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PowerPlayer: City Manager Michael O’Brien

Thursday, March 15, 2012

 

This week's PowerPlayer is Worcester's City Manager, Michael O'Brien. He answers questions ranging from the growing healthcare costs in the city to his favorite restaurant in Worcester.

How do you plan on dealing with the healthcare costs in the city?

When I first took on the job of City Manager in 2004, health insurance costs for our employees were growing at rates as high as 20 percent annually and consumed more than 15 percent of our tax levy budget. It was out of control and unsustainable. Something had to be done, and I knew whatever approach we took needed to be balanced between providing our employees and retirees with quality access to health care with what the taxpayer could reasonably afford. It was at this point we began the road to reform—we increased employee contribution rates (from 10% in 2004 to 25% today); changed plan designs to mirror the Commonwealth’s benefit; moved retirees from expensive plans to traditional Medicare; self-insured our plans, created a tiered prescription drug plan and eliminated the costly administrative middleman.

All in, these reforms saved nearly $100 million for the taxpayer. Our average annual growth of health insurance expenditures dropped from double digits to less than a 4 percent average between 2006 and 2010; and we reduced our retiree health care liability—a bona-fide financial obligation owed by the City—from once over $1.1 billion to a staggering $765 million.

The work hasn’t stopped. Last year, we developed our own health plans for all City and Worcester Public School employees, in partnership with locally-based providers, doctors and hospitals. When our employees switched from the higher end plan to these new plans, they saved almost $2,000 in out of pocket expenses (higher for family plans), and the City redirected the $5 million in savings back to supporting city services and our public schools.

How are you working with the police department to make sure downtown is a safe place?

The Downtown is no different than any other neighborhood in our City, especially when it comes to public safety. I am very familiar with the concerns; and the fact is that comparatively speaking crime in the Downtown is relatively low, but perception often clouds the realities. So, the goal is to change perception with actions, such as the presence of a Downtown police patrol and the establishment of a Downtown Neighborhood Alliance. The presence of police officers is impactful and it is a strategy that both I and the Police Chief are fully committed to maintaining. We have also seen great success when neighborhood stakeholders unite to form watch groups. The WPD model has a proven track record—when residents and business owners forge productive partnerships with our officers, we undoubtedly have safer neighborhoods and begin the process of changing perception. We have about 50 neighborhood alliances throughout the City, and I urge everyone to participate.

The foreclosure crisis has been a major problem for Worcester. How are you helping homeowners?

We are on top of it—and we haven’t stopped. I refuse to let this national crisis take down our neighborhoods, even if it means taking on behemoth giants like JP Morgan and Bank of America. They don’t live here and they don’t see the damage that these properties have on our community. We have spent the last six years in an organized and aggressive way to do everything in our arsenal to help homeowners, residents, neighbors and those most affected by this epidemic. In 2011, we sued Bank of America for failing to take care of one of their 186 bank-owned properties and keep the property secure. The judge ruled in our favor and we have collected more than $1.5 million from lenders who fail to comply with our Ordinance. These funds are then used to maintain and secure the properties from vandals, squatters, graffiti and more.

What is the update on City Square?

Actions speak louder than words—head down to the site to see the demolition of the defunct mall, the construction of new buildings, and the ultimate reconnection into the Downtown area from Shrewsbury Street and the Canal District. Tremendous progress has been made—both public and private. The first phase of the project is nearing completion; demolition of the garage and mall are almost finished. The road work, including the Front Street connection from Union Station is on target and will be done by the end of the year. Stay tuned for the final piece of the mall to fall. Unum, one of the City’s oldest employers, is on schedule to move into a newly constructed building along a newly constructed Mercantile Street by next winter; and the private developer (CitySquare II) purchased the former church property at 5 Salem Square, on which Vanguard/Saint Vincent Hospital has announced that it will construct a state-of-the-art cancer center.

Role Model:

My dad, Joseph W., the original Quiet Man.

Favorite Restaurant:

As one of eleven children, I will respond just like
my parents "I love you all the same - this much" (stretch arms both
straight out).

Best Beach:

Cahoon Hollow, Wellfleet (Ah, to be young at heart)

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year:

The Big Short - Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis, a layperson's guide to the greed, corruption, blind ambition and stupidity that led to the greatest collapse of our economy since the Great Depression

Advice for the City Manager:

Life is short. Carpe diem.

 

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