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WESTON

Town Meeting rejects retiree health freeze

A proposal to freeze Weston's contribution to retiree health plans failed Monday night after lengthy debate during Town Meeting's third and final session, but both opponents and supporters held out hope that the measure's aims -- stabilizing retiree health costs -- could be achieved in other ways.

Article 42 asked for a special act of the state Legislature that would hold the town to paying 80 percent of the premiums for Medicare supplemental plans and HMOs for employees who retired before July 1, 2009. Employees retiring after that would be entitled to maintain whatever percentage the town contributed at the time of their retirement for the first three years of their retirement.

The article failed, with 141 votes against and 108 votes in favor.

The town began requiring eligible retirees to switch to Medicare and Medicare supplemental coverage in 2004. Retirees who had been paying 10 percent of their annual HMO premiums say they suddenly saw their share go up to 50 percent and their out-of-pocket costs more than double in some cases.

Lee Marsh, president of the Association of Weston Active and Retired Employees or AWARE, said the group proposed the article to ensure a written policy where before there had only been expectations and past practices of maintaining the same contribution rates that retirees had as active employees, and prevent the town from suddenly reducing their share of the coverage.

But it was that very intention that drew fire from critics. Citing the steep rise in health-care costs, they said the town had the right to break with past practices if fiscally necessary.

''We believe that this article would, through the Legislature, tie selectmen's hands in a restrictive manner," and not allow them to make changes when needed, Finance Committee cochair Jill McCarthy said, asking voters not to approve the article.

Resident Nancy ''Sue" McFarland spoke in favor of the article, which she said was about giving the town's former teachers, firefighters, and police officers ''a fair shake."

''I'm very glad I'm not a retired teacher from Weston," McFarland said.

Ann Leibowitz, who was sworn in as a selectwoman at the end of the meeting, said that as a former Polaroid employee who lost her own health benefits when the company changed hands, she could sympathize with the burden the increased rates put on the retirees. But she called Article 42 ''the wrong process and the wrong result."

''It is unfair and unwise for the town to bind itself by law as Article 42 proposes," said Leibowitz. ''This isn't the way for the town to commit itself for the future. . . . There are measures we can take to ensure that no retiree faces devastating costs."

The argument that the town couldn't afford such a proposal sounded hollow to some retired town employees, who had watched previous sessions of Town Meeting appropriate $1.3 million worth of articles for tree preservation, renovation of the historic Fiske Law Office, purchases of open space, and computer and Internet upgrades.

''We've heard about preserving law offices, preserving trees, and preserving farms. I'm talking about preserving retirees," said Marsh.

After the measure was defeated, a clearly disappointed Marsh said AWARE would not give up. The group filed a lawsuit last year alleging that the benefits offered under the Medicare and supplemental plans are not equal to those offered by the HMO, even though retirees pay more out of pocket for the former. It has sought a temporary injunction that would bar Weston from requiring any more employees to shift to Medicare.

''The Finance Committee and selectmen cannot ignore this issue. They're going to have to deal with this, and they're going to have to deal with us. The lawsuit will continue," Marsh said after the meeting.

Discussion of Article 42 dominated the final session of Town Meeting and was the only article on the warrant that was defeated.

The addition of a bylaw aimed at preserving active farming in Weston passed 143 to 86. It had encountered some opposition from people who felt that its definition of farming -- which followed a state definition that included raising ostriches and lumbering -- was too broad. Resident Arthur Mueller said the article would effectively weaken the power of the health and zoning boards to enforce restrictions on farming activities.

Voters also approved the establishment of an all-volunteer agricultural commission and a property tax relief fund for elderly and disabled residents.

Stephanie V. Siek can be reached via e-mail at ssiek@globe.com.

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