School dollars and employee healthcare plan highlight budget hearing

The Board of Aldermen heard pleas to reinstate Board of Education funds and to think hard before contemplating a switch in employee health insurance carriers when they gathered for a public hearing on the 2018-19 budget proposal Wednesday evening.

The public hearing was one of the steps along the path to approving an annual city budget. The Board of Finance recently passed its version of the budget, and then forwarded that plan to the aldermen for a final review and vote. Wednesday night was a chance for residents to say what they thought about the spending plan.

About 20 people attended the hearing, which isn’t a heavy turnout, but shows there is some interest in guiding the aldermen along their decision-making course.

The first speakers addressed school spending, asking the aldermen to restore $361,500 that the Board of Finance cut from the plan when they reviewed it.

Resident Michael Brown said the finance board’s cut “was capricious and exceeded their mandate.”

In making the cut, the finance board identified $361,500, which was the amount the school board added to the school superintendent’s initial request, to fund additional building projects next school year.

Brown said the finance board doesn’t have the right to direct spending for the school board. While it can make decisions on the total amount appropriated to schools, it cannot direct where the school board spends its money. Brown quoted the city charter, saying, “[Appointed] boards and commissions shall have no authority to direct the administration of any department.”

He and several other speakers asked the board to reinstate the funds. Susan Krushinsky, a former Board of Education member, said that many of the building projects on the list have been pushed back year after year.

“These are necessary projects and if they aren’t done now it may end up costing us, the taxpayers, more in the future,” she said.

Resident Kara Flannery said the building projects include installing air conditioners in some classrooms, which can get very hot at the end of the school year; adding sinks to bathrooms that do not have enough sinks, and replacing worn floors and dingy window blinds.

“To continue to put these projects off is not sustainable,” Flannery said.

She and former school board member Laura Fucci also asked the aldermen to keep funding in the budget plan for an additional school resource officer (SRO). The school superintendent has been trying to add an SRO to the public school system for several years, and this is the first time the proposal has gotten this far in the budget process.

There are four school resource officers now, one at each high school and two split among the three middle schools and The Academy. Under the new budget plan, there would be five school resource officers.

“The truth is our community is painfully aware of the potential risk to school safety,” Flannery said. “We know that the worst can happen and school safety is not the place to cut corners.”
Employee Health Insurance
Kathy Gage, a retired school teacher, asked the board to look long and hard if asked to consider changing the city’s health insurance carrier from Anthem to Cigna to save money.

Gage said Cigna is “notorious” for being difficult to work with in certain situations, especially when a client is retired and also covered by Medicare. She said she is happy with Anthem, and praised their customer service.

Retired teacher and former union leader Barbara Santa Barbara also talked about a potential change in health care providers. She asked the aldermen to insure that anyone affected be represented at discussions, and she insisted on transparency.

“In my opinion the current provider is outstanding and I hope you will let them continue,” she said.

Jim Santa Barbara, a former school board member, quoted Yogi Berra, saying, “It’s deja vu all over again,” referring to a 2012 near move from Anthem Blue Cross to Cigna.  

Jim Santa Barbara said when he retired in 2004, he was told he could keep his Anthem plan. “I like the plan. I’m happy with the plan, and I want to keep it,” he told the aldermen.

Mayor Ben Blake said there has been no decision to move from Anthem to Cigna, but that a committee, which includes union representation, has requested quotes from insurance providers. Blake said final interviews with providers has not taken place yet.

The mayor also said this situation is different than 2012, and he said it makes sense to put out a request for proposals because healthcare represents a $40 million cost per year, or 20% of the city budget.

The teachers union has called an emergency meeting of members for today (Thursday, April 5) to discuss the possibility of a provider change. Those meetings will take place at Jonathan Law High School between 3 and 4 p.m.

Budget recap
The aldermen have been presented with a spending plan of $210,193,398, up 2.14% from the current budget of $205,787,062. That figure represents allocations for the city and schools.

The mill rate would drop slightly under the plan, from 27.79 mills to 27.74 mills.

Taxes for the typical homeowner would go down $11 next year under the plan as it stands now.

The typical homeowner in Milford is described as one owning a house with a market value of $311,070.

Following Wednesday’s public hearing, the Board of Aldermen will now review each department request before voting on a spending plan in May.

It will take a simple majority vote to reduce budget allocations, but if the aldermen want to add spending to the budget proposal, it will require two-thirds vote of the board.