EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 18, 2013

Councilor: Spend 'hidden' money on school repairs

Mayor, school officials accused of questionable budgeting

By Shawn Regan
sregan@eagletribune.com

---- — HAVERHILL — City councilors are pushing Mayor James Fiorentini to spend $200,000 in “hidden money” to repair to five schools and some aging and neglected fire stations.

During a budget review meeting last week, City Councilor Colin LePage noticed the mayor put only $100,000 in projected “miscellaneous” revenue in next year’s spending plan. The miscellaneous revenue account mostly includes money the city receives annually from a company called Aggregate Industries to cap the old city landfill and money the city generates by auctioning off old equipment and other non-real estate assets.

The miscellaneous account took in $330,00 last year and $395,000 in 2011 — much more than the $100,000 set aside in the mayor’s budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

When the discrepancy was pointed out, Fiorentini increased the landfill revenue projection by $200,000 and said he would use the additional money to increase his capital proposal for repairing and maintaining city buildings and other property to $900,000.

“The council is only given a few weeks to review the mayor’s budget and I’m not a budget expert, but this is just one place I was able to find what looks like hidden money,” LePage said, suggesting there could be other revenue areas that are underestimated in Fiorentini’s spending plan.

“I got $200,000 with one comment,” LePage said. “Who knows what else is in there.”

Several councilors said they believe under-reporting revenue and “fuzzy math” is rampant in the school budget.

“I believe money is being moved around from one line item to another in the school budget and spent on whatever they want, and no one ever knows,” Councilor Michael McGonagle said.

Despite those concerns, Councilor John Michitson said he expects to propose an amendment to the city budget tonight that would dedicate several hundred thousand dollars to make repairs at five school buildings.

Michitson, who has long complained the city is not doing enough to take care of its property and buildings, said he received the list from School Superintendent James Scully. The list includes priority repairs that should be done immediately, and others needed within the next three to five years. Michitson said he wants to address the most pressing maintenance needs in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Those repairs include: Repairing unsafe curbing and cement decking at the entrance to the high school which Scully said has resulted in two people falling and being injured ($35,000); paving and renovating the parking lot, sidewalks and handicapped access to Consentino Middle School ($150,000); removing asbestos and installing new ceilings and lights at Consentino School (no estimate); repairing water leaks in the Walnut Square School basement (no estimate); and replacing air-conditioner condensers at Golden Hill, Silver Hill and Nettle schools ($40,000 to $50,000).

City Councilor Michael Hart said he also wants to see a portion of the mayor’s capital budget earmarked for repairs to the Water Street and 16th Avenue fire stations. Hart highlighted the fact the mayor cut the Fire Department’s capital request from $250,000 to $25,000.

“Are we just going to continue to let our fire stations fall apart and become unsafe?” Hart asked the mayor. “If that’s the plan, what’s the contingency? Are we planning for a new station?”

Fiorentini said he intends to set $900,000 aside for capital repairs next fiscal year, but that he doesn’t intend to identify where the money will be spent for at least a month. He said he will work with the council to identify specific uses for the money.

“Nothing will be in there (the capital plan) unless you approve it,” the mayor told councilors.

LePage said that might not be good enough.

“I’d rather know what it’s going be spent on ahead of time, rather than after we pass the budget,” LePage said.

Other last-minute changes to the mayor’s approximately $162.6 million spending proposal include: $24,000 more for park maintenance; $15,000 more for legal services; and $4,000 more to the mayor’s office for mileage reimbursement, office supplies, membership dues and subscriptions to periodicals.

Councilors are expected to take their final votes on the budget at tonight’s meeting at 7 in City Hall.