Amherst has been working for decades to reduce the expensive practice of awarding lifetime health insurance to employees. The town ended the benefit for most new union hires in 1977. The town’s part-time judges and council members lost it 20 years ago, and two years ago it was taken away from all the exempt employees – department heads, assistant department heads and those reporting to them.
Now the town’s three full-time elected officials are being targeted.
The proposal would have little immediate effect. Only Highway Superintendent Robert N. Anderson is nearing retirement age. The town clerk would not qualify for the retirement benefit because of term limits and Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein receives his health insurance through the county from his time as a county legislator. Weinstein’s successor would need five years to quality for the benefit.
In January, the Town Board unanimously agreed to form the Salary Review Committee to study the issues of salary and benefits for the town’s elected officials.
Amherst Council Member Mark A. Manna last week tried to pick up the pace of the benefit cancellation by submitting a proposal to end the coverage for the full-time elected officials right away. Because the salary review is already under way, the proposal failed to gain traction and was sent to the committee for further study.
The town seems likely to eventually end lifetime health coverage for its elected officials, but that will properly come after a full consideration of what is the appropriate salary and benefits for the jobs.
That will leave police officers as the only remaining unit in the town that has lifetime health insurance.
Public employee unions are fighting hard to keep their generous health care and pension benefits. It’s hard to blame them, but the prospect of having to give up some benefits is blocking attempts to replace some long-expired county and city contracts.
Those benefits were granted when they were far less expensive and times were good. Now, especially since the economy cratered, those legacy costs are hobbling governments.
Lifetime health insurance is a rarity in private industry, and the defined-benefit pension plans many public employees enjoy are becoming less common in business as companies move toward 401(k) retirement plans.
Taxpayers should not have to keep picking up the tab for benefits that have become unsustainable.
Decades ago, town leaders in Amherst were forward-thinking on the issue of health insurance. It’s never too late for other municipalities to follow that lead.