Out of an abundance of caution, and on the recommendation of the city administration, the City Council approved the transfer of $806,000 from reserves, or the surplus, to cover a possible shortfall in tax revenues for the fiscal year ending June 30.
If all goes according to plan, and the tax bills are in the mail this week, the city should have plenty of funds to meet obligations, but it also will avoid a recurrence of a potential shortfall in the next fiscal year.
City Treasurer David Olsen reported the city has in excess of $15 million in its coffers as of Tuesday. He projected payroll and other expenditures of about $10 million by the end of this month.
As for going forward, “If we get them [tax bills] out early, we’ll be fine.”
That’s just what Tax Collector and Assessor Kenneth Mallette plans to do. Yesterday, he said 90,000 residential, commercial, motor vehicle and tangible tax bills would be in the mail this week if not early next week. The resident tax rate of $19.79 represents an 11-cent increase from the current year.
That wasn’t the case last year. Usually, the tax roll is certified soon after the tax rate and budget is approved in June, with the bills in the mail by the third week of the month. The first quarterly payment is due July 15. Bills weren’t out until the first week in July last year. The payment deadline was pushed ahead and then, to complicate matters with a blizzard of checks, the city fell as much as two months behind processing payments.
Further impinging cash flow at the end of this fiscal year was the decision to postpone the traditional spring tax sale for unpaid taxes and utilities until late August. These payments will still be credited to the current fiscal year, although the funds won’t become available until August.
“We felt we may be short,” said City Finance Director Ernest Zmyslinski, explaining why he recommended the $806,000 transfer from reserves, which now stand at $8.2 million. “Hopefully, we’ll come in on budget.”
Zmyslinski reported that the process of closing out the fiscal year has started and “the auditor is already in here.”
Mallette certified the tax roll last Friday. The city is prepared to implement the “lock box” service it has contracted with Citizens Bank. Those mailing tax payments will be instructed to make payments directly to the service, operated by Fidelity, at a Massachusetts address.
Under the system, which Olsen said the city tested this week, payments will be deposited into a city account within a day. Those payments will be recorded and sent to the city to reconcile accounts at a later time. The lock box will eliminate delays to access to the money and eliminate questions from taxpayers about sent checks that have not been processed.
It also means people should have the money in their accounts when they send the check, rather than expecting it to “float” in the system and be covered with deposits made after they sent the check.
“They should not play ‘the float’ anymore,” Mallette advised.
He also advised putting the control number accompanying the tax bill on payments. That number should also be used for those who have set up automatic bank payments.
“Do not use the bank account number,” he said.
Following amendments to the $282 million budget of about $430,000 that cut various city accounts to provide extra school funding, Mayor Scott Avedisian questioned whether the city would run in the red. He could have vetoed the council budget, but in a letter to the council he said he thought it better to move on rather than prolong the issue. By not signing the budget, he registered his protest but allowed it to pass.
The School Committee must still balance its budget. Even with the additional funding provided by the council, city revenues allocated to schools is about $3.4 million shy of what the committee requested. The city allocation to schools is $119 million.
The committee is expected to tackle the issue of budget cuts this week. It is to have a balanced budget by the start of the fiscal year on July 1.