After a host of residents, teachers and other town employees railed against the proposal, Town Meeting voters emphatically shot down an initiative to slash the town's contribution to employee and retiree health care premiums from 60 to 50 percent Monday night.
The proposal, an amendment to Article 15 on the Town Meeting warrant, was placed on the docket by Shaw Farm resident Bill Dowd, who has been actively working to bring to light the extent of the town's employee and retiree benefit liabilities. The plan to cut the town's contribution was originally set for Article 29 of the warrant, but Dowd moved to discuss the proposal while the voters moved through the town's fiscal year budget.
Dowd's article sought to strike a 2001 Town Meeting vote that raised the town's premium share from 50 to 60 percent. Dowd claimed that even though '01 Town Meeting had the intent to do so, the motion's wording included only employees and not retirees. The error - extending the 60 percent contribution to retirees as well - cost the town $7.7 million, according to Dowd, pushing the town's liability to $46.3 million.
The 10 percent cut, said Dowd, would slice $687,290 out of this year's budget. The Finance Committee's recommendation was $4,104,720 for health insurance and $1,758,596 for employee benefits.
Dowd's article - one of four he placed on the warrant - sparked a spirited debate, drawing the ire of town employees and residents. Fire Chief Michael Cassidy said his firefighters and EMTs - none of whom are full-time - wouldn't be able to afford an increase in their premiums given the monthly stipend they earn.
Superintendent Brad Jackson argued that a further cut in the town's contributions to health insurance premiums would make it considerably harder to entice strong employees. He said that the town's salary package is competitive but the benefits are not, citing Framingham's contribution of 82 percent to its school employees. Of the eight hires he made last year, said Jackson, he twice had to go to his second choice after his first choice found a better benefits package elsewhere.
FinCom members Marc Schultz and Ken Szajda also weighed in, with Schultz saying that Holliston's contributions were low relative to surrounding towns and that many town employees make low salaries to begin with. Szajda, the FinCom's Chairman, pointed out that the cost of the Fire Department is "next to nothing" and that the current structure is a bargain compared to the cost of having full-time firefighters.
The FinCom did, however, address the omnipresent liabilities problem, laying out a plan to study the town's benefit packages in a presentation by Szajda. Though cities and municipalities are constrained in how they can deal with liabilities - with state laws obligating certain benefits paid at set levels - the study, said Szajda, can help the town work toward a financial model for long-term fiscal stability.
"We can't rush to judgment," said Sazjda. "We need to look at the total compensation packages, so we can get the best possible employees at a cost we can bear.
"There is an urgency to address this, but we have to move forward cautiously," added Szajda.
Pending the completion of the study, paying down liabilities will require cutting budgets or raising taxes, said Szadja, who referred to Wellesley's recent passage of 10-year override.
The most resounding words on cutting employee benefits, however, may have come from Placentino School French teacher Dianne Nault, who, after 28 years, is retiring in June. She read a letter from a parent praising her work with his kids before revealing that the letter was from Dowd.
Though Dowd moved for a secret ballot, voters rejected that notion, then disposed of the amendment by an overwhelming voice vote.
In other business:
- Voters approved the town's budget, which totaled $51.1 million.
- Voters passed a routine step-raise structure under the job compensation plan for town employees. Norland Street resident Liz Theiler objected to the structure, saying that the step raises were "outrageous" in this fiscal climate. Employees earn a 6.5 percent raise after 90 days, another 4 percent raise after a year and another 4 % raise after two years.
- Voters approved $695,000 in Community Preservation Act money to make exterior repairs to Town Hall. Peeling paint, moisture in the walls and ice dams have long been recurring problems for the 150-year-old building.
The Community Preservation Committee and Town Hall Renovation Committee sponsored the article, which will be more extensive than previous attempts.
Another $40,000 in capital money will be added to the project for routine final painting, which is not covered by CPA funds.
Paint has been peeling from the Town Hall's exterior for several years, starting shortly after its last coat was applied in 2004.
The CPC tried to bring proposals to Town Meeting twice: last May and again in October. Last fall's plan called for $537,000 in CPA money and $40,000 in capital funds, but the the town wanted to clear the project with the state Historical Commission.
To satisfy that condition, this year's proposal includes a historical preservation architect to keep the building's historical charm.
As opposed to the $3 million renovation in 2002 and 2003 that refurbished the inside of the building, the new proposal would address the problems on the exterior. Specifically, the plan would take measures to combat the moisture causing the paint peeling. Some second-floor boards would be stripped and de-leaded, while other lower-level boards would be replaced altogether.
In addition, the plan calls for a pre-primer, sealant and primer as well as a vapor barrier and insulation on the second floor.
Also, downspouts and gutters would be replaced while a three-foot metal plate would run along the bottom of the roof. Wiring in the gutters would be installed to prevent ice dams.