Island public workers oppose retiree benefit cuts

State Senator Dan Wolf listened to Island municipal workers express concerns about possible changes to retirement health benefits. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Island residents who work in local, county, and state government voiced strong opposition to legislation that would affect their retirement health benefits, in a meeting with state senator Dan Wolf and state representative Tim Madden on April 19.

“We don’t like H.59,” Noreen Mavro-Flanders, Dukes County treasurer, said in introducing the elected officials to an audience of about 35 people at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Tisbury Friday morning.

Ms. Mavro-Flanders referred to House bill 59, legislation filed by Gov. Deval Patrick to reduce the future cost to taxpayers of public workers retirement health benefits, an unfunded liability he projects at $40 billion.

“Addressing the growing cost and unfunded liability of state and municipal retiree health care is in the best interests of the Commonwealth, taxpayers and public employees,” the governor wrote in his letter to lawmakers when he filed the legislation February 12.

The legislation would increase the minimum age of eligibility for health care benefits to 60 for most public workers. It would increase the required years of employment for benefits from 10 to 20 years. At 20 years of service, a public service worker would be eligible for a 50 percent benefit, pro-rated up to 30 years for full health benefits.

Current retiree health benefits would not be affected under the proposed legislation.

Sen. Wolf and Rep. Madden both oppose the legislation as written.

“I think this is an attack on your retirement,” Sen. Wolf said. “If you have to pay more out of your retirement benefit, then in effect, it’s reducing your retirement benefit. It’s just putting more pressure on the money you have for retirement.”

Rep. Madden said the legislation is not a top priority for state lawmakers, and that some colleagues he talked to were unaware of the bill. He said some form of the bill is likely to emerge from the legislature, but not necessarily in the form the governor submitted.

“What the governor has proposed is quite a reach,” Rep. Madden said. “I don’t believe in taking away benefits if they’ve already been granted.”

Ebba Hierta, director of the Chilmark Free Public Library, said the legislation, if passed, would force some public workers to make a tough choice. They will have to decide whether to retire immediately with full benefits, or retire later with reduced benefits.

“This bill is putting me in the position of choosing my retirement health care or keeping my job,” Ms. Hierta said. “I can’t do both. We took this job with this promise. I think this is thievery. As a department head, I’ve used this promise to recruit people. This makes me a liar.”

She noted that public sector employees are not eligible for social security, and depend entirely on their pension benefits for retirement.

The two representatives said it is unclear whether the bill will take a normal path through the legislative committees, or whether the house and senate leadership will put it on a fast track. They urged local public service workers to organize a grass-roots campaign in opposition to the proposed legislation.