solomon or a designee; representatives from both the Personnel and Finance departments as appointed by the mayor or department head; Merolla; and Mr. Donald Cimini.
Sinapi said Cimini would be well suited to represent retirees on the commission.
Merolla questioned the resolution just as Finance Chairman Ed Ladouceur asked for questions or comments from the council. He suggested the composition of Sinapi’s proposed commission was skewed too far toward public officials.
“It just seems like there’s all people from the administration or from the council,” Merolla told Sinapi. “There’s not too many people there as far as residents go.”
Sinapi said that he would welcome an amendment to include a member of the public onto the list if that individual was designated by him. He mentioned that he has someone in mind with ample financial background who could fill that role.
Sinapi responded to Merolla by saying, “We represent the people, the whole point of this is so we can get an idea in this. This isn’t an ‘us or them’ scenario, this is a group of people who are trying to figure out a situation.”
Sinapi said that this commission would provide an opportunity to learn from and inform others about this topic as they research the best possible options for health insurance.
Ladouceur was not added to Sinapi’s list of commission members despite being the chair of the Finance Committee where the resolution was brought up.
“I think it’s absolutely imperative that at least one representative from the public have a seat on this commission,” Ladouceur said.
Merolla added that having someone from the health insurance field would be beneficial on a committee studying the topic. Sinapi said that he would rather not pack the commission, but would want a representative to attend a few meetings to offer expertise.
Sinapi’s resolution has a six-month window to study the commission’s options for health insurance. He said he does not want to rush a decision regarding such a significant issue.
On Tuesday, Merolla said that he is not opposed to a study, but the council has waited years to discuss the matter. He said the topic is difficult to approach because one way or another, everyone comes out on the bottom.
“There are no winners in this,” Merolla said. “Even the employees are going to lose.”
Warwick Republican City Committee Chairman Richard Cascella stepped up to the microphone during public comments. He took issue with the idea that the people who are receiving the contracts will be the ones who craft it.
“Thirty percent of the people on this board should at the very least be from the general public,” Cascella said.
The GOP chairman also mentioned that there is an obvious rift between Merolla and Sinapi on this topic.
Warwick resident Rob Cote offered his own suggestion to Sinapi’s resolution.
“Why not have a commission made up of nine people – eight of those people be from the taxpayers, and we’ll have one person that represents all the unions. And let’s see what the demeanor becomes then,” he said.
Cote took issue with the role taxpayers play in this decision. He said that the only thing they do in this process is write the check. He took issue with Sinapi’s comment about representing the people of Warwick.
“I can name specific events where the people weren’t represented on issues like this when this council chamber was packed with people on certain appointments and everyone was against it. And they were ignored,” Cote said. “We’re not being represented.”
Cote said the projected six months it would take to issue a report is much too long. Sinapi, however, didn’t want to hear it. He cited Council Rule 19, which states that the president is to enforce order and decorum among persons outside the rail dividing the public from the council.
After Cote left the podium, Sinapi suggested the commission could include every council member or a designee to allow for equal representation in each ward.
Then, after public comments, Ladouceur referred to health insurance as a “political hot potato” and said that he would not support Sinapi’s resolution as it stands, but not because he was left off the original list of members. Councilman Stephen McAllister then requested a five-minute recess after more discussion from the Finance Committee.
Immediately after the committee reconvened, Sinapi said that he wanted to make some adjustments to his resolution and hold it until March 9.