HOOSICK, N.Y. -- A change to employees’ health care coverage prompted the unionization of the Hoosick highway department, a decision that is continuing to cost the town in attorney’s fees.
Town board members approved a budget revision this month of $1,570 for legal expenses in the highway fund, bringing the total incurred by the town on contract negotiations in recent months to $15,570.
In February, town board member Mark Surdam asked for a "cooling off" period to allow town officials to sit down with highway employees outside of those negotiations.
This month, Surdam asked town Attorney Joanne Monagan for her legal opinion regarding a change in employee benefits approved last year by the town supervisor. "I believe it should have been a board decision," Surdam said.
Speaking at the April 8 meeting, Monagan said town law was unclear, with no specific provision in local law that states whose authority it is to change a benefit already agreed to by an employee.
"The decision you’re talking about involves the modification of a health insurance benefit deduction," Monagan said, continuing on to say she had received no clear answer from the Association of Towns of the State of New York and that she had begun to look at the issue as a matter of labor law. "So I’m continuing to look at it."
Town Supervisor Keith Cipperly said a meeting regarding health care benefits was posted and held in late 2011, and that prior changes to benefits under previous administrations were not board actions. He said the matter of contention boiled down to a personal conflict between himself and Surdam.
Reading costs of health insurance to the town and an unidentified employee’s costs at the meeting, Cipperly said there wasn’t even a 7 percent contribution rate by highway department employees.
"In fact, most of them are paid to take insurance," he said, prompting loud, derisive laughter from members of the highway crew sitting in the audience.
"You came over to the highway garage, and you told us that nothing changed on our health insurance," said Bill Shiland III, a member of the highway department.
Surdam said he only had "one issue," and that he was trying to get legal counsel about the change to benefits.
"Keith made a decision to change the health care deductible to our town employees. He made that decision on his own and it has led to other things, because they recoiled and said, ‘Hey, this guy can do this decision on his own, what’s to stop him from doing anything else on his own?’"
Town board member Kevin Allard, a previous school board member, suggested a policy of multiple drafts or "reads" by the town board before changes in policy are made.
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