By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini said the city is in the best financial shape since 2008, but still must increase property taxes by the maximum allowed by law to balance the budget without decimating services.
The mayor’s $162.6 million spending proposal increases spending for city schools by 4.3 million, adds three police officers, makes improvements to city parks and playgrounds, opens the public library on Sunday for the first time in more than a decade, and adds new public works and recreation workers.
Overall, the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is up about 8.2 million, or 5.4 percent, compared to this year’s budget.
It relies on $3 million in additional school aid from the state, $2.4 million in special Hale debt relief from the Legislature and increasing property taxes by 21/2 percent, or $2.9 million. Increasing taxes more than that amount in a given year would require voters to approve a Proposition 21/2 override.
“We are all anxious to get to the day when we have enough reserves and sufficient financial strength that we no longer have to raise taxes even by 2.5 percent,” the mayor told councilors. “We are not there yet, but we are working in that direction.”
Without the tax increase, Fiorentini said the city would have to cut the school and police budgets, rather than increase them. There would also be no money to improve parks and playgrounds or bolster the city’s critical cash reserve, he said.
Fiorentini said it would also be much harder for state Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, to convince his legislative colleagues to give Haverhill extra money to help pay the Hale Hospital debt if the city was not taxing up to the allowable limit. Dempsey, chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, is shepherding the Hale money through the Statehouse.
The House spending plan includes $2.4 million to help Haverhill pay next year’s $9.2 million debt payment on the old hospital, which the city sold 11 years ago at a $75 million loss.
For the first time since he was elected nine years ago, the mayor said he met with every councilor individually to get their input before finalizing his budget proposal. The council, which is set to begin its review of the spending plan tomorrow night, can cut spending but cannot add it. Overall, councilors greeted the mayor’s proposal positively last night.
“In contrast to previous budgets that have called for sharp cutbacks in spending, closing fire stations and turning off street lights, this budget calls for restoring some, but not all, services that have been cut over the last decade,” Fiorentini said.
The mayor’s proposal increased the city and state contribution to public education by $4.3 million — mostly to cover salary increases and rising special education costs and to improve and expand school bus routes. Fiorentini said his school proposal represents the most the city has ever spent on education in a single year.
Other areas of notable increased spending include $700,000 for pensions and $500,000 for employee health care costs.
A total of $100,000 is dedicated to improvements at Riverside and Winnekenni parks and the Plug Pond recreational area. The money is to be used to renovate restrooms, add new playground equipment and benches, and provide better general maintenance, the mayor said.
There’s also more money in the mayor’s budget for street sweeping, tree planting and pothole patching, he said.
Fiorentini’s plan also reopens the Route 110 rest area this summer on a trial basis and puts away $1.5 million in various reserve accounts for unexpected expenses or emergencies. The infusion of cash into reserves brings those accounts up to $2.8 million — the most since the recession started, the mayor said.
The police budget is up 9.4 percent in the mayor’s proposal, mainly to hire the three new officers, the mayor said.
The additional hires would bring the police ranks up to 91 officers, the most since 2010, Fiorentini said.
The police increase follows concerns from the patrolman’s union and some members of the public that the force’s ranks have fallen dangerously low in recent years, and that gang activity and violent crime is on the rise in the city.
At last night’s budget address, the mayor said overall crime in the city fell this year for the third year in a row, according to statistics compiled by Police Department.
Fiorentini is proposing to hire one full-time worker and two part-time summer workers in the public works and recreation departments to clean parks and playgrounds.
The mayor is also proposing reforms he said will save money and “increase government efficiency.” They include privatizing the city’s payroll and information technology operations by hiring outside firms to manage those functions.
The mayor’s plan includes $700,000 for capital spending and building maintenance — areas city councilors have indicated they will focus on during their review of the spending proposal.
That outlay includes $25,000 for an energy and building manager for city property.
Concerns have emerged in recent months over whether the city is providing proper maintenance of some of best assets, including Trinity Stadium, Winnekenni Park and Veterans Memorial Skating Rink.