EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 3, 2013

Editorial: City must stop spending what it doesn't have

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — If Methuen’s leaders want to keep their promises to taxpayers, Mayor Stephen Zanni and the City Council cannot continue to spend money the city does not have.

When Zanni proposed his $145.3 million budget for the city in June, the mayor said the fiscal package should result in about a $100 increase in property taxes for the average homeowner. The City Council cut just $189,848 from the spending plan, resulting in a $145.2 million budget.

But now, Methuen is in a fiscal bind. The city received $1 million less in state funding that it expected and now, without cuts, the average homeowner faces a tax increase of $194. The city could offset the increase somewhat by taking money from reserves, softening the hit on the average homeowner to $137.

Hitting the $100 average tax increase promised in June would require a budget cut of $705,000, or about 3.5 percent across the board, Zanni said. That would mean laying off two dozen fire, police and public works employees, the mayor warned. The cuts would likely fall as follows: nine laborers from the DPW, eight patrolmen and seven firefighters.

This predicament is the inevitable result of poor fiscal planning.

Individual families face unexpected revenue shortfalls all the time. Furloughs, accidents, family emergencies all can hit families in their pocketbooks. Most have some savings to cushion the blow. Those who live paycheck to paycheck simply must get by with less.

But such harsh discipline does not apply to municipal leaders. They have the power to compel residents to pay them what they need in taxes, up to the limits set by laws like Proposition 2 1/2. Don’t like it? Tough. Refuse to pay? Fine, enjoy this lovely tax lien. Collect enough liens and kiss your home good-bye.

So a virtually bottomless pocketbook allows municipal leaders to hand out other people’s money freely, rewarding those they feel “do a good job” without thought to where they will find the cash to pay for these promises.

Just ask Mayor Zanni and the City Council, who last year negotiated then approved contracts that handed out big raises to the police, firefighters, teachers, superior police officers, public safety dispatchers, public works superintendents and middle managers.

As Zanni noted when he proposed his budget in June. “I’m trying to keep this $100 or less on the tax increase. Except for the raises, pretty much the budget is level funded.”

Except for the raises.

So why did the mayor and the council propose and approve raises for public employees in a time of uncertain revenues? Surely, these employees “do a good job” and have made sacrifices during tougher times. Perhaps they even “deserve” their raises -- but not when the money is not there to pay for them.

People in Methuen and elsewhere who labor in the private sector work hard, too. They do their jobs well and deserve raises. But they have endured pay freezes, furloughs, rising health costs and other expenses that have eroded their standard of living. Not the least of these rising expenses is the ever-growing cost of government.

The average Methuen homeowner paid a $163 increase last year for a total of $3,666 in property taxes. The increase the year before that was $134. And now the city wants another $137 this year -- or face a reduction in police and fire protection and public works services.

Enough is enough.