News & Events

Mayors want health costs on ballot

Legislators say cities to blame for benefits

By Sean P. Murphy, Globe Staff  |  March 10, 2010

A group of Massachusetts mayors, fed up with what they say is legislative inaction on skyrocketing municipal health care costs, has launched a ballot initiative for 2012 aimed at giving cities and towns more flexibility in reducing expensive benefits for employees, retirees, and elected officials.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston hosted a strategy session of about 20 mayors in City Hall Friday. The group emerged with a proposal to allow communities to reduce benefits without union negotiations. Under current state law, cities and towns are limited in what changes they can impose outside collective bargaining.

“The status quo is unacceptable,’’ said Mayor Thomas Ambrosino of Revere, one of the group’s leaders. “Without change, most communities will have to do more of the same, more reductions in services, more layoffs.’’

“There are a lot of frustrated mayors out there,’’ he said.

But yesterday, state Senate President Therese Murray blasted the mayors’ plan to circumvent the Legislature and go directly to voters, saying the problem was largely of the mayors’ making. City leaders handed out generous pay raises for years and tolerated exploitation of pension loopholes, Murray said.

“It’s time for the mayors to step up to the plate,’’ she said. “They have to look in the mirror on this. For years, they have been putting together their budgets, and now it is reaching a peak.

“It’s about time they managed their own funds better . . . instead of coming in here and saying, ‘You got to do A, B, C, and D.’ ’’

With health care costs straining cities and towns, political pressure is building on lawmakers to give municipalities more control over what benefits they provide and to whom. But there are divisions on Beacon Hill about what to do and how much to challenge the bargaining rights of labor unions.

Murray said she expected the Legislature to address the municipal health care crisis in the current session.

“Something has to be done on health care spending,’’ she said, adding that the Legislature is “spending a lot of time on this.’’

But House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in an interview that he was not so sure that a measure would pass, and he seemed cool to the idea of stripping long-held collective bargaining rights from the municipal unions representing police, firefighters, teachers, and other employees.

“I appreciate both sides in this, and unless there’s compromise or consensus, I don’t know if it gets done,’’ he said.

DeLeo met behind closed doors yesterday with House members, in part to discuss municipal health care costs.

“There was absolutely no consensus,’’ he said. “The opinions of members were all over the place. Everyone seemed to be making a good point.

“We have the health care costs versus collective bargaining rights of workers. There’s a concern about further diluting collective bargaining rights. This is not an easy issue.’’

Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, which in the past has pushed for communities to join the state’s health insurance plan, was noncommittal yesterday on efforts to change the system.

“The governor believes that we need to continue to work with cities and towns to find additional ways to help them get their fiscal houses in order, but their employees should not be completely shut out of those conversations,’’ Juan Martinez, a Patrick spokesman, said in a statement.

The Globe reported last week that health care costs added more than $1 billion to municipal budgets from 2001 to 2008, with many communities providing unusually generous benefits for employees, retirees, and elected officials.

Some cities now devote close to 20 percent of their budgets to health care costs.

Municipal unions have largely succeeded in fighting off benefit reductions. Many municipal workers and retirees in the state’s larger cities enjoy plans in which the city pays 80 percent or more of the premium, and copayments for office visits are as low as $5.

To get a question on the 2012 ballot, the mayors would have to collect the signatures of tens of thousands of voters who are in favor of the measure.

An initiative petition requires 3 percent of the number of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election, or 66,539, based on the 2006 election. That number will change, but probably not by much, after this year’s gubernatorial election.

The signatures would be due in August of 2011.

Sean Murphy can be reached at