The City Council unanimously adopted the $138.1 million budget proposed by City Manager Jay Ash for FY’15, but not without some cuts first. While the funding is now set for municipal services starting on July 1st, both the police and fire overtime accounts were cut from the request filed by Ash.
“Overall, we agree with the continued direction that the city manager is steering government, and why not: we got two bond rating increases and excellent report cards on our general fiscal health. However, overtime continues to be a concern for me and many of us on the Council, so we took action to reduce both the police and fire overtime accounts so that it can be known that there isn’t an open checkbook and anything can go,” explained Councillor Leo Robinson, whose proposed cuts passed by 7-4 margins.
For his part, Ash said he recognized and got the message from the Council, but instead wanted to focus on all the positives that this, his fourteenth municipal budget had to offer.
“This budget contains several areas of expansion in services that will combine to continue the remarkable transformation and growth our community is undergoing,” said Ash. “The budget addresses numerous issues that are important to city councillors and residents of Chelsea, and it will make sure we remain both fiscally and programmatically strong.”
Council President Matt Frank concurred with Ash’s assessment.
“This budget continues our focus on smartly spending our limited resources to get the maximum results,” he said. “I’m particularly happy to see the components of our 10-point plan for public safety funded, and thrilled that the budget is balanced without any fiscal gimmicks or need to run to voters to ask them for a Proposition 2 ½ override.”
The FY’15 budget contains funding to hire five new police officers to support the 10-point public safety plan to which Frank referred. That action and others are consistent with the policing strategy that dropped reported crime by 25 percent last year in Chelsea.
“Again, smart spending to get maximum results,” said Frank.
The spending plan includes $500,000 for capital improvements to be paid for through receipts as opposed to funded through borrowing.
“We’re making a conscious effort to continue to spend on capital while reducing our overall debt. With the rebuilding of the Clark Avenue School and the reconstruction of Broadway on the near horizon, we want to do everything we can to put ourselves into the position of maintaining affordable debt loads while still undertaking necessary capital improvements,” said Councillor Brian Hatleberg.
The budget also funds the Inspectional Service Department (ISD) for the beefed-up neighborhood code enforcement team that is about to launch to secure health and safety improvements in housing for residents and first responders.
“That’s an important initiative and a major reason to be excited about all the progress this budget will help produce in the upcoming fiscal year,” said Councillor Clifford Cunningham.
More spending on schools, including an additional $300,000 to address social/emotional issues that hamper increasingly more school children, caught the eye of Councillor Chris Cataldo, the Council’s delegate to the School Committee.
“Our kids have increasing needs which require even greater responses. We’re providing the school department with additional resources to address those needs and we’re confident that our schools will continue to be great places for students to get an even greater education,” said Cataldo.
Overall, the budget increases 5 percent above the FY’14 budget.
Of the $6.7m in increased spending, more than half is accounted for by mandatory spending on education in the City’s public schools, charter schools and Northeast Voke. Negotiated pay raises for union employees, increases in employee health insurance premiums and the higher spending on infrastructure and other capital projects round out the major causes of the budget escalation.
“We’re maintaining our fiscal integrity, continuing to offer great services and advancing our goals of investing in our community. We’re certain to especially keep a close eye on areas of spending which threaten future balanced budgets, like wages, health insurance, retirement costs and the like, and we’ll continue to provide the oversight necessary to reduce the threats to fiscal stability that they cause,” said Councillor Dan Cortell.
Revenue growth, including from the City’s annual 2 ½ percent increase in property taxes, additional state aid and economic development activities, is expected to fund the increased spending.
“Our entrepreneurial activities are helping to raise much needed new revenues,” said Councillor Paula Barton. “It’s great that we’re able to do more because in large part we’re bringing in new hotels, refinancing old debt and finding ways of generating new revenues outside of asking taxpayers for huge increases.”
The financial attention at City Hall now turns to closing out the current fiscal year. Ash said no major surprises are expected, so he expects the City’s fiscal year to end in the black once again.
“We long ago realized that everything else for the positive happens as a result of first having our fiscal house in order. That fiscal house, in fact, is well in order, so many other good things will continue to happen for us well into the next fiscal year,” said Ash.