Ness seeks retirees' help in fixing Duluth's health-care liability

Duluth Mayor Don Ness will meet with city retirees in two weeks for what he says will be a conversation to find solutions to the unfunded retiree health-care liability.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness will meet with city retirees in two weeks for what he says will be a conversation to find solutions to the unfunded retiree health-care liability.

Invitations were sent to about 850 retirees who receive free medical coverage for life. The meeting, scheduled for Jan. 15 at the Lake Superior Ballroom in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, will be the first between the city and the retirees since Ness took office a year ago.

One retiree's response to the invitation suggested the meeting won't be without conflict.

Eli Miletich, former Duluth police chief and a member of a four-person ad hoc committee of city retirees, accused the Ness administration of "attempting to place responsibility for a so-called crisis on the backs of retirees."

Miletich said he won't compromise on changing the benefit when asked about the meeting, saying the contracts settled several years ago should still be honored.


With the cost of providing health care to city retirees growing each year, Ness said providing retirees' health-care benefits won't be sustainable if changes aren't made. In 1998, paying health-care premiums made up 7 percent of the city budget. In 2008, the number was 17 percent.

"If we can reduce the cost of the benefit, it will help us maintain the benefit for the long haul," he said.

When asked to respond to the former police chief's comments, Ness said he is "confident there are many retirees who don't share Mr. Miletich's hard-line approach."

While campaigning for office and shortly after he was elected, Ness said he wanted to switch retirees to the plan that current employees are on, which requires them to pay premiums and deductibles. That plan drew the ire of many retirees.

When asked if he still wants to make the switch, Ness said that was something he wanted to discuss with retirees.

"This is a discussion about options and the various courses of action," Ness said. "It's my feeling that most retirees are reasonable and willing to be constructive in working with the administration to find ways to reduce the cost of the benefit."

City changes to retiree health-care benefits would violate a restraining order, granted after four retirees claimed their benefits already had been changed.

While that case still is in court, Miletich said, Ness' meeting "is a publicity stunt, and it may very well be bordering on violating the restraining order."


"We know better," Miletich said. "There are some of us who have worked with the city for several years who have made suggestions as to how to bring efficiencies to city government, and we've been ignored."

Not all retirees share his views. In late 2007, Clyde Narhi, a former city engineer, donated $9,000 to the city and said retirees should consider moving to a less costly plan.

Patti Maguire, who worked for the city for 28 years and retired in 2006, said she wanted to collaborate with the administration to find a solution.

"It seems like a good idea for the mayor to call the retirees together to talk about it. Too much has been said by so-called leaders that does not reflect what the majority of retirees think."

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