Editorial: Public boards must rein in health costs

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The gap between shrinking private-sector employee benefits and often-generous public-sector employee benefits seems to have only been growing this decade. It’s time that cities, towns, villages, school districts and public authorities take a hard look at whether they can justify gold-plated retirement plans or health insurance plans in which public employees contribute next to nothing for premiums. 

Failure to act serves only to foster resentment among the taxpaying public at the extent of benefits enjoyed by people on government payrolls. The high cost of such benefits also pressures governments to raise taxes, further weakening our region’s economic competitiveness with other areas of the country. 

In a perfect world, health benefits for all would be as cheap as possible, the way it seemed a generation ago. For a variety of reasons, including more expensive medical equipment and more tests ordered by doctors, the cost of good health care continues to skyrocket. On a macro level, the extent of this problem is an issue in the presidential race, particularly on the Democratic side where candidates are debating the merits of their health-insurance reform plans. 

On the micro level, owners of private businesses have seen premium costs expand by double-digit percentages nearly every year. This has forced them to pass on the costs to their workers in order to remain competitive. Workers feel increasingly frustrated each year at higher premiums and larger co-pays. 

The story is similar when it comes to retirement plans. Many private companies don’t offer a traditional pension anymore, whereas most public employees are treated quite generously once their working years are over. 

In New Hartford recently, teachers secured annual raises of 4.75 percent and were not required to increase their health-insurance contributions. Right now, the school district pays 95 percent of the costs. Both these figures are far better than you’re likely to find in the private sector. 

The issue is not limited to New Hartford schools. It’s a systemic misunderstanding throughout government of the realities of life for most area taxpayers. In the city of Utica, for instance, part-time employees who work through the year are eligible for medical benefits. 

What’s the difference between the public and private sector? For one, government is not motivated by the profit motive. It can always raise taxes or issue bonds to generate funds, regardless of the fairness or wisdom of doing so. For another, public-employee unions have only grown in power while private-sector unions have wilted.  Check out the campaign contribution patterns at the state Board of Elections Web site, and you’ll see plenty of donations from public-employee unions to elected officials. 

Changing things will require bold public officials and a vocal public. In the end, elected officials are responsible to you, the voter. Let your voice be heard so that we can eliminate a two-tiered system of benefits that serves only to lessen the public’s trust in government.