Alcombright Offers Bleak Budget Scenarios, Advises Override
Mayor Richard Alcombright explains the city's fiscal problems on Tuesday night.
"In the past, the mantra of low taxes equals good fiscal management ... past fiscal management has caused our house of cards to collapse at this point," Mayor Richard Alcombright told the City Council on Tuesday night. "We've used cash reserves and not revenue to pay our bills."
Alcombright, who took office on Jan. 1, gave what was essentially a state-of-the-city presentation, noting the good news — infrastructure improvements, renewed civic engagement — along with the bad. But mostly bad. There was no way that the city could function without raising fees and property taxes, said the mayor.
The city's looking at an $800,000 deficit for 2011 — that's after some $700,000 in cuts and the inclusion of a 10 percent water rate increase, the institution of a sewer fee and adoption of a .75 percent meals tax. Alcombright said without the cuts, fees and raising taxes, the city was looking at a $1.6 million deficit for the coming year.
The mayor is recommending a Proposition 2 1/2 override of $1 million that would not include any sewer fee or hike in water rates. That would mean a 19 percent hike in property taxes, or about $333 for the average homeowner.
The council gave final approval to adopting the meals tax on Tuesday, and to a home rule petition to borrow or amortize no more than $880,000 to fund the runout from the Medical Insurance Trust and as a settlement with the public employees union.
To do that, the Department of Revenue is requiring the city tax to its full capacity, assuring a 10 percent property tax increase next year. Alcombright said the city would have to tax to full capacity anyway to cover the budget deficit.
The combined school and municipal budget has hovered around $40 million for the past several years, but revenues have dropped more than a $600,000 and state aid by 17 percent.
The budget was referred to the Finance Committee, headed by Councilor Michael Bloom.
"These past fiscal practices are now haunting our budget," said Alcombright. "Our cash reserves are pathetically low at this point."
The city's seen its free cash drop from $3.3 million in 2001 to $307,000 today; it's about .03 percent of the levy percent, when the state advises municipalities to keep 5 to 6 percent on hand, said the mayor.
Alcombright, a critic of the past administration's penchant for property purchases, said the city would begin divesting itself real estate, including the Windsor Mill, to replenish accounts. It's also looking into capping the landfill with solar to reduce costs, partnerships with other communities better utilization of Windsor Lake and consolidating energy across departments for purchasing leverage.
But to meet the coming fiscal year, he outlined three scenarios that included his recommendation for a Proposition 2 1/2 override for $1 million.
The first scenario would include the hike in water rates; a sewer user fee of 42 percent of the water bill, and the 10 percent property tax hike (at a cost of about $27.25 a month for the average homeowner) along with using $800,000 from the water shed account.
The third, assuming no budget compromise between the Legislature's chambers on the state budget, would be a Proposition 2 1/2 override of $1.5 million for a 23 percent tax increase.
He said he would not recommend anymore cuts, particularly in the school department, or to public services.
"We're in a mess. We need to consider how we get through the years ahead," he said. "I've inherited a fiscal mess and I need your help to fix it."
The councilors were supportive of the mayor's efforts, with Councilor Michael Bloom, chairman of the Finance Committee, strongly re-iterating that Alcombright had inherited the problems.
The mayor will present a more detailed review of the budget scenarios to the public on Tuesday, May 18, at 7 p.m. at Drury High School.
The presentation can be seen below or here.
In other business,
► The council approved a resolution submitted by Councilor Gailanne Cariddi supporting Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and its new science center.
►Referred a communication from Councilor Gailanne Cariddi about four traffic concerns to the Traffic Commission: Signage to alert tract or-trailers and buses that there is no access to Route 2 from Rosenthal Square (they get stuck on High Street); speeding on North Street; heavy truck traffic on Patterson and Notch roads; lights switching too fast for pedestrians at Ashland Street and American Legion Drive and near St. Joseph's Court. Councilor Keith Bona asked that lack of signage on Holden Street indicating righthand-only turns onto Main Street be added. The Traffic Commission will not meet until June because of a lack of quorum.
► Heard updates on its Sister City of Tremosine, Italy, from Dr. John Moresi and on the upcoming 20th anniversary of the LaFesta Baseball Exchange with Boston's North End by coach George Canales.
State of the City and Budget Council Presentation