As our three-part series exploring union benefits comes to a finish, it is our hope that the articles have given our readers a greater understanding of what benefits are given to your city’s employees, and what impact that has on Warwick financially.
These questions are not easy ones to ask, nor are they any easier to answer. But we believe that asking them and contributing to an ongoing dialogue is vital to securing a healthier future for the city that we also call home, and also care about deeply. We are under no misconception that this series has shed light on every possible aspect of this topic, but rather we hope it has given a good overview that leaves plenty of room for follow-up and continuing dialogue.
These expenses are not insignificant, nor are they going to magically become less expensive over time. Our simple numbers crunching has shown that in just 17 years, healthcare costs for only the retired members of the city’s collective bargaining units have essentially tripled. This must be a cause for concern going forward, as the way these benefits are structured means these expenses will be born for many years to come, as people are living longer than ever before.
Negotiations made in 2015 to provide only individual healthcare to retirees is a good start, but it remains to be seen whether the windfall from those savings will be enough to override the financial costs associated with providing family healthcare and a Medicare supplement to all employees hired – and who will retire – in the many years prior to that change.
If not, we fear Warwick will continue to slowly suffer degradation of its infrastructure and cuts to other services in order to make up for rising healthcare costs. We are already seeing that the city is pursuing bonding to fix its roads rather than rely on the paltry amount that can be allocated in the city’s budget – which is not an encouraging sign that the operating budget is particularly healthy.
Philosophically, this issue is a sensitive one to approach. Employees deserve healthcare, and people deserve security after they’ve dedicated a lifetime of service to their job through some sort of retirement fund. The question then has to become a matter of reasonability.
Is it reasonable that firefighters can retire at age 51 and collect health insurance for nearly 15 years on the city’s dime before switching to Medicare, at which point they then get a Medicare supplement, also at the city’s expense?
Is it reasonable for a pension to be worth more than an employee ever made during the course of their employment of the city – as is almost surely to happen as many members of the fire and police departments earn a guaranteed, 3 percent COLA throughout the lifetime of their retirement? Is it reasonable that some pensions can be worth upwards of $100,000 a year?
Is it reasonable for spouses of these groups to enjoy many of the same benefits as their significant others, provided their spouse was hired prior to 2015?
The answers to these questions are not ours to decide. They are for you, the members of the public, who elect our city council, our mayor and our state representatives, to decide. The argument will be made that city workers “deserve” these benefits for various reasons – the dangers of being a firefighter or police officer and the need to be able to attract talent to these jobs being two solid ones – but it is up to you to determine whether or not those are good enough reasons to justify the benefits they receive.
The financial health of the city is not something that can be easily determined, and it requires a willingness to look at multiple perspectives and hear people out, even if you don’t ultimately agree with them. It requires taking an interest in things that can be rightly categorized as “boring,” but these are issues are at the forefront of some of the matters of most important consequence.
Going forward, we hope to see measures taken by elected officials to really assess the costs associated with the contracts they negotiate, and for union leadership to do the same. Nobody benefits when a city becomes insolvent, and understanding that would be a great benefit to us all.