LAWRENCE — Mayor Daniel Rivera on Friday released a $319 budget proposal for the city and schools that would hold the property tax rate flat while relying on new revenues to hire as many as two dozen new employees – half of them police officers – open the library on weekends and significantly increase pay for a dozen or so department heads.
The budget pays for all that without raising tax rates because it projects new growth will bring in $3.6 million in tax revenues in the upcoming fiscal year, including at much as $1.4 million in additional taxes that Columbia Gas will pay on the value of the new pipes it installed under the city following the gas disaster of Sept.13. Hundreds of new apartments also are expected to come on line shortly as the demand for housing in Lawrence surges, mostly in converted mills.
The budget includes a net increase in state education aid of $12.1 million and projects motor vehicle excise taxes will jump $703,000, to $5.2 million. Unrestricted state aid will increase $548,000, to $20.8 million, and interest on investments will jump $231,000, to $900,000.
In all, the budget would increase spending by the city and schools $17 million, or 5.9%.
The burst in state aid and optimistic projections of local tax revenues, excise taxes and interest collections allows Rivera to defy the predictions of his five-year fiscal forecasts, which expects the city would have to hike taxes by the full 2.5% the state allows in each of the five years to avoid deficits.
The impact Rivera's budget proposal will have on individual property owners can't be calculated until the City Council approves a budget, apportions the tax burden between residential and commercial properties and then sets the tax rate. But the tax rate is unlikely to go up because the council can make cuts to Rivera's budget proposal but can't add to it.
Rivera delivers the budget to the City Council on Tuesday, when he is scheduled to be accompanied by Sean Cronin, the city's state-appointed fiscal overseer. The spending plan would add to the city's decadelong string of balanced budgets, which Rivera predicted will signal the end of state control over city spending. He made a similar prediction when he released his budget last year.
“This is a budget that, if passed on time with no issues, will put us on the fast track to getting out of receivership,” Rivera said in a press release accompanying his budget on Friday
Cronin could not be reached late Friday.
Whether Cronin stays or goes, the budget includes several other shifts in personnel. Among them, Eileen Bernal, who has been Rivera's chief of staff for most of his two terms, would be moved to the Police Department, where she will be director of support services with responsibilities for managing the department's $14.1 million budget (up 4% under Rivera's budget proposal). The move would bump her salary to $95,000, up 46% from the $65,000 she earns as chief of staff, making her the biggest winner in Rivera's budget.
The budget includes $95,000 more to hire a director of health and human services to oversee the Council on Aging and the senior center, Veterans Services, Recreation Department and Human Rights Commission. Rivera said the gas disaster on Sept. 13 caused him to believe the position is needed to coordinate the services those agencies provide daily and especially “in an emergency situation like we faced on Sept. 13.”
The budget also includes the 13 new police officers, bringing the total to 160 officers, the most since before the massive layoffs in the department prompted by the budget crisis a decade ago. The police budget includes no funding to replace Capt. Denis Pierce, who retired last year, reducing the number of captains to three. The Fire Department budget would cut one firefighter, to 79.
The budget also includes funds to hire seven more full- or part-time library assistants to open the library on Saturdays and Sundays, a part-time foreman at Bellevue Cemetery, a full-time foreman at public works, a community health specialist, a fourth city attorney – the Law Department now has just one on the job and two vacancies – and an assistant city clerk to help manage elections. The added help running elections will “ensure that there is clear leadership where (it) has been lacking” Rivera said in a jab at City Clerk William Maloney, whom he did not name but frequently criticizes for allegedly mishandling elections.
The budget would significantly increase the salaries of about a dozen department heads and other top employees, which Rivera said is needed “to stem the tide of losing administrative and finance directors” by making their salaries competitive with what other municipalities in the region pay.
Fire Chief Brian Moriarty, whose paycheck would increase $47,150, to $177,150;
Budget Director Mark Ianello, up $19,500, to $150,000, making him the best-paid city employee outside the police and fire departments and the schools;
Comptroller Romona Ceballos, up $15,000, to $100,000;
Payroll Director Donna Cole, up $19,692, to $100,000;
Assessor Alexcy Vega, who will receive a $20,000 stipend in addition to his $73,375 salary;
Personnel Director Frank Bonet, up $11,025 to $100,000;
Planning Director Theresa Park, up $13,781, to $125,481;
Bellevue Cemetery Director Jorge Jaime, up $15,317, to $85,000;
A chief of staff for the mayor to replace Bernal, who would be paid $85,000, up $20,260 from what Bernal was paid.
Rivera's salary would remain at $100,385.
The salaries paid to the nine city councilors also would remain flat. Eight are paid $15,057 and City Council President Kendrys Vasquez is paid $17,065.
Among the biggest increases in the budget are the $712,192 the city would spend on pensions, bringing that line item to $9.7 million. Other big increases include $532,156 more for debt service, bringing it to $13.5 million, and the $615,554 more the city would pay JRM Hauling, its newly hired garbage carter, bringing the expense of the contract to $5.2 million. The costs of garbage disposal has gone up nationwide as the Chinese impose tighter controls on the recycled materials the country accepts.
Another likely significant increase in spending next year is not in the budget but almost certain to come: Rivera has budgeted $150,000 for snow and ice removal next winter, after spending $2.5 million, $3.5 million and $2.5 million over the three previous winters.
The budget lists expenses by the city's parking, airport, and sewer and water funds, which operate outside the general fund and are supported mostly by charges for service rather than fees, but does not include revenue projections. That makes it impossible to tell if any will run deficits.
Spending by the parking fund, which runs the city's lots and garages but not its street parking, would increase $28,000, to $786,614.
Spending by the airport fund would drop $13,482, to $575,902.
Spending by the water and sewer fund would increase $325,375, to $19.2 million.