PATERSON — In a decision that threatens to undermine one of Andre Sayegh’s main accomplishments during his first year as mayor, a judge has ruled that Paterson must reinstate its self-insurance program for health benefits for firefighters and police officers.
Sayegh said the city would appeal the ruling issued on Wednesday by Superior Court Judge Ernest Caposela, which upheld a decision rendered last November by a state arbitrator.
“We’re looking to save significant taxpayer dollars,” Sayegh said.
At issue is how the cash-strapped city provides medical insurance for more than 2,000 municipal workers and retirees.
Paterson had been using a self-insurance program for employee health coverage, but the cost increased so much that one year the city had to borrow $4 million to cover workers’ medical bills.
In 2018, months after Sayegh became mayor, the city ended its self-insurance program and joined the State Health Benefits Plan. At the time, the Sayegh administration said the change could save Paterson as much as $20 million per year.
But the unions representing city police officers and firefighters opposed the move, arguing that the change violated their labor contracts. In particular, the unions asserted that the state plan did not meet a contract provision that said any change in insurance had to provide comparable or better coverage.
The unions argued that under the state plan retirees were being asked to pay significantly more for prescription drugs than they had been under the city’s self-insurance.
Kyle Hughes, president of the firefighters’ union, and Mason Maher, president of the union that represents ranking police officers, said the city needed to negotiate the change in coverage and not enact unilaterally. The union leaders said they offered to meet at the bargaining table on the issue even after they filed their initial grievances, but that the city ignored their requests.
Caposela’s ruling gave the city 90 days to make the change in health insurance. Maher said the unions expect the city to seek a court order that would put the change on hold until an appeal is heard.
This year’s budget allocates $41 million for employee health insurance, down from $43.6 million last year.