Council approves budget, now schools face cuts
After nearly 24 hours of public hearings and untold hours of sifting through documents and research, the City Council, by a 6-3 vote, approved a $282 million budget that sets the residential property tax rate at $19.79, an increase of 11 cents, and provides schools with $437,832 more than the level funded budget proposed by Mayor Scott Avedisian.
The mayor was undecided yesterday as to whether he would approve the budget.
Overall, the budget is $1.1 million less than Avedisian first proposed. Last Wednesday, Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon questioned the appropriation for the Fire II pension and whether it exceeded the amount needed to meet the annual contribution. On Friday, Avedisian amended the budget by $1.1 million and dropped the proposed tax increase by 11 cents.
Then Monday, after an effort mounted by Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur to postpone a vote on the budget for a couple of days failed, the council voted on a series of amendments proposed by Solomon to reduce various line items that totaled close to $400,000.
Although the council only has the power to make a lump sum allocation to schools, Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci sought to ensure schools would not cut funding for special needs tuition payments amounting to $400,000. Gallucci observed the council is powerless when it comes to directing schools how it should spent its money but felt they could ask for a â€śladies and gentlemenâ€™s agreementâ€ť that the money would go for the tuitions. That didnâ€™t fly and the council agreed to increase the school appropriation with the recommendation the funds would go for books and other supplies.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson said she didnâ€™t want to see the added amount going into step increases and pay raises.
â€śI want to see it all in the classroom,â€ť she said.
â€śI realize you canâ€™t earmark the funds,â€ť said Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla. Yet, he said he would like to see the money go into books, computers and supplies.
But how the School Committee will come up with nearly $3.4 million in cuts by the start of the fiscal year on July 1 is the challenge.
Committee member Gene Nadeau lamented the task after the council adjourned shortly before midnight. With all but $20 million of the schoolâ€™s $159 million budget tied up in salaries and benefits, he saw no alternative to cutting into programs. Turning to the unions that won 1.5 percent pay raises, he did not see as a viable option.
Committee chair Bethany Furtado, who left the meeting two hours earlier, looked at the larger picture. While it would appear to be impractical to implement for this budget, she spoke of the need for school consolidations, including the possible closure of two junior high schools and conceivably as many senior high schools.
Furtado was the lone committee holdout to close Gorton Junior High this year, as recommended by a short-term facilities committee. That alone would have saved an estimated $1.1 million in operating expenses. The committee chose to give Gorton at least a one-year reprieve while the full facilities committee developed a long-range plan. But, in the process, the possibility of the $1.1 million in savings for the next fiscal year was lost.
Ladouceur advocated for delaying the council vote, saying he had learned a lot from the budget hearings and that the council needed to be sensitive to the financial hard times faced by residents. He said the added time should be devoted â€śto figure out a way to not burden the taxpayers with another [tax] increase.â€ť
Council president Donna Travis saw not point to postponing the vote. She said that with the $1.1 million pension allocation reduction, the council was saving the taxpayers.
â€śWeâ€™ve got to put the whole package together,â€ť she said.
Solomonâ€™s list of budget amendments focused on departments that had not spent all of their budget in the current year or were faced with inventory from the current year, such as road salt for the highway division.
One of the more sensitive cuts he proposed was the elimination of two custodial positions in the Police Department for a savings of $92,832.
Ward 1 Councilman Steve Colantuono questioned if the positions were simply transferred from the Department of Public Works. Solomon insisted they are new. But that doesnâ€™t appear to be the case.
Ed Carpenter is one of the police custodians whose position would be eliminated, the mayor confirmed yesterday. Carpenter was a Ward 4 candidate for City Council several years ago, running an unsuccessful campaign against Solomon.
Council members voting against the budget were Ladouceur, Merolla and Colantuono.