Conty commission agrees to new contract with nursing home union, setting up funding showdown with lawmakers

LACONIA — The Belknap County Commission yesterday ratified a one-year collective bargaining agreement negotiated with State Employees Association (SEA) on behalf of 80 full-time employees of the Belknap County Nursing Home. Funding will still have to be approved by the Belknap County Convention.

Contract talks with employees of the Department of Corrections and Sheriff's Department remain underway.

The 2014 county budget adopted by the Belknap County Convention level funded the employer share of health insurance benefits at $1,272,449 but nothing for wage increases or associated payroll costs. The costs of the contract include $267,343 more for health insurance, $22,361 for a cost of living adjustment of 1.6-percent, $35,759 for merit increases for eligible employees and $10,705 for associated payroll costs, for a total of $336,170.

The agreement provides for the employees' share of health insurance premiums to increase from 6.5-percent to 16.5-percent for a single person plan, from 5-percent to 15-percent for both a two-person and a family plan. However, the contribution would remain unchanged for employees who participate in three health management programs that include the health assessment, biometric screening and on health awareness program as defined by HealthTrust.

Norm O'Neil, county human resources director, told the commissioners that the agreement reflected the ongoing effort to engage employees in wellness programs that have been shown to reduce long-term health care costs. He said that HealthTrust has recognized Belknap County for its levels of participation.

Neil Smith of the SEA, who negotiated the agreement, noted that the Health Benefits Review Team, convened by the county administration, has become a model for addressing and managing the cost of health insurance benefits across the state.

In the same vein, the contract would forbid smoking or any other use of tobacco products throughout the Belknap County Complex beginning on July 1 of this year.

The contract provides a cost-of-living-adjustment of 1.6 percent, equal to the rate of inflation. together with merit increases averaging 2.1 percent, for which some 60 employees are eligible. O'Neil said that since employees went without wage increases in 2013, the raise represents an increase of 1.85 per year for the two-year period.

The agreement includes an incentive to reduce the use of sick time from 52 hours per year per employee to 40 hours. If the 80 employees together meet the target , each employee would would receive up to three days to care for an ill or injured family member. collectively meet the target, or two years.

Smith acknowledged the county convention's concerns about personnel costs, but recommended the commission present the cost items to the convention for approval. "We'd have the convention weigh in on this contract rather than wait," he said. "If it doesn't meet with success, we'll have learned something."

Smith said that contract negotiations on behalf of employees of the Department of Corrections were near agreement, but talks with the Sheriff's Department "as not as close as we'd like."

NOTES: Norm O'Neil, the director of Human Resources for Belknap County, tendered his resignation when the Belknap County Commission met yesterday. "I really don't like this," remarked John Thomas of Belmont, chairman of the commission, who went on to praise O'Neil for his contribution to strengthening personnel policy and improving employee morale since he was appointed in 2009. Echoing Thomas, Commissioner Steve Nedeau of Meredith offered "to put in a word for all the county employees you have assisted during your tenure." Neil Smith of the State Employees Association, with whom O'Neil has negotiated contracts, was so effusive in his praise for his counterpart that O'Neil asked him to stop. . . . . . County Administrator Debra Shackett reported that the increase in the cost of health insurance premiums for 2014 would be 6.2 percent, less than half the 13.4 percent anticipated, describing the news as "the silver lining" to the budget. . . . . . Shackett also announced that former Superintendent of the Corrections Department Richard Grenier, who in March was elected to the Board of Selectmen in Gilford, has been named to the Jail Planning Committee. Grenier has openly expressed misgivings about the direction of the process of planning for a new correctional facility.