The heads of three county labor unions fired up their troops outside County Hall on Tuesday afternoon, castigating Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration for carrying a $42 million surplus in the county’s health-insurance account while asking employees to contribute more toward healthcare costs.
Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera, Service Employees International Union President Martha Baker and water and sewer union President Emilio Azoy told a rowdy crowd of well more than 100 that the mayor has no right to hold the reserve. The administration counters that the money helps maintain employee benefits and hold the line on health-insurance rate increases.
The union leaders pointed to the health-insurance account, known as a trust fund, as a sign that employees should not continue to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward the cost of health insurance, as Gimenez has proposed.
Baker told the crowd the 5 percent is not a necessary sacrifice when the trust fund has a $74 million surplus — $42 million more than the minimum advised by county health-insurance consultants.
“If that money isn’t needed to keep the county afloat, give it back to the people who earned it,” she said.
Gimenez, who had said he would try to eliminate the 5-percent concession, wants to continue it for another year because the county faces a $50 million-plus budget shortfall. Extending the contribution requires the county to negotiate with most of its bargaining units.
“We remain committed to a measured budget approach that will provide our residents with the essential public services they need at a cost they can afford,” Gimenez said in a statement from Paris, where he is traveling with the Beacon Council, the county’s economic development arm.
“However, doing away with the 5-percent employee insurance contribution and funding the other contract concession issues at hand would make this vital task much more difficult by adding an estimated $33.5 million of cost, increasing the general fund budget gap that already stands at over $50 million — this would be totally irresponsible.”
The union leaders have asked Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin to ensure an independent audit of the health-insurance fund. A three-page letter signed by Rivera, Baker, Azoy and five other union chiefs said they are concerned the fund is subsidizing department operations that are over budget — a charge denied by Jennifer Moon, the county’s budget director.
Moon said any “extra” money in the fund is carried over into the next fiscal year, helping prevent larger budget shortfalls that could have to be made up with benefit cuts or rate increases for employees’ spouses or children, for example. She has long advised commissioners against tapping the fund to cover gaps elsewhere in the budget.
Ruvin said he’s analyzing the request. “We received the letter. It’s under advisement, and we should have an answer in two days,” he said.
Before the speakers took the podium at the news conference, union workers handed out dozens of orange piggy banks, which they shook for effect.
Rivera, the feisty police union chief, admonished the administration for not letting the unions gather inside the building. The event was held just outside instead.
“Kick us out to the middle of the street if you want, we’ll stop traffic,” he said. “The more that know, the better.”
He also took the opportunity to blast Gimenez’s trip to Europe. The mayor’s travel expenses were funded mostly by a nonprofit group set up to pay for such trips and by the Beacon Council, which is mostly funded by county dollars.
Union worker Roseleine Mack, a critical care nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, was holding a sign that read “Did my 5 Percent Go To Paris?”
Asked if the mayor’s trip may have come at a bad time, Mack said: “It’s always a bad time when you’re using someone else’s money.”