ALBANY, NY – The days of free lifetime health insurance for city police officers are nearing an end.
The Albany Police Officers Union, which represents the city’s rank-and-file patrol officers, this week overwhelmingly ratified a contract eliminating the controversial benefit that gives officers free health care for life after eight years of service, a city official said.
The change will apply only to newly hired officers and not yield immediate savings for the city. But it marks a significant shift in the sometimes contentious tug of war between the city and the public safety unions that enjoy the most generous benefit packages.
The accord could also have ripple effects for those unions whose contracts remain unresolved — most notably the Albany Permanent Professional Firefighters Association, whose members currently enjoy the same lifetime health benefit.
Thomas Mahar, the new president of the APOU, acknowledged Tuesday’s vote, calling the outcome “decisive.”
“It was a fair offer, and I think we the membership saw it as that.” Mahar said, declining to discuss the specifics of the pact until the Common Council ratifies it.
Police officers and firefighters have long argued they had earned the lifetime free benefits because of the toll their jobs take on their bodies. But in recent years, some politicians have ratcheted up pressure to scale them back, calling the benefits unsustainable — especially in the wake of the 2 percent property tax cap that limits the city’s ability to raise taxes to fund them.
“That’s becoming more and more the rule as opposed to the exception,” Bob Van Amburgh, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Jennings, said of the healthcare contributions. “You’re seeing more and more of the contribution share being just part of contractual language. It’s happening in school districts. It’s really becoming the norm.”
Under the new police pact, newly hired police officers will contribute 10 percent of the cost of their insurance premiums for an individual health plan and 25 percent for a family plan, on par with other city workers, officials said.
As part of the contract — which is retroactive to 2010 — officers have also agreed to move to a less expensive health insurance plan and will receive four years of raises: 2 percent for 2010 and 2011, 3 percent for this year and 2½ percent in 2013.
The financial impact of those raises was not immediately clear. In January, a state arbitration panel awarded Albany firefighters retroactive 2 percent raises for 2010 and 2011, suggesting police officers may have received the same if their contract talks had also wound up in arbitration, a step triggered when both sides cannot agree to new terms.
That arbitration panel, however, declined to require the city to guarantee free lifetime health insurance for retired firefighters — a benefit Albany currently offers voluntarily.
While city lawmakers have urged a re-evaluation of the city’s benefits packages for years, the issue of free health care, especially for retirees, had become a significant flash point between the unions and members of the Common Council over the last two years.
Councilman Frank Commisso Jr. led the charge in the last two budget cycles to require contributions by all newly retired officers and firefighters, a position that won him withering criticism from the unions.
“This is a good day for the city of Albany. It really is,” said Commisso, who represents the city’s 15th Ward. “They’re making some real concessions here, and I think that’s a great starting point.”
And while it’s an issue that he and Jennings have sparred over in the past, Commisso lauded Jennings’ efforts.
“In this case, it seems like he really went in there with the mindset of representing the city’s taxpayers,” he said.
The contract does not affect the 52 sergeants and lieutenants in the Albany Police Supervisors Association, whose last contract also expired in 2009. Firefighters, meanwhile, are back in talks with the city for a contract to cover this year and next year. Union President Andrew Hirsch declined to comment on the city’s demands citing the ongoing negotiations.
The city’s blue collar workers also recently agreed to a new contract that gives them zero percent raises in 2010 and 2011, 2½ percent this year and 3 percent next year. They, like most other city workers, already contribute toward their health insurance premiums throughout their employment and retirement.