Chester wrestles with health insurance co-pay, bidding process

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In a contentious Nov. 18 meeting that saw Chester’s Select Board set a special meeting for 7 p.m. tonight to finish the agenda rather than continuing late, members questioned whether the town should take possession of the information booth, whether to require town employees to pay something into their health insurance coverage and what would be included as capital expenditures under proposed capital bond issues.

Health insurance co-pay

Board member Heather Chase raised the issue of health insurance.  Currently the town pays the premiums and all out-of-pocket expenses for town employees and their families. Chase asked if there was “some way we can have a co-pay or some way that the employees can contribute to the cost of the healthcare.”

Chester Town Government personnel policy Health Insurance page. Click to enlarge.

Chester Town Government personnel policy Health Insurance page. Click to enlarge.

But board chair John DeBenedetti said he thought that since the personnel policy spells out health insurance among benefits, changing it would be problematic. However, the policy itself says that it can be changed at the will of the town. (Click here for specific Chester personnel policy.)

Town Manager David Pisha told Chase that some people use very little health care while others use more and it would be complicated to adjust compensation levels based on their levels of usage.

Chase suggested that even a $5 or $10 co-pay would give employees “skin in the game … I think we’re way out-of-date. Most employers, most people providing health care, have a cost associated with it when they use it.”

But Pisha responded, “When I hear ‘skin in the game,’ I’m hearing  ‘we want to change people’s perception of health care to make them go less often so they’re not a financial burden to whatever organization.”

“I think it’s a dangerous phrase to use, quite frankly,” said DeBenedetti

“Everyone pays something,” responded Chase. “I think we need to look at the policies our constituents – people in this town – are living under. Having absolutely no cost for your health care personally is very rare today.”

Pisha told the board that while companies complain about their health care costs, Chester has changed its health care plan virtually every year since 2008 to save money. “Companies do not have the imagination to shop for health care,” said Pisha.

Chester resident Frank Bidwell disagreed, saying that he had worked for a number of companies that shopped around for employee coverage every year and that he paid a portion of the cost of his health care coverage.

Police and roads reviewed

Police Chief Richard Cloud told the board that having a fifth full-time officer had cut the need for overtime and saved $19,000 in salary over last year. He then noted that arrests are up over last year.

Chase asked if that was because crime was up or because there are more officers. “Crime is up everywhere,” said Cloud.

Roads chief Graham Kennedy says his crew's trucks are shiny because they take pride in them.

Roads chief Graham Kennedy says his crew’s trucks are shiny because they take pride in them. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Bidwell noted that with the new paving, wide load trucks that used to go fast through the Stone Village are going even faster with sheriff department escorts. “We’ve had a few chats with their employers,” Cloud responded.

Part of Pisha’s capital bond plan involves several bonds for paving. Pisha told the board that many roads have low quality ratings and need to be worked or they will become very expensive to repair.   Public Works Director Graham Kennedy  said each road has its own set of problems that stem from what is under the pavement. For example, with “blue glacial till” under it, Route 35 (the Grafton Road) is “not in a good place for a road.”

“Route 35 is classic,” said Kennedy, noting that it’s repaved on a five year schedule that coincides with the availability of state money for Class 2 highways. “It doesn’t even make it to the end of the cycle.”

Kennedy told the board that the roads are in poor shape “for all the years we skipped paving or cut paving in the budget.”

Board member Arne Jonynas asked if it’s feasible to turn roads like Flamstead and Popple Dungeon back to dirt roads. Kennedy said it there would be increased gravel costs in mud season and it would make a lot of voters angry.

Board member Tom Bock told Kennedy that there’s a recurring question about the number of dump trucks the town operates. Kennedy told the board that each of the town’s trucks is classified as an emergency vehicle. After a snowstorm or natural disaster, “Highway (Department) gets everyone moving again.”

“Getting 90 miles clear of snow before school opens takes a lot,” said Kennedy. “The guys do a super job.” (A 90-mile straight line drawn from Chester would reach Burlington, Vt., or Amsterdam, N.Y., Windsor Locks, Conn., or Lexington, Mass.)  The average road mileage for 10 neighboring towns is 56.

With five trucks, each one maintains an average of 18 miles of road — or 36 miles when plowing snow or sanding because the work is done in both directions, Graham told The Telegraph Tuesday afternoon.

“When you’re pushing trucks that hard, they better work,” said Kennedy. “If we keep it on a rotation it doesn’t spike the budget.” Kennedy said that he gets frustrated when people criticize the “shiny trucks.” Chester’s trucks are the same age as those in other town, Kennedy said, adding that “the reason ours are shiny is that our guys have pride in what they do and they take care of the equipment.”

Kennedy also told the board that the town is working with a dealer on replacing truck No. 3, which was totaled in an accident on Route 103 south. Normally there is a six-month lead time to order a municipal truck, but since much of dump body and other transferable equipment survived, Kennedy is looking for an in-stock cab and frame. Without truck No. 3, it will take longer to clear the roads after each snowfall this winter.

Town Hall ‘bid’ stirs controversy

An offer by board member Bill Lindsay to remove refurbishing the second floor of Town Hall from the capital budget turned into a controversy over a single estimate for the work.

“I don’t want to do a project if we don’t have good, firm numbers,” said Lindsay.

“$70,000 is a firm number,” said Pisha.

“I’ve said that three times,” said executive assistant Julie Hance. “We had somebody come in and do an assessment of what is needed. … We have a bid of $70,000. We had a contractor come in.”

Jonynas then questioned whether the contractor’s figure was firm and members of the board asked to see it. Pisha said that if they wanted to go out to bid on the job it would put the contractor at a disadvantage if it were made public.

“I thought this was going to be an assessment like you did with the library,” said Jonynas referring to a study done by preservation architect Tom Keefe. “I didn’t realize this was a bid from a specific contractor.”

And when Hance said, “It’s not a bid,” Jonynas replied, “It looks like one. I think we missed a step here.”

Information booth

Addressing the question of the town taking over the ownership of the information booth on town property across from the Green, raised at the Nov. 4 meeting, Pisha told the board that he had visited the information booth on Tuesday, and presented a set of options from the Chester Community Alliance.

Stephen Davis stands to address the information booth situation.

Stephen Davis stands to address the information booth situation.

Pisha said he had talked with wastewater plant operatior Barry Goodrich who had said that with the leaks corrected and a low flow toilet, he would find it hard to believe that the 1,000 gallon holding tank would need to be pumped three times during the summer.

According to Pisha, the least costly option would be to reopen the booth, fix the leaks, upgrade the toilet and pump the tank periodically. Chase suggested that there were two questions: whether to take back the booth, then how to handle the bathroom.

“We’ve never owned that building,” said DeBenedetti. “I understand the (Okemo Valley) chamber is still involved,” he said, noting that there had been a meeting of the chamber’s board in which there were questions about whether or not to give the building up.

“Who mans it?” asked Lindsay. “The board needs to know who is responsible for it so it doesn’t come back to the town.”

DeBenedetti said he questioned who would sign a memorandum of understanding and who would take care of the building after the business people on the Green are gone. “And we’re talking without the Okemo chamber,” said DeBenedetti. The chamber received the building in a merger with the now defunct Chester Chamber of Commerce.

Lindsay said that he wanted all of the problems – including questions of handicapped access – out in the open to which Chester Townscape’s Tory Spater Sommerville interjected, “Let’s call them issues, not problems.”

Stephen Davis of the Chester Community Alliance told the board that there should be handicapped access. “If we want to have people come to town let’s welcome them.”

“This bothers me,” said Bock, “the town could be stuck with this forever.

Chester resident Ron Patch said, “If I were a business in town sending my dues to Ludlow, and they didn’t want to pay the $600 I’d be having a talk with them, because it’s peanuts compared to the thousands of dollars they’re taking out of this town.”

Chase asked that the information booth be put on the old business list so it will stay on the agenda.

In other action

The board voted to authorize Pisha to sign documents and represent the town at the closing for the 139-acre property that is being purchased from Mike and Amy O’Neil for the water system upgrade project approved by voters on Sept. 29, 2015.  Pisha reported that there are now flags flying in front of the town hall.

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  1. Charlea Baker says:

    Here we go again. ONE “bid” for refurbishing the Town Hall??? How is this wisely “managing” town resources? Open the job to a REAL bidding (i.e.multiple) competitive process. It is common sense. And removes the impression that town projects are handed to insiders who can price it to their own advantage.