Board turns thumbs down on city worker contract

NASHUA – Aldermen continued their trend on union contracts and rejected a second contract with city workers.

A labor agreement covering nearly 45 library employees was rejected on an 8-6 vote, as the board balked at the medical benefits.

The contract provided for annual salary increases of about 3 percent through June 2006.

But aldermen said they had problems with medical costs in the contract, not the raises granted to library workers. Under the current contract, the city is responsible for paying up to 95 percent of medical benefits.

“It’s time (for city workers) to start contributing to the cost of health care. We can no longer afford it,” said Alderman-at-Large David Deane.

The board has taken a strong stand against labor contracts and some members complain that recent city budget increases are driven by costly contracts.

In the fall, the Board of Aldermen refused to accept a contract from the city principals. It was rejected, but aldermen also voted against a renegotiated contract. At the time, board members opposed it because of a new retirement benefit.

The fate of the library contract drew several library employees to the aldermanic chamber in City Hall on Tuesday night.

Library worker John Milton told the board he has seen job postings for part-time summer help in the parks department that surpassed wages paid to library workers with college degrees.

Milton said employees work hard at the library and it is shown by the increase to nearly 600,000 materials in circulation.

And compared to the Manchester library, a similar position at the Nashua library is some $5,000 underpaid, he said.

Library Director Joe Dionne supported his workers. He told aldermen that as a city taxpayer, he believes the contract is fair for everyone.

But aldermen saw differently.

Ward 1 Alderman Kathryn Vitale said she was amazed the city picked up such a large share of medical-coverage costs.

Alderman-at-Large Jim Tollner said the contract should find a better balance in sharing medical costs, but the city needs to offer good benefits to its employees. He supported the proposed contract.

Medical benefits are standard in union contracts. In most city contracts, city workers pay 5 percent of medical costs, and city residents pick up the remaining 95 percent if an employee chooses a health maintenance organization for medical coverage. Another medical plan has 86 percent of the cost picked up by the city, the remaining by the employee.

Negotiators have said they are trying to push union members into HMOs because they remain more cost-efficient despite the city picking up more of the cost.

But aldermen said that is not enough and the system is too out of line with changes in private industry.

Ward 8 Alderman David MacLaughlin said his employer, a large department store, does not offer as good benefits as the city.

Tollner said city administrators have to talk with aldermen so the city’s contract negotiators understand what is feasible to the Board of Aldermen.

The issue of health insurance cuts across communities, especially as coverage costs increase at double-digit rates.

A 2004 health-benefits survey by the New Hampshire Local Government Center showed in Manchester that city government pays 87 percent to 95 percent of coverage costs and in Concord, the coverage runs 94 percent to 106 percent of costs.

Voting against the contract were Ward 1 Alderman Kathryn Vitale; Ward 3 Alderman Kevin Gage; Ward 5 Alderman David Lozeau; Ward 6 Alderman Robert Dion; Ward 8 Alderman David MacLaughlin; and Aldermen-at-Large David Deane, David Rootovich and Paula Johnson.

Voting in favor of the contract were Alderman-at-Large Jim Tollner; Ward 2 Alderman Richard LaRose; Ward 4 Alderman Marc Plamondon; Ward 7 Alderman Lori Cardin; Ward 9 Alderman Robert Shaw; and Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy. Alderman-at-Large Steve Bolton abstained.