EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 19, 2013

Councilors OK $154.9M city budget

Will debate in August where to spend $900K in building repairs

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — City Council unanimously passed Mayor James Fiorentini’s $154.9 million budget last night.

The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 adds three more police officers, makes improvements to 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.

It also socks $1 million away in a city reserve account for unexpected expenses and another $200,000 in a school reserve in case the school budget runs over. A total of $900,000 is earmarked in the plan to make unspecified repairs to city buildings and other public property.

The city budget, which the mayor said is up about $8.2 million or 5.4 percent, relies on increasing property taxes by the 21/2 percent yearly legal limit, $3 million in additional school aid and $2.4 million from the Legislature toward Haverhill’s annual debt on the formerly city-owned Hale Hospital.

The plan also counts on $78,000 from increasing the local hotel tax by 2 percent — a proposal the council has yet to approve.

Councilors approved the budget in five separate votes — the main budget, the city and school reserves and funding for the water and sewer departments. Each vote was quick and without comment.

During their review earlier this month, councilors pushed the mayor to spend more on repairing and maintaining city property, specifically schools and the worst of several aging and neglected fire houses.

Councilor John Michitson, who has developed a plan to make repairs to five city schools, said Fiorentini increased his capital spending plan by $200,000 to accommodate the school projects. Councilor Michael Hart said the mayor has also committed to making repairs to the Water Street and 16th Avenue fire stations.

Fiorentini said he will identify where exactly he wants to spend the $900,000 in capital work in August.

“My budget is lean, that’s why City Council hasn’t cut it in seven years,” Fiorentini told councilors after they passed his spending plan. “And it’s transparent. Everything is on the Internet.”

During their review, several councilors accused the mayor of purposefully under-estimating some revenue streams, such as the account that includes money the city receives toward capping the old city landfill and money the city generates by auctioning off old equipment and other non-real estate assets. The landfill money comes from Aggregate Industries, which co-owns the landfill.

Fiorentini said the new budget is the best in many years, but he raised several red flags about the city’s financial future. Specifically, he cited several multi-million-dollar federal mandates on the horizon and the unpredictability of Hale debt relief that state Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been able to deliver to his hometown for many years in a row.

“The Hale money was critical to this budget, but we don’t know how long he will be there or how long we will continue to get (the money),” Fiorentini said, referring to Dempsey.

The mayor said the average Haverhill homeowner pays $1,000 less in annual property tax than the average statewide homeowner. His budget ensures the city will remain “an affordable place for families” to live, he said.

“But I’m worried about the future,” the mayor said, noting looming state and federal requirements that Haverhill upgrade it’s sewer and storm-water drainage systems, as well as finish closing and capping the old landfill on Old Groveland Road.

Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien congratulated the mayor on his budget, but stressed that he made the final decisions where to spend money and what to overlook, not councilors.

“You choose what you wanted to spend money on, like three cops and park upgrades,” Daly O’Brien told the mayor. “But we also see other needs.”

Michitson called the future of the troubled Hunking Middle School “the gorilla in the room.”

“We are going to have to resolve this soon,” Michitson said of Hunking, which has structural problems and is expected to be safe for students for only another three or four years.

The city is currently working with the state to design a replacement school in Bradford. The mayor has said the city will hold an election this winter for voters to consider temporarily raising their property taxes to pay the city’s share of the cost of a new school. The state is expected to pay around 70 percent.

Other areas of notable increased spending in the budget 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.

The police budget includes money for three new officers and is up 9.4 percent, the mayor said.

The additional hires will 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.

The mayor budget includes money for new full- and part-time workers in public works and the Recreation Department to clean parks and playgrounds.

There are also reforms in the plan aimed at saving money by “increasing government efficiency.” They include privatizing the city’s payroll and information technology operations by hiring outside firms to manage those functions.

That outlay includes $25,000 for an energy and building manager for city property.