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I-TEAM: Health coverage for Racine Police & Firefighters in legal limbo

Because of Act 10, passed in 2011, labor unions were stripped of many negotiating rights.
Posted at 5:21 PM, Aug 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-17 19:33:07-04

MADISON, Wis. — A new lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA) is looking to shore up healthcare benefits for Racine Police Officers after a state ruling opened the door for municipalities to stop providing health care benefits for law enforcement and firefighters.

“They said whether a public employer in Wisconsin even provides health insurance to its employees is completely at their discretion,” Jim Palmer, Executive Director of the WPPA, said.

The Wisconsin Employee Relations Commission (WERC) was called in to rule on a collective bargaining issue between the City of Racine and the Racine Police Department over providing benefits to retirees.

“The City of Racine has established a policy that will say they’ll provide retiree health benefits for those officers that retire at age 55,” Palmer said. “Well, the law allows [officers] to retire earlier than that; as early as 50. So now, you have an officer getting ready to retire, looking at the prospect of having to work five more years. I’m not sure that serves the officer and I don’t know if it serves the public interest as well.”

Because of Act 10, passed in 2011, labor unions were stripped of many negotiating rights. While public safety employees were exempt from many of those rules, they are still not allowed to negotiate over health care.

The WERC was asked to look at six proposals, including retired and disabled employee health benefits. The WERC ruling said all but one proposal, about employee contributions to Flexible Spending Accounts, is prohibited from bargaining.

Quote from WERC
The WERC decision opens the door for cities and municipalities to even provide health insurance benefits to its employees.

“…the City has total discretion to determine what benefits are available to public safety employees covered by a City health insurance plan. As logically flowing from that discretion and consistent with a part of the rationale in the City of Monona decision, the Commission is persuaded that the statute gives the City discretion to determine whether it will even have a health insurance plan for public safety employees. Thus, any Association bargaining proposal over the “employee premium contribution” must be framed in the context of that City discretion if it is to be a mandatory subject of bargaining primarily related to wages.”

The I-Team contacted WERC Chairman James Daley about the ruling. Daley declined to comment because the case is under a judicial review.

Palmer’s concern grew over the wording in the WERC’s ruling that allows for cities and municipalities to decide whether they even have to provide health insurance to public safety employees.

Palmer said this leaves a door open that Racine Police could lose their city-provided health care benefits.

“I think that is the case,” Palmer said. “We think that’s a total misreading of the law.”

“I want to be really clear about this,” Racine Mayor Cory Mason said. “Nobody is losing health care benefits. We’ve taken the plan and moved it to a high deductible plan. Nobody is losing health care benefits.”

“Is there anything preventing the next mayor or the mayor after that from eliminating health care?” I-Team Reporter Shaun Gallagher asked.

“I don’t know if there is or isn’t, under what the WERC decision says,” Mason said. “I don’t have that in front of me. I think that would be a foolish move to say, I mean at the end of the day, you have to recruit and retain people to do that work.”

The decision to go to a higher deductible plan hopes to close a budget gap for the City of Racine. Mason calls the plan similar to what the City of Kenosha utilizes.

It doesn’t just apply to Police and Firefighters in the city, but all city employees. The last time the city went to a high deductible plan, according to Mason, it helped close a $4-$5 million budget gap.

“If you’re looking at a scenario every year where you’re looking at a two, three, four, five percent budget shortfalls, you have to look at either reducing benefits or reducing services,” Mason said. “That is not what I imagined doing when I ran for mayor, presiding over reduction of services or reduction of benefits. Those are the two options you have in front of you. We just need a real partner in the state legislature that will take the fiscal straightjacket off and actually fund our departments.”

Mason was vehemently opposed to Act 10 when he served in the State Assembly in 2011, the law that the WERC is interpreting.

“I take no solace in saying sort of, I told you so,” Mason said. “But this is what we said would happen when Act 10 passed. We’d be left with the position if labor lost rights and management lost ability to put money on the table, this is the consequence of that. I’m literally handcuffed metaphorically by the rules the legislature lays down. I have to abide by them.”

Because of Act 10, Mason says he has to follow the rules for bargaining that the state legislature set in place.

“I am stuck with them,” Mason said. “I don’t like them. I’d like to change them and I’d like them to adequately fund police departments and keep our community safe. But at the end of the day, that’s a decision that the Republican Legislature has to change its mind on. It’s not something mayors are going to be able to change because you can only bargain with the money you have.”

In order to keep benefits stable and provide wage increases, Mason says the city has gone to referendum twice, looking to increase property taxes to provide more money for retiree health care benefits and increasing funding for law enforcement.

Referenda failing in Racine
Voters denied two referenda in Racine since 2020, aimed at increasing property taxes to pay for health care benefits and increased police services.

Both times, the referenda failed; 65 percent of voters said no in 2020 and 56 percent voted down a similar referendum earlier this month.

Because of that, Mason says he needs help from those in Madison.

“I would prefer to have partners in the state legislature, that are sitting on a historically large surplus right now,” Mason said. “Actually give money to cities so we can fund police and fire and give them resources they need and raises they deserve.”

That surplus is estimated at $3.8 billion. Without tapping into the surplus or changes in the bargaining laws, Mason says the city has no choice.

“When you put those two together, you get the impasse we’re at right now,” Mason said. “We really need the legislature to remove the fiscal straightjacket they put us in and actually start funding the police.”

3.8 Billion Surplus graphic
Mason hopes the state's multi-billion dollar budget surplus can help fund better health care benefits and wages for officers.

The I-Team reached out to House Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu for comment but have not received a response. This article will be updated, should either lawmaker respond.

“I think it’s opportunistic and dangerous,” Palmer said. “It’s like tripping over a dollar to pick up a nickel. It’s really short-sighted. They’re looking at short-term savings. I recognize the City of Racine is facing economic restraints like a lot of cities across the state. Cory Mason may very well want to lay this at the foot of the legislature, but the fact is, that he’s the only mayor, the only public leader in the entire State of Wisconsin that’s attempted this in 10 years is pretty telling.”

“The first domino was Act 10,” Mason said. “This was decided in 2011 when they took away those bargaining rights and said health care is now a prohibited subject of bargaining.”

“But Racine is the first to actually do something,” Shaun Gallagher responded.

“I wouldn’t say that’s the case,” Mason said. “We’ve seen other communities making adjustments to health care costs. We’re not the first community that has had to make changes around health care budgets since Act 10.”

Long term, Palmer fears the WERC decision could be the case study on how municipalities could cut corners on budgets by cutting out health care for law enforcement officers across the state.

“Officers in Racine and across the state have been doing more with less for more than a decade now,” Palmer said. “I think we’ll see more flight of people leaving the profession and we’re going to see even fewer entering the profession. I think it’s devastating.”

“I think the WERC says what the law says in Act 10,” Mason said. “We’re now seeing the consequences of it playing out in dire terms in places like Racine and Milwaukee. If the Republican Party wants to fund the police, now is a great time to do it.”

The Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin filed to intervene in the WPPA case to support the effort since it is facing similar concerns.

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