By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — The mayor has instructed municipal department heads to prepare level-funded budgets for the fiscal year beginning July 1, which could place pressure on city services but also translate to a smaller tax hike for residents.
“I’m looking for level-funding across the board,” Mayor Stephen Zanni told The Eagle-Tribune this week.
Zanni gave his level-funding instruction to department heads at a meeting Jan. 22. City Auditor Thomas Kelly said funding next year’s departmental budgets at current levels will likely place significant pressure on city services and staffing levels.
“Absolutely, it’s going to be a challenge,” said Kelly.
The City Council approved a $138.8 million operating budget last summer for the fiscal year ending June 30. That budget, Zanni’s first as mayor, represented a $3.4 million increase from the prior fiscal year.
As a result, the average annual residential tax bill increased $163 to $3,666. That tax hike followed a year-on-year increase of $134 during former Mayor William Manzi’s final year in office in 2011.
Zanni’s initial budget proposal was $397,000 higher than what councilors approved. It included a $783,000 increase to the Fire Department budget, $365,163 increase for the Police Department and smaller increases for several other departments.
The final budget approved by the council included no layoffs and no cuts in service. It also covered 5 percent raises for all municipal union members — excluding police patrolmen and superior officers — at a cost of $662,361.
Patrolmen and superior officers have not received a raise since fiscal 2009. In the coming fiscal year 2014, they will receive 10 percent raises. All other municipal union members are due 2.5 percent raises next year. Kelly said he is still calculating the total cost.
The raises are included in three-year contracts negotiated by Zanni and approved by the council last year. The contracts followed two consecutive years where most municipal employees agreed to 10 percent pay cuts to avoid layoffs and help city officials balance the budget during the recession. Those employees had their pay levels restored in fiscal year 2012.
In addition to cost-of-living raises, municipal employees are also eligible for step raises, which increase their salaries based on their years of experience.
The city will also continue efforts to control the cost of employee health insurance next year.
Methuen’s more than 1,000 municipal and school unions bargain with the city as a single Public Employees Commission. The PEC held it’s first official meeting of the year Wednesday and is scheduled to meet with the mayor Feb. 6.
Though Zanni supported moving all Methuen public employees last year into the state Group Insurance Commission (GIC) plan, the city and PEC negotiated a new insurance plan that saved the city $1.4 million.
As a result, the cost of employee health care dropped from $11.3 million last year to $9.8 million this year. The city pays 62 percent of the cost of each employee’s plan, and the employee pays the rest.
Most state employees are covered by the GIC.
Two years ago, the state Legislature opened the plan to municipal and school employees upon approval of the municipality. That gave government negotiators leverage for negotiating because if talks stall, the employees can be moved into the state plan.
Zanni, who will run for reelection in November, said he will once again use the GIC as leverage to ensure further health care savings for the city.
“I’m looking to bring that forward again,” said Zanni.