EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 25, 2013

Council looks to trim mayor's $145.3M budget proposal

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — A majority of city councilors say they will look to trim Mayor Stephen Zanni’s $145.3 million budget proposal before voting tonight on a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins Monday.

Zanni’s budget proposal represents a 5 percent or $6.5 million increase from the current budget. Under the mayor’s plan, the average single-family homeowner in the city would likely pay around $100 more in property taxes next year.

One plan for budget cuts now being considered by the Methuen Finance Committee would save $249,758 by targeting five municipal positions. The committee — which is comprised of councilors Jamie Atkinson, Lisa Ferry and Joyce Campagnone — is expected to make a budget recommendation to the full council tonight.

“There are definitely going to be some cuts,” said Atkinson, Finance Committee chairman. “We’re looking at areas that haven’t been in use for a little while. We’re looking at positions that haven’t been filled.”

According to a June 19 report, the Finance Committee is looking to save $62,636 by budgeting just $1 for the position of assistant local inspector. By funding the position at $1, the job would not be eliminated from the budget and the mayor would still have the ability to transfer funds from elsewhere to fund it.

The same $1 strategy could be used for a vacant network administrator job in the Information Technology department, which pays $75,655. The Finance Committee may also look to fund at $1 either the assistant civil engineer or chief civil engineer positions. Currently, the assistant is performing the duties of the chief engineer position, which is vacant.

The committee is also considering a $20,000 reduction in the salary budgeted for the vacant city solicitor position, and may look to save $28,357 by reducing the full-time public health nurse to 20 hours per week, according to the June 19 report.

Ferry said the committee is only looking to make minor changes to the mayor’s budget proposal.

“There will not be radical changes, not from where I stand on the Finance Committee,” said Ferry. “We are proposing some minor cuts, but it’s not going to be a rewrite of the entire budget.”

Campagnone said she’d like to see the $100 average tax hike go down while also protecting city services.

“I’d like to see some changes,” said Campagnone. “Maybe we can come up with some cuts that will be adequate to save the taxpayers money without impacting the services. ... I just think we have to do some brainstorming.”

At least two councilors won’t be voting in favor of Zanni’s budget. During the 2011 election, Jeanne Pappalardo and Ron Marsan each made a pledge against raising property taxes. It’s a promise both said they intend to keep tonight.

“Everybody knows the pledge I took and I stand by my word,” said Marsan. “The mayor knows my position. I think he should level-fund the budget completely. I think that’s what the taxpayers deserve.”

“I told Zanni two weeks ago I wasn’t voting for his budget,” added Pappalardo.

Zanni has said his budget proposal calls for no layoffs or program cuts. Included in the budget is $1.8 million in municipal employee raises, which the mayor negotiated and the City Council approved last year.

During the current budget year, Zanni’s first as mayor, the average single-family homeowner in Methuen was forced to pay $163 more in property taxes. As a result, the average annual tax bill for single-family homeowners rose to $3,666.

The average commercial tax bill in Methuen is $9,326. Business owners on average paid a year-on-year tax increase of $365.

City Auditor Thomas Kelly said yesterday that he is still “targeting” an average single-family homeowner tax increase of $100. But Kelly said he is also still waiting on finalized numbers for state aid and new real estate growth.

“It’s difficult,” said Kelly. “Those are big factors.”