New Bedford Mayor Emphasizes Need for Healthcare Savings in FY23 Budget Proposal
In his first in-person address to the New Bedford City Council since 2019, Mayor Jon Mitchell outlined his office's proposal for City's FY23 budget totaling $471 million, with the General Fund totaling approximately $421 million.
Mitchell echoed familiar budgetary constraints, and re-proposed a solution to rising healthcare costs that had been previously rebuffed by the city council.
Citing an expected seven percent increase in employee healthcare costs, and an annual average increase of $1 million per year, Mitchell called on the council to adopt Sections 21-23 of Chapter B of Massachusetts General Law. Adoption of the 2007 state law would allow for municipalities to negotiate healthcare costs with public union representatives through a neutral arbiter. This proposal has come before the city council twice at the urging of Mayor Mitchell and died in the council chambers on both occasions.
"The circumstances haven't fundamentally changed," Mitchell told WBSM. "We have an unsustainable healthcare budget. It's not dire in the sense that we are in crisis mode now. It's more of like the Aesop's fable of a frog in boiling water. We in the city government do right by our residents by making hard long term-decisions from time to time, and I think this is just one of them."
Mitchell had noted that other municipalities such as Fall River have implemented Section 21-23, and "the sky had not fallen there." He further remarked in a media availability to WBSM that the savings won't be immediate, but he believes that changing the process in which unions collectively bargain with the City is the best way to move forward in a mutually beneficial way.
"That's where I think it becomes, in the long run, something I think it could lead to better costs and frankly better benefits," he said. "Because now, parties have sort of stopped talking. If you have an arbitrator, it forces the parties to work through the issues."
In discussing the school budget, Mitchell had expressed gratitude for the funding made available by the Student Opportunity Act, a landmark state education reform bill that directs more resources toward improving education to districts with high populations of economically disadvantaged students. However, Mitchell also lamented that the divestment from the school budget to fund the existing charter schools have adversely impacting the City's ability to direct more resources in critically needed areas.
For the rest of the budget, Mitchell urged the need to be cautious due to the the local economy having not fully rebounded from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and other external economic factors such as the rising rate of inflation and the ongoing supply chain issues.
It's for these reasons Mayor Mitchell has not proposed a a creation of any new programs or an expansion of existing programs, and has directed funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to what he described as "one-time or otherwise limited duration items in specific eligible categories."
Mitchell concluded his address with optimism for the New Bedford's economic future, citing the council's approval of the Advanced Manufacturing Campus, the City's unemployment rate dropping to five percent, and growing local industries such as offshore wind and hospitality.
"There’s much to look forward to, but we all know that decisions concerning the hard-earned dollars of our residents must be undertaken with a clear-eyed view of the challenges that also lie ahead," Mitchell said. "We will meet these challenges by relying on the same cautious, deliberative approach and the effective partnership between the administration and the city council that has served us well in the past."