Firefighter union's lawsuit could backfire by triggering layoffs

Whew, that was a short honeymoon between Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and the firefighters union, which is suing the city and mayor over changes in health insurance.

Back in September it was all roses and admiration after the union agreed to a two-year pay freeze and cuts in benefits to help ease the city through a budget crisis.

Last week the union filed suit in Fayette Circuit Court seeking to block a new health care plan that shifts more of the costs onto employees and reduces their benefits while adding an aggressive wellness and prevention piece.

The union says the new plan is invalid because Gray put it in place without creating or consulting a benefits advisory committee, even though the union's contract with the city requires such a committee.

We won't attempt to sort out the legal issues.

But from a political and practical view, an advisory committee could have been useful by advancing better communication and understanding on both sides.

A little over a year ago, before he became mayor, Gray and the council first became aware of the escalation in employee health care costs that had quietly developed in recent years.

So, city employees knew to expect steep premium increases. Yet nothing had prepared them for what was first proposed. Their backlash prompted the council and mayor to approve spending an additional $3.8 million on employee health insurance over this and the next fiscal years. Where within the city's budget the $3.8 million will come from is still to be determined.

While the good feelings between the firefighters union and administration seem to have evaporated in the heat of the health care controversy, the reason for the union's cooperation is as valid now as it was in the first place: Without budget concessions from public employee unions, Gray has warned, it will be impossible to avoid a reduction in the city's workforce, including in public safety.

The city's current budget is built on assumed savings of $5.6 million. The contract with the firefighters provided $2.3 million of the needed savings. But it is already five months into the city's budget year and the police and corrections workers unions have yet to agree to contracts.

Now, with the health insurance reform in jeopardy because of the firefighters' lawsuit, the city could be facing additional costs it cannot afford.

Gray may have erred by not appointing a benefits advisory committee. But the firefighters union could win the battle while losing the war if its lawsuit forces the city into layoffs.