Employee compensation working group asks for professional help

After studying municipal employee compensation, a local volunteer committee has concluded that the town of Charlotte doesn’t need to modify its workers’ health benefits in 2024 to avoid a budget overrun for the fiscal year, which ends next June.

But changes could still take place — particularly if officials decide to bring in an outside consultant to supplement townspeople’s efforts to save money.

Following Charlotte voters’ rejection of the town’s proposed budget in March, the selectboard convened a six-person working group to determine how best to cut $20,000 in anticipated labor costs, as demanded by a reduced spending plan that won approval in May. Selectboard member Kelly Devine led its first meeting last month and submitted a memorandum with its recommendations to the town on Nov. 1, two months before the group’s scheduled dissolution.

Per Devine, the group found that, by good luck, Charlotte had already saved $20,000 without taking action. The employees had done it themselves by changing their health plans voluntarily.

The memo indicates that Charlotte currently offers four insurance options to 11 municipal employees: a “single plan,” a “two-person plan,” a “parent and child plan,” and a “family plan.” The “single plan” is the cheapest, and due to recent shifts in enrollment, it has also become, for now, the most popular.

Joel Cook, a member of the working group, attributed the enrollment changes to natural fluctuations in the lives of the town’s workers.

“We get married, some people die, some people get divorced, some people have children,” Cook said. “That’s why we make these changes.”

Health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) also had posed a concern under the terms of the revised budget, which allocated $65,000 toward the benefit. Through an HRA, the employer pays back the employee for out-of-pocket medical expenses.

The working group, again, recommended no immediate change to the policy. Its memo dismissed an unusually large HRA outlay in fiscal year 2022 as “an anomaly,” noting that, over the last decade, annual costs have averaged just $50,000.

Selectboard member Frank Tenney expressed disappointment in the working group’s efforts on Nov. 13.

“I just thought we had some really knowledgeable people on this committee,” Tenney said, “and I was hoping that there would be, in my mind, a little more progress on a long-term solution, rather than a short-term solution, which we happen to have just fallen into through people changing programs.”

Before its next meeting, the selectboard expects to receive an additional memo from the group on potential ways for the town to revise how it calculates cost-of-living adjustments for its workforce. But according to Devine, its members may not meet again. She suggested that a professional consultant take up the work.

That could include proposing ideas for how the town could save money on healthcare costs in the long run by incentivizing employee wellness through perks like free gym memberships. The consultant would also examine possible ways of restructuring the town’s generous HRA model.

“These issues are complicated, and they impact people’s lives,” Devine said. “It’s a very difficult thing to try to make decisions on, and I think if we had an expert who has no connection to the town or town government, we might be better served.”

Selectboard member Lewis Mudge expressed mixed feelings about the advice.

“In a former life, I was a consultant,” Mudge said. “A consultant’s going to come in and give us really, really good savings, and that’s going to have a really adverse effect on employees.”

Greg Cluff, who served on the employee compensation working group alongside Devine, dissented from her recommendation to some degree.

“From my point of view, it’s a reason to celebrate that we were able to do this without hammering on the town employees,” Cluff said. “I don’t think that there necessarily has to be a fancy, highly paid consultant.”

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns offers a health insurance advisory services program to its members that may charge less than a for-profit consulting firm. Town administrator Nathaniel Bareham plans to reach out this week for more information.

Holmes Creek Bridge closed temporarily

Drivers in Charlotte should avoid the Holmes Creek Covered Bridge on Lake Road, just south of the Charlotte Town Beach, on Friday, Nov. 17.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation asked town officials to close the bridge to traffic to facilitate a detailed inspection in advance of a potential repair. The Charlotte Selectboard approved a full-day shutdown.