By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — Mayor Stephen Zanni defended the municipal contracts he helped negotiate last year and urged the City Council to fix the tax rate at a level to fund the current budget without cuts.
Councilors on Monday set the hearing and special meeting on the tax rate for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at City Hall. The hearing will be first, followed by a meeting to vote on the rate.
"Remember, they did not have any raise in five years," Zanni said of municipal employees. "They took two 10-percent pay cuts, then received zero (increases) for three years."
Looking back, Zanni said he might not have been as generous with the contracts, but said they contained substantial savings as well, like a revamp of police education incentives.
"Should it have been that much? Maybe not," he said. "Maybe it should have been a little less. But I'll be looking at contracts a little differently. I'll be looking at what we can afford and what we can't afford."
He said also he wanted to review overtime budgets, starting with comparisons on how much overtime communities the same size as Methuen pay their public safety and public works employees.
The council, he said, should raise the taxes to pay for the contracts they ratified.
Some councilors pressured the mayor to keep the residential property tax increase to an average of about $100, the figure Zanni used when the budget was being debated. But state aid came in about $1 million lower than was budgeted for, Zanni said.
Since, estimates for the average property tax increase have risen to $194 on average, though Zanni said money from free cash, a pool of funds set aside separate from the stabilization fund, could be used to bring the average hike to $137.
Councilors on the finance subcommittee last week asked Zanni to present options for cutting the budget to keep the tax increase to the $100 neighborhood, and on Monday Zanni told councilors more than two dozen layoffs would be required: Nine police officers, eight firefighters and seven DPW employees.
Several councilors said while they were not happy with the higher tax increase, they did not want to cut public safety.
"I wouldn't want to cut fire and police," said Councilor Jamie Atkinson. "That could mean the difference between a fire truck getting there on time. That could be someone's life, so I don't want to affect public safety."
But two other councilors, Ron Marsan and Jeanne Pappalardo, have stressed that they will not vote for any tax increase at all, even one that holds to Zanni's original estimate.
If approved next week, the proposed rate for residential property will go up from $14.42 per $1,000 of property value last year to $14.86 per $1,000. The proposed commercial property tax rate would rise from $23.98 per $1,000 to $24.70 per $1,000.
In May 2012, the mayor presented and the council approved contracts for firefighters, superior police officers, public safety dispatchers, public works superintendents, and two groups represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that started retroactively on July 1, 2011, and expire June 30, 2014.
Those contracts included no raise for the 2011-12 year, a 5 percent raise in 2012-13 and 2.5 percent for 2013-14.
Councilors Marsan, Pappalardo and Joyce Campagnone voted no.
In October 2012, the mayor presented and the council approved a contract for the police patrolmen, also effective from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2014, that gave a 10 percent raise starting July 1 this year. Zanni said that equaled a 2 percent raise for each year from 2009 to 2013.
Councilors Marsan and Pappalardo voted no, and Councilor Jennifer Kannan, who has family in the Police Department, abstained.
The pay raises cost $1.8 million in the 2014 budget.
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