WILKES-BARRE – City Council on Thursday withdrew the $7.8 million employee healthcare contract with Highmark from its vote agendabut spent a good part of the nearly hour-long public meeting discussing the proposed deal.
The contract, along with a road sign maintenance agreement, were last-minute scratches, leaving Council with 15 other items which were all approved 5-0.
Questions about the Highmark contract, particularly whether the city should pay Joyce Insurance Risk Strategies’ brokerage fees, remained from when it was brought up during the Council’s business session on Tuesday evening.
Councilman Bill Barrett urged quick action to resolve any concerns from fellow council members to have a contract in place before the existing one expires next year and take advantage of the 3% raise while other costs continue to rise.
“First of all, we can’t delay this. It’s something that needs to be put in place as early as possible in the new year,” Barrett said ahead of Mayor George Brown’s comments.
Initially, Highmark presented a package with a 7% increase which was reduced through the efforts of the broker, Brown told the Council.
“The City of Wilkes-Barre doesn’t pay a dime to Risk Strategies. It’s paid for by the companies we’re going to employ, Highmark,” Brown pointed out. Risk Strategies provides other services that the city’s human resources department may use in the future to seek competitive bids, he said.
Brown assured that Council Highmark is firm on the proposed rate. “I want to put some of this stuff to bed because I think there are a few little misconceptions here. People have invented ideas that are not true. What I am telling you are the facts,” he said.
Councilors Tony Brooks and John Marconi had heard from employees, retirees and residents with concerns neither said they could address. Councilors wanted more time so they could get back to them with more information.
Board chair Beth Gilbert McBride added that she would like more transparency about the process. “Hopefully, though, we can move forward with some sort of plan in the next few weeks or months,” she said.
City Attorney Tim Henry spoke in favor of hiring the broker, noting that the proposed contractor represents a significant portion of the approximately $53 million annual budget. “It’s a big expense. No one at City Hall has the expertise that Risk Strategies has,” he said.
In response to a question McBride raised during the business session about why the Board was being asked to vote on the contract for what she recalled was the first time, Brown explained that it should have been in the past. Brown was unable to attend the working session due to a family commitment.
“For the past 20 years, this has not been on the Council’s agenda. So we’re correcting something that was wrong,” acknowledged Brown, who served on the board from 2012 to 2016.
“Believe me, I’m not opposed to you pulling it tonight. But I’m asking that we put it on the agenda so we can move it forward because we have what’s called open registration coming up,” Brown said. The city needs to have employee costs so they can make their decisions, he said.
Some of the items approved by the board include:
• The first of two readings to amend the consumer fireworks section of the existing ordinance to comply with new state law that went into effect at the end of September .
• A city application for improvements to the roof, windows and floor of the Osterhout Free Library with a $157,500 Keystone grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
• Sale of city-owned property at 110-112 Prospect St. to Milagros Corporan for $1,900.
• Hired Borton-Lawson to provide engineering services for the downtown streetscape project at a contract price of $49,065.
• Award the hourly rate contract for street lighting maintenance to the lowest responsible bidder, Richard Mellow Corp. and to the second lowest responsible bidder, Delta Electrical Systems, Inc. Contractors will be paid an hourly rate,
• Awarding of the contract for landscaping and grounds maintenance services to the most qualified service, American Landscaping. The contractor will take charge of the work when the Ministry of Public Works is overwhelmed. The work was approved by International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 401, which represents DPW employees.
• First reading to amend the Utilities Ordinance to repeal the section on user charges because the schedule of charges is contained in the Building Regulations Ordinance. readings.
• The final reading of the ordinance for the state-mandated stormwater management plan for municipalities.
Contact Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.