Saturday, October 22, 2011

Letter to the editor

Apparently I haven't been the only one thinking about municipal health insurance. I received the following letter to the editor from Darek Barcikowski last night, within an hour of my blog post. He has submitted it to the Salem News but I don't believe that it has appeared there yet. You can't tell me any candidate is working harder during this cycle than Darek.

On city council and health insurance...

The question of whether I would participate in the city’s health insurance program comes up again and again. And rightfully so. Taxpayers are concerned about how their taxes are spent given the state of the economy and how high Salem’s tax bills are.

The compensation to city councilors is $10,000 annually. But if someone opts to take advantage of the health insurance plan that compensation might be worth double that.

I would make a two part proposal to address the issue of city councilors and health insurance. (Perhaps this could apply to other elected or appointed officials as well who work in a limited capacity).

First, disclose total cost of compensation inclusive of benefits such as insurance. State that city councilor compensation with benefits is worth say 15 or 18 thousand rather than 10. Let taxpayers understand total cost not just base compensation. We need this kind of understanding and transparency.

Second, make health insurance available on a need basis only and by application. If a city councilor does not have any other insurance options such as a policy available through employee or spouse, he or she would apply for consideration for the city plan. If however, a counselor had access to health insurance through a full time job or a family plan, I don’t think the city plan financed by taxpayers should be an option.

I believe this approach is fair. Ultimately we should provide insurance to elected officials who lack other options. Given the number of pressing issues facing our city, we need our councilors to be in good health.

Darek Barcikowski

Darek makes some excellent points, and I guess I was wrong when I said nobody involved with city council would ever speak about it. Now just win baby. My only quibble is with his figures. Compensation with benefits for a Salem city councilor can actually be worth north of $25,000. That's a lot for a part time job.

I also like his proposal around eligibility requiring that there are no other options. On our current council, it may only be Pinto who fits into that, and like I said, I get why he needs it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

More election season fun

I wrote last time about health insurance and the Salem city council. It was very timely, as a day later they were discussing the new MA municipal insurance reform law, which would give the city new powers in regard to changing employee benefits if they brought about certain savings. The way the law was written, the city has to elect to participate in the new law, which means that city council has to vote to approve it. They mayor has asked them to do so, but missed the filing deadline for the last meeting. It's pretty clear from the LARGE number of public employee union members in attendance at the meeting because of this issue that it will end up being a battle.

Several councilors have voiced support for this proposal in the past, with council actually passing a resolution urging the state to pass the law. That said, how do councilors not have a vested, conflict of interest in this issue? Let's be honest. Non-union city employees are not going to get better health insurance than the bargaining units. They'll either get the same or worse. Voting to allow this potentially has a direct negative impact on them. Of course, the first, easiest, no-harm to the people who work for the city full-time and should depend on it for health insurance reform would be to stop allowing city councilors to get their health insurance from the city. The savings on that alone is well in excess of $50,000. During the at-large candidates forum at the Moose Lodge earlier this week, seven of the 9 candidates mentioned healthcare costs as a top way the city can look to save money. (BTW, I was in the hospital still and couldn't attend, but Salem Patch did a live blog that was fantastic. Check it out here. Ignore candidate Barcikowski taking a beating in the comments below for actually having a position on something. It's nice that one of the candidates is willing to actually tell you where they stand on something. Lot's of wishy washy this go round.) I've just offered up $50,000 that doesn't hurt one full time employee. Will any councilor man up and offer that legislation? (Hint: Don't hold your breath.)

The hypocrisy we discussed the other day, where it's highly likely that those complaining the most bitterly about the city not being able to afford this thing, or that thing, apparently isn't exclusive to Ronan, Pinto, and Sosnowski in Salem. Over in Beverly, Elliot Margolis, who is Mr. Enough is Enough there, told the Salem News that if elected he will take health insurance from the city. This was right after he stated that if elected he'd tell city employees that their gravy train days were over. Margolis at least had the sense to say that because it is a part time job the health benefits should be reduced, as it doesn't make sense for a part timer on a 12k salary to get a 20k health benefit. So, on that, he's less disingenuous than the Salem three. How do they justify it?

Now I'm going to completely apply a double standard. Sue me. Jason Silva, the mayor's chief aide here in Salem, is running for councilor at-large in Beverly as well. In the same article he states that if elected he will not get health insurance from Beverly. First, I hope they elect him. I think he'd be good for them. Second, Jason, come on, man! Get your health insurance from them please. We already feed and clothe you, and in return, you pay taxes in Beverly. Let them foot the bill for your healthcare! You'd be a city councilor, it's your right!

Good night all. Time for more post-surgery prescription narcotics for me!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Zombies ATTACK! and Other Stuff

I posted this on Facebook already, but it's pretty interesting. Apparently, the organizer of the annual Zombie Walk was arrested prior to the walk this year, and detained all day. The charges? Conspiracy to start a riot, and not having a permit. At least that's what the organizer says. Salem PD is saying that the organizer had warrants, and was taken for those. Apparently police told people arriving for the walk that it was canceled, though it clearly took place, anyway. So, allegedly, the city refused to give them a permit, and then arrested them for not having one. Poor form, if true. The police clearly knew they were coming. They were waiting for them. I contacted the promoter and asked for clarification about what exactly happened. I received no response. Here's my question. Who has ever been hurt by this event? Not the people clearly enjoying watching it. Not the participants. Not the local businesses who were patronized after. Who? Seems like a fun, family friendly event to me. I know I've seen pics from it in Salem promo materials, too.

This may get more fun. The event sponsor has posted on Facebook that city council is meeting to consider a zombie ban tonight, and asked all the zombies to come to city hall at 6:30, sans zombie attire to fight it. Funny thing is, I spoke with someone with knowledge of the agendas tonight, and there's nothing about this on them. So you may have a bunch of angry zombies arrive at city hall, with nothing to put their energy into. Should be interesting.

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There was an odd letter in the SNews a few weeks back. Bob Rubano is extremely upset that Joan Lovely takes dental insurance from the city. I mean, I get his sentiment. If I were in charge, part time employees, like councilors, wouldn't be eligible for city paid insurance. It's a perk that sometimes exceeds the total council salary, and just doesn't seem appropriate. But it's interesting that his ire is directed solely at Lovely. Is she the only one?

I learned she isn't. She's not even the only lawyer. Joan's dental plan costs the city about $850 a year. Councilor O'Keefe takes dental as well, and costs the city about $500 annually. They are far from the most expensive users of city insurance. Ward 3 councilor Pelletier takes medical from the city, at a taxpayer cost of  about $5,500 a year. Now we get to the heavy hitters. Three of the four big budget cutters on council take family medical plans from the city, at a taxpayer cost of over $15,000 each. Yup, councilors Pinto, Sosnowski, and attorney Ronan all take family medical plans. Wonder why the weren't discussing cutting this perk while they were busy trying to take away promotions that employees earned. Yup, add this hypocrisy onto the lease one. Give Prevey credit for not taking advantage of this overly generous benefit.

The other thing that this does is really create a pretty big compensation difference from councilor to councilor. Prevey, Sargent, McCarthy, Ryan, and Furey cost the taxpayers their $10,000 annual salary. (I think Ryan gets a small stipend for being president.) Makes me feel a little better about the underwhelming constituent services outside of the Willows in ward 1, when I compare that to the same issue in Ward 2, at a cost of $25,000 to the taxpayers. Is Sosnowski really worth 250% what Sargent is? Is Steve Pinto worth 230% of Joan Lovely? Vote totals wouldn't lead you to think so. It's interesting that 3 of the 4 people who complain the most about tax bills are our most expensive councilors, no? Look within hypocrites boys! (I have to say, I largely give Pinto a pass on this [I know, me?] due to his current employment situation. I get it. He may not have anywhere else to get healthcare.)

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Went to child safety day at the Moose Lodge a few weeks ago. Really, really nice service they provide to the public at no charge, with DNA swab, dental impressions, fingerprints, and video recording of kids, at no charge.


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Anyone see Christian Day during the Haunted Happening parade, twirling around the streets on a Segway? Give him this, the guy is a consumate entertainer. Good show Christian!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Is John Ronan developing Alzheimer's?

I know, I've been a slacker. I'm having surgery in less than a week and, god willing, will be out of commission for only several weeks. I've been busy. I also killed my laptop, which has been a pain. That said, I have several things to cover.

First, I was unable to attend, so I sent a spy to the recent SSNA candidates forum (OK, it's not that recent anymore, two weeks ago) with a camera and tape recorder. First, a few snapshots:

Candidates Barcikowski and Turiel

Councilor Pinto looks on

Councilor Ronan


The real focus of the night was the ward 5 race, where Josh Turiel is challenging incumbent John Ronan. The first thing I noticed is the difference in mannerisms between the two candidates. Ronan is clearly more polished. He should be. He's a lawyer (as he's fond of reminding everyone) and an incumbent. He came across as a politician. I don't mean that in a good way or a bad way. He was just slick. Josh Turiel came across as earnest, enthusiastic, and less polished. The same was true of their wardrobes. Ronan in a power suit and red silk tie, Turiel in khakis, a button down, and blazer, with no tie.

Josh seemed nervous. Of course, when you're standing in front of a room explaining that you'd like to be a city councilor because you think that the current council is dysfunctional, and there is a quorum of councilors (Prevey, Furey, O'Keefe, Ronan, Pinto, and Lovely)  within ten feet of you, I guess that would be a little nerve racking.

Turiel laid out his position that the council has become a dysfunctional arena where councilors are more interested in scoring points than doing what is best for the taxpayers. I can't say I disagree with him, tbough clearly councilor Ronan did, saying he took offense to the implication. I'd say that plenty of us take offense to plenty that has taken place in chambers.

Councilor Ronan stated that his current record as a city councilor is 1-0, that one big win being blocking the proposed methadone clinic that was to go into the old Jeffrey Furniture building. He probably owes Megan Romanovitz a big assist, if not primary credit for the win. I'd imagine that many ward 5-ers consider the flooding problems on Canal Street to be a big ward issue, and Ronan has to get an incomplete or a loss on that one. He specifically mentioned it as a major issue that needed to be addressed during his campaign back in 2009. When it was mentioned by Turiel as a major problem that needed immediate addressing, Ronan stated that it was on the list. That must be a great comfort to the residents and business owners who are constantly flooded out. How many years should they wait?

I titled this post "Is John Ronan developing Alzheimer's?" Why? Well, the first thing that made me wonder was while he was taking credit for defeating the methadone clinic, he was also taking shots at Turiel (including props) for not having even attended any meetings, or participating in any way. Here's the thing though, it just wasn't true. You'd say, well, silly mistake, right? Except that Ronan also went to great lengths to explain that he knows almost everything that's going on in the ward. And Turiel's participation in that public meeting wasn't exactly under the radar. In the article that detailed the first public meeting regarding the proposed clinic, the very first quote in the article, right before Ronan was quoted, belonged to Mr. Turiel. Turiel went one step further, writing a letter to the editor, condemning the Canal Street proposal again. Brian Watson of the snooze wrote a column from his Swampscott home stating that Salem should embrace the methadone clinic. Turiel responded again (I don't think Ronan ever did). Rather than chastising him for being absent on the issue, maybe Ronan should have thanked him for his support. That would have been the civil thing to do. Calling him absent on the issue, when he held no public office, and in fact, wasn't absent, just seems odd. But Ronan knows everything going on in the ward.

The whopper that really named this post without trying was in response to a question posed by Tom Furey (Can we talk about how unusual it is for a sitting councilor to endorse one resident of his ward over another resident, when the other one is the current sitting ward councilor? Furey has endorsed Turiel, as has former ward councilor Matt Veno.). Furey asked whether the (illegal) rule that allows one councilor to block the mayor from speaking should be changed. Councilor Ronan gave a long, drawn out speech, ignoring that the rule violates chapter 19 of the city charter (an attorney should know, as Joan Lovely does), and basically said that he thinks that it's really a non-issue, because in the time that he's been on council, he can only remember it coming up once, when Steve Pinto used it to block the mayor from speaking about the Washington Street lease. He even repeated it a few times. I mean, what? The only time you remember it being used was by Pinto? Really? The lack of self awareness, which Ronan exhibited several times with longwinded lectures that ignored the moderator telling him his time was up, was just stunning. It was ... disturbing, really. John Ronan would have us believe that he doesn't remotely recall that just a few months ago, during the budget meeting that the mayor was invited to, that he, himself, blocked her from speaking? Really? You can read about it here.

Better yet, watch it for yourself.





Did you catch that, about two minutes in? Yet, a few months later, in his mind, this never happened? It really makes me wonder what's going on with him. I'm honestly concerned. The whole thing was just weird. He was crystal clear on it only happening once, and not at his hand. (Seriously, when is someone going to hand Jerry Ryan a copy of the charter? The mayor can speak to council on anything the mayor wishes, Mr. President. Read up!)

I'd love to support councilor Ronan. He sometimes takes fiscally conservative positions that I totally support. He's correct when he says that he's the most fiscally conservative councilor ... sometimes. Sometimes it seems he's perfectly happy checking his fiscal watchdog shoes at the door. Blowing over 200k in savings on the annex was a debacle. I've still not heard a credible explanation for why that was a good idea. The thought that maybe there were better, cheaper, options may have carried water, if the council had done anything about the issue since. They haven't, though at the time they said they would, and clearly we will end up renewing again, with no savings, and no improvements. It's a shame. Some of the other budget shenanigans were also the opposite of fiscal conservatism. Not approving a raise for the GIS director, when failing to do so would necessitate the hiring of a full time IT manager at 50+k plus benefits is one example. That, along with his proposal to set tax rates in February (I totally supported this at the time. I've learned more about the budget process, and his unwillingness to participate, and have changed my mind) stink of trying to score points in an election year. Hmm ... that's exactly what Turiel says he opposes. We should be so lucky as to have Josh Turiel serve on the council. We need what he's selling.