EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 4, 2013

Mayor: Time to improve parks, hire more police

$162.6M budget calls for better recreation, public safety

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini said the city is in the best financial shape since the economic downturn began in 2008, and that his new spending plan reflects the turnaround by restoring a number of positions and programs eliminated over the last decade.

Fiorentini’s $162.6 million proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is up about 8.2 million, or 5.4 percent, compared to this year’s budget.

The mayor’s proposal includes money to hire three more police officers, make improvements to city parks and playgrounds, open the public library on Sunday for the first time in more than a decade and add new public works and recreation workers.

The budget also includes the customary 21/2 percent property tax increase that is allowed annually by law. Increasing taxes more than that amount in a given year would require voters to approve a Proposition 21/2 override.

The budget, which the mayor is set to unveil at tonight’s City Council meeting, increases the city and state contribution to public education by $4 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 relies on a $3 million increase in school aid from the state and another $2.4 million in special state aid to help Haverhill pay its annual debt on the former city-owned Hale Hospital.

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.

The legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick are expected to finalize next year’s state budget in the next few weeks.

The mayor said most of the new spending in his proposal would not have been possible without the Hale money, which state Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means budget-writing committee, is shepherding through the Statehouse.

Fiorentini’s plan also reopens the Route 110 rest area this summer on a trial basis and puts away $1 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 bring the police ranks up to 88 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 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.

Fiorentini’s budget hikes school spending by $4 million, which includes $3 million more from the state and $1 million more from the city. The plan includes $600,000 more for schools than is required by law, the mayor said.

Fiorentini 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.

“A top priority for me is to have the director of facility maintenance identify all of the preventative maintenance actions that are needed at each city facility starting with high school and provide the associated cost,” Councilor John Michitson said of the council’s upcoming budget review. “Then, compare cost to funds allocated specifically for preventative maintenance to determine how well the city is keeping up with preventative maintenance for its facilities.”

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.

The council, which can cut spending but cannot add it, is expected to vote on the budget before the end of the month.