Akron and at least one of its unions have settled a dispute over higher health care costs that were implemented outside of contract negotiations.

City administrators have struck a deal that the police union says is “more than fair” for retirees and their families who have been paying more for supplemental health insurance. As part of an agreement reached last month, the city will pay $150,000 to cover additional expenses that police retirees incurred in 2017 and 2018 as a result of cost-cutting legislation proposed by Mayor Dan Horrigan and passed by the city council in 2016.

The four pieces of legislation added monthly premiums for spouses and children, and set the cost for retirees at what active-duty employees were paying for secondary health insurance. Unions representing police, firefighters and office staff, all of which were not consulted on the crafting of the new laws, filed grievances within weeks of their passing.

The city maintained that retirees are not represented by the unions and that it did not need to negotiate their health care benefits as part of three-year labor contracts, which expired in December. Negotiations are ongoing for all of the city’s labor unions.

Arbitrators were called in when talks broke down over the retiree supplemental health care coverage. In March 2018, Cleveland attorney Hyman Cohen issued his arbitrator’s opinion on the complaint filed by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7. Cohen used strong language to condemn the city’s “bad faith” actions and order that its four laws increasing retiree heath care contributions be rescinded.

A year later, the city and FOP have finally come to terms.

The city continues to dispute Cohen’s opinion that it violated the collective bargaining agreement. But it did agree to reimburse police retirees 75 percent of any additional costs for supplemental insurance from March 2017 through December 2018, which the city says comes out to about $150,000. The city also agreed to reimburse half of what spouses paid, but there are no reports that any retirees paid the new surcharge in that time period, city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said.

Retirees, regardless of when they were hired, will now pay half what active duty employees pay for their or their spouses’ secondary health insurance.

In 2017, the Supplemental Retiree Medical Benefit (SRB) program cost the city $3.1 million, which dropped to $1.4 million with fewer claims in 2018. That’s for all retirees. The city does not track claims and costs specifically for retired officers and their families, Nischt said.

The Civil Service Personnel Association, which represents 250 white-collar municipal employees, and the Local 330 chapter of the International Association of Firefighters also filed grievances in 2016. The CSPA had asked a judge to compel the city to agree on bringing in an arbitrator to break the impasse.

"Our retirees continue to be significantly impacted" by the city's cost-cutting moves, said Dan Sladek, CSPA president. He said the union "is working to alleviate or mitigate that impact" and "will pursue this issue to an acceptable resolution."

The firefighters union did not respond to a request for comment.

Nischt said the supplemental health insurance issue for retirees is being addressed in the ongoing bargaining negotiations.

Also challenging the city is former city prosecutor Doug Powley. He filed a lawsuit as a nonunion retiree saddled with higher health care costs for his family, who had been covered for free before the changes. His lawsuit has sat idle for nearly a year in Judge Joy Malek Oldfield’s court.

FOP President Frank Williams said the settlement “continues the secondary and tertiary [health] coverage that [police retirees] have always enjoyed.”

Any future alterations to health care benefits for retired police department employees will now have to be done at the negotiating table, which Williams said was a victory in acknowledging that “those were changes that needed to be made through the collective bargaining process … And it solidified that, ‘yes, we do represent our retirees.’ ”

As for the ongoing contract negotiations, Williams struck a diplomatic tone. “We’re enjoying great dialogue. At least the FOP is still working well with the city in coming up with the next contract.”

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.