HAVERHILL — As Mayor James Fiorentini prepares to unveil his budget for the coming year, a debate over the cost of busing students to school is raging.
The School Department wants more than $500,000 to expand bus routes, which Fiorentini has said he does not support. He said he is in talks with School Superintendent James Scully to reduce that transportation spending.
The School Department’s preliminary budget proposal for next year called for $90.6 million — an increase of nearly $4.4 million or 5 percent over this year. That included $509,000 to redo and expand school bus routes.
“The transportation budget has to be cut or I won’t support this budget,” Fiorentini said at a recent School Committee meeting. “We can’t have buses stopping at every house. It’s expensive and it contributes to obesity in our youth.”
Last week, the School Committee gave preliminary approval to a school budget in excess of $90 million and scheduled a public hearing on the spending plan June 6. Fiorentini, who is also School Committee chairman, abstained from voting because he said the committee’s proposal is essentially a recommendation to the mayor.
In past years, Fiorentini has finished his spending plan by this time of year — a combination of budgets for city departments and schools. But, he said this year he has been delayed by the school budget.
“I am working with the School Department to resolve my differences,” he said in a May 28 memo to the City Council.
The mayor said he is also concerned the School Department’s special education costs are skyrocketing and that the proposed school budget does not include any money in reserve for unexpected problems.
The mayor said he will submit his budget proposal to city councilors tomorrow and pitch it to the public at Tuesday’s council meeting.
The council, which can cut spending from the budget but not add to it, is expected to begin holding budget meetings with department heads almost immediately. This year’s current city budget, which includes the schools, is approximately $154 million.
City Councilor William Macek said the mayor is a little late in getting his spending proposal to the council, but that there’s plenty of time for the council to do a thorough review before the new fiscal year begins July 1.
“What I want to see in the budget is that we are going to be providing better maintenance for our buildings, schools and other public property,” Macek said, noting recent maintenance issues at Winnekenni Park, Trinity Stadium and Veteran’s Memorial Ice Rink. “We can’t keep doing minimum maintenance every year and letting our buildings fall apart.”
Macek said he is interested to see if the mayor’s budget includes money to hold a special election early next spring to consider a temporary tax increase that would cover the city’s cost of a new Hunking school in the city’s Bradford section. It generally costs around $50,000 to hold a special election, Macek said.
Hunking School, which received repairs to structural deterioration last summer, is expected to be safe for students for only a few more years. The city is working with the state to design a new school. The state is expected to pay at least two-thirds of the cost of a new building, with Haverhill paying the rest.
Last month, the mayor said the city has about $2.1 million left over from the prior year’s budget to use in the new fiscal year. He said that will allow the city to balance the budget without raising property taxes more than the 2.5 percent that is allowed by law. Voters must pass a Proposition 21/2 override to raise taxes more than 21/2 percent in any year.
Fiorentini said his budget priorities include education, public safety and “keeping our city fiscally solvent.”
Haverhill is also counting on $2.4 million — the same amount as the prior two years — in special state aid to help it pay its annual debt on the former city-owned Hale Hospital. Next year’s payment on the hospital debt is $9.2 million — money that comes off the top of the city’s annual operating budget.