New City Budget Prioritizes Education, Public Safety, Human Services

The City Council approved a $140.6 million budget Tuesday night for Fiscal 2013 with little fanfare.

[Editor's Note: All budget documents can be found on the city's website.]

With only city councilor Rico Mello lodging his now time-honored opposition, it was relatively smooth sailing for Mayor Ted Bettencourt Tuesday night in getting his passed.

Councilors did air some concerns, asking pointed questions at times, but not on major spending issues. The council, meeting in a special session, approved the $140.6 million budget for Fiscal 2013 on a 9-1 vote. Councilor Michael Garabedian was absent.

The council also voted line item-by-line item on the public safety portion of the budget to allow councilor Anne Manning-Martin to recuse herself on the salary portion for the Fire Department (her brother is a lieutenant).

Manning-Martin said she was advised by the city solicitor to do that after he conferred with the state ethics commission earlier this year on the .

The new spending plan represents a 2.1 percent increase (or $2.93 million) over this fiscal year, focusing that spending in education, public safety and human services. Over the past five years, the city has averaged 1.6 percent on annual budget growth.

“I think it’s a budget that’s responsible to our taxpayers, but also a budget that’s responsive to the needs of our departments,” said Bettencourt. “I think the budget process went well…and I am very proud of the budget we’ve submitted.”

The freshman mayor repeated that latter refrain at least a few times in his opening remarks to the council.

He said he and his finance team reviewed the needs of each department over the course of several meetings and in general asked department heads for level funded budgets. “I said I would be ready and willing to listen to any arguments for increased funding,” Bettencourt added.

He said those arguments were made effectively and consequently led to some smaller increases outside of his three focus areas.

As for those priorities, Bettencourt said, further investment in education was due and he felt school officials crafted a budget (a $1.5 million increase) that addressed certain needs.

He said the police and fire departments have been strained for manpower recently with long-term injuries and retirements (not counting the loss of Firefighter James Rice) that have left vacant jobs and needed a boost. The overall increase is about $568,000.

The is currently down 15 sworn officers from its 100-person authorized complement, according to Chief Robert Champagne, and the new budget will fill seven or eight vacancies. Similarly in the , Chief Steven Pasdon says the new budget adds two positions to his ranks, which will now only be down three people from nine years ago.

Both departments also received some additional money for training and equipment.

As for human services, just over half of the $141,198 increase is to keep the Healthy Peabody Collaborative running by covering some salaries and expenses. Bettencourt said the coalition may not be receiving a $100,000 state grant this year.

He noted the budget also allows one more school nurse so that each school in the district will have a dedicated nurse.

School budget positions district for future success

Interim Superintendent Herb Levine also briefly outlined the school budget proposal and fielded questions from councilors.

Levine noted he had a $2 million deficit to resolve on contractual increases and expiration of stimulus funding, heading into the budget process, which he addressed by making about $1 million in cuts in several areas. He said he conferred with Bettencourt throughout the process, as well as the incoming superintendent.

“We came to a number we both can live with,” he said, referring to Bettencourt. “We [school officials] didn’t get everything we wanted, but we took a giant step, I think, toward excellence for the Peabody Public Schools.”

“We are getting items in this budget that we sorely need,” Levine said, briefly explaining the additions to the budget.

Those entail hiring back an assistant superintendent, a full-time assistant principal at the , three elementary teachers, two middle school specialists, library paraprofessionals, more technology support professionals, creating an early childhood center at the high school and effectively turning the Peabody Learning Academy into a year-round program.

Councilor Arthur Athas, a retired educator, said he was glad to see additions to the school budget rather than deep cuts as in recent years, while Manning-Martin questioned whether it was wise to cut the schools grant writer, giving more of those duties to other administrators.

Levine said he did not anticipate any problems by doing that and noted instead that several staff members are well versed in seeking and obtaining grants.

Councilor Barry Sinewitz asked Levine if certain elementary schools, particularly the and , are maxed out on enrollments now or could handle the future growth likely with some .

Levine said the school buildings could accommodate some additional students, but it is an issue that will have to be looked at in the future.

How budget expenses and revenues break down

Looking at the overall budget by expense category, a $3.23 million increase is related to salaries, followed by $788,000 in employee benefits and a debt service uptick of $424,000; however, that largely is offset by a $1.76 million reduction in professional services, which is mainly due to a transfer of special education expenses over to school grants.

Most of the salary increases are on the school side of the budget ($2.7 million).

With local receipts projected to see a small decline (hotel and motel taxes are anticipated to see a $150,000 uptick, however) and state aid still up in the air, a moderate property tax increase is likely and $1.2 million will be taken from reserves to reduce the burden on taxpayers.

City assessors say property values have remained relatively stable and project an $88 average increase for single-family homes.

The project property tax levy is $90.3 million, which is still well below the levy limit Peabody is allowed to tax at.

At this time, Bettencourt is planning on the $25.5 million in local aid contained in the Senate's version of the budget, which may change once a final plan emerges from the legislative conference committee later this month.

The tentative number is still $1.7 million less than what Peabody received for Fiscal 2009, while in comparison, the city budget has grown by more than $8 million since then.

If Peabody is allowed to enter the in January (pending approval of legislation by Gov. Deval Patrick) then the city could save $1.8 million for FY13, Bettencourt said. The city will otherwise see a 5 percent increase on insurance rates from Blue Cross Blue Shield, which amounts to about $700,000.

Once all the votes were cast, Mello explained to reporters his rationale for voting against areas of the budget that called for added spending.

“I won’t vote for a budget that increases people’s property taxes,” he said, an oft-heard refrain from Mello.

The council also unanimously approved budgets for the ($674,128 in operating expenses with $634,000 in anticipated revenues) and ($1.02 million in operating expenses and $1.51 million in anticipated revenues). Both operations are self-sustained by user fees.


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