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Union: Bellone shouldn’t complain about health costs during talks

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his State

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his State of the County address at Newfield High School in Selden on May 24. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Suffolk’s largest county union, the Association of Municipal Employees, criticized County Executive Steve Bellone for complaining about the high cost of county workers’ health care in last week’s State of the County message while contract talks are underway.

Dan Levler, president of the union representing 6,000 white- and blue-collar county workers, called Bellone’s comments ”not only unproductive” but “disrespectful and disingenuous” and a “slap in the face” to hardworking county employees.

In his speech, Bellone called “the cost of health care . . . the biggest financial issue facing the county” and described as “unsustainable” major medical, prescription and hospital costs that have risen more than 40 percent since 2013. He called for a consultant to determine what is driving up costs.

But Bellone’s 2018 budget also included anticipated savings from $30 million in union health concessions, although none of the county’s 10 unions have agreed to such givebacks.

“AME and the county agreed that we would not negotiate in public,” said Levler. “I cannot see how such comments are anything but an attempt to publicly scapegoat AME employees for the municipality’s fiscal woes and bring negotiations into the public.”

Jason Elan, Bellone’s spokesman, said, “If the AME president actually listened to the county executive’s speech, he would have realized no concessions were asked, but Suffolk taxpayers will not foot the bill for these skyrocketing costs any longer.”

Levler said the union, which has been without a contract for 18 months, has had only about a dozen bargaining sessions with the county in that time. He said the most recent one was about two months ago and could not recall when the last negotiation session was held on health insurance, an issue handled jointly with all county unions.

Levler said the union has supported increases in sales tax and backed fees to help balance the budget, and noted that the county general fund property tax for the average taxpayer is $89 a year, a line that hasn’t increased in 20 years. There is a separate charge for police in the five western Suffolk Towns.

Levler also urged the county to press the state to adopt a single-payer health care system, which he said could “revolutionize health care,” and save $698 million annually minus the cost of local premiums, but he has not heard back from Bellone about the idea.

Noting that the average county AME worker earns on average $45,000 year, with many making less than $35,000 annually, Levler said, “Many of our members can’t afford the cost-shifting on health because they will have no room in their budgets to continue to operate their homes.”

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