EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 26, 2013

Health director axed from Methuen budget

Council leaves mayor's spending plan largely intact

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — The City Council trimmed less than $200,000 from Mayor Stephen Zanni’s $145.3 million budget proposal last night, but among the casualties was Methuen Health Director Brian LaGrasse.

Councilors voted to reduce LaGrasse’s $73,149 salary to $1, essentially cutting the health director job from the operating budget. The move came despite warnings from Zanni, who asked the council multiple times to reconsider.

“I think you’re making a mistake to delete that position,” said Zanni.

The council ultimately voted 7-2 to approve a $145,225,694 spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Monday. Councilors spent over two hours last night identifying $189,848 in cuts, which represents just .13 percent of the total budget.

Also funded at $1 was a vacant network administrator job in the municipal Information Technology department. Zanni budgeted $75,655 for the position, which has sat vacant since February when employee Bill Lasonde died in a car crash.

The council also trimmed $16,131 from various accounts in the city solicitor’s office and saved $24,914 by cutting a public health nurse position from 35 to 20 hours per week. The nurse will still receive health insurance from the city.

Methuen’s biggest budgets went untouched last night. Among them: $73.5 million in spending for the Methuen Public Schools and Zanni’s requests for the Police ($10.7 million), Fire ($9.1 million) and Public Works ($5.2 million) departments.

With the budget in place, officials are anticipating a roughly $100 increase to the average single-family homeowners annual property tax bills, pending the outcome of final numbers for state aid, new real estate growth and property valuations.

“If it’s below $100 I think we’re doing pretty good,” said council Chairman Sean Fountain after last night’s meeting, noting additionally that residents’ water and sewer rates will not increase in the coming fiscal year.

Fountain said councilors do not have a problem with LaGrasse, but were interested in consolidating operations. He said it will now be up to the mayor and Community Development Director William Buckley to reorganize the Health Division.

Buckley said LaGrasse oversees five employees: a clerk, code enforcement officer, two health inspectors and the public health nurse — Amy Ewing, whose salary was reduced from $58,132 to $33,218 as a result of the reduction in hours.

Buckley said the cuts to the health director and public health nurse represent a 31 percent drop in funding for the Health Division. Buckley said he will sit down with staff members today and evaluate their options.

“It’s obviously going to present some challenges for us to adequately deliver public health services,” said Buckley.

Zanni’s budget proposal represented a 5 percent or $6.5 million increase from the current budget. 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.

Voting against the budget approved by the majority last night were councilors Jeanne Pappalardo and Ron Marsan, both of whom made a pledge during the 2011 election against raising property taxes.