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Assessing the City, By the Numbers

City Finance Director Chris Pile. Photo by Adam Cohen.

A snowy February evening a little after 5 p.m., around the time many families are engaged in supper preparations, and the mayor of Northampton and four members of the City Council are gathered in the Council chamber.

On their plate for almost two hours will be an examination of the city’s income and expense figures for the previous seven months of the current fiscal year.

It is an unappetizing task, given the fragile state of the city’s finances, but with Mayor Higgins presiding and with the affable Finance Director Christopher Pile providing the narrative and calmly answering questions, they all dig into the work at hand without complaint.

Members of the Council Finance committee are David Narkewicz, David Murphy, Marianne LaBarge and new member Gene Tacy from Ward 7. Two other councilors, Maureen Carney and newbie Jesse Adams are there as observers. A couple of journalists are the only visitors.

The meeting takes place in the wake of last fall’s sometimes rancorous and hard-fought city election, which produced some turnover on the Council and a narrow re-election victory for Higgins. Like losing mayoral candidate Michael Bardsley, Tacy had waged a vigorous campaign against what he saw as the woeful failures of judgment at City Hall. He was best known for his regular blistering, free-wheeling appearances during public comment sessions of the council.

This night he has checked any blowtorch opinions at the door, and seems eager to learn as he asks many questions, but without the attitude. Ditto councilor Labarge, who supported Bardsley in his bid to unseat Higgins.

Welcome to bipartisanship.

Unlike government gridlock that we witness daily at the state and national level, closer to home elected officials are attempting to work with a greater degree of civility and good manners as they confront very difficult challenges, with revenue continuing to be scarcer than expenses. Last year budgets were cut, wages frozen and positions lost, in the face of bleak revenue projections.

So for the next 90 minutes, Finance Director Pile and Higgins takes those of us in the room through the thick seven–month budget analysis, category by category, line by line.

Bad news in the parking ticket revenue projection of $780,000 – as of Jan. 31 only $298,563 had been collected, so another $481,000 will have to be raised in the next five months if budget project is to be met. Worrisome.

Also, the city is earning peanuts on money it has stashed in investment accounts, because of low interest rates. On the other side interest expenses are either steady or increasing.

Other areas of concern are the annual dance with the state to obtain adequate local aid, in the form of various taxes that flow through the state to the city, as well as various reimbursements that are expected but have not yet shown up.

On the spending side of the ledger, there are other concerns, which loom but have not yet been realized. Right now, police, fire and dispatch overtime to cover public safety costs from the recent arson spree and resulting fatalities are hugely much higher than anticipated a year ago.

Legal expenses are increasing faster than had been expected, and the costs of salt, sand and maintenance of equipment for snow and ice removal by the Department of Public Works are over budget, which is not surprising, as it was known to be under budgeted at the outset. Ways can be found in the next five months to close that gap, it is hoped.

The ambulance service, Council on Aging and the two libraries are ahead of where they should be on spending at this point in the budget cycle, but there are reimbursements that are still outstanding.
Throughout the process the overriding view is that it is too early to panic, but it is not too soon to begin looking for ways to balance income and outgo in several areas. None of the councilors makes any charges of misuse of funds or poor management. They are there to study the numbers, discuss the limited options and try to work out a fix.
Sounds like bipartisanship to me.

And then we get into some really big numbers – the pension costs of current and past employees, and the nearly $10 million amount budgeted for health care insurance for employees. We are now in a dense and arcane thicket of references to IAC, PEC, G IC. It will take until 2028 for the city to pay off its $67 million in pension obligations and once more the city will have to negotiate with its various unions over health care insurance premiums for the next fiscal year, always a struggle for both sides.

Meanwhile, Pile reports that the state has told that Northampton and other cities that, if they end the year with a deficit, the state will not approve the city’s property tax rate for next year, which could cause all kinds of hell.

So there is a need to plug more money into the stabilization (free cash) account, something the city is currently doing by channeling its meals and hotel taxes into that pot. Pile says the city has “a very good bond rating,” which is important for the interest it owes on its debt. “So we need to maintain our rating.”

Finally, he, the mayor and councilors express emotion akin to terror when discussing the state ballot question this fall that would reduce the state sales tax from its current 6.5 percent figure to 3 percent, or 2 percent below what it had been pegged at for several decades. Reducing the sales tax rate would gut local aid, a crucial lifeline for most communities. “It makes me very worried,” Higgins says.

But enough numbers.

The committee turns briefly to what to do in the wake of the collapse of plans for construction of a new hotel on city property behind the Roundhouse and Pulaski Park.

This is a long-running issue as fractious any the administration has faced in recent years, Mayor Higgins admits it is now necessary to start the process from scratch.

“You don’t learn from what you did right, “ says the mayor. “You learn from what you did wrong.”

So it is time to move on. The councilors and mayor quickly agree that the Finance Committee should take the lead in creating a broadly representative task force, involving neighbors to the site, development interests, the business community, architectural experts, ads others drawn from the public to establish a process for determining the best use of the city property.

While it appeared that some of the councilors had specific views for the property, they also were willing to let the process begin and hold their tongues until the time came to speak out in an informed way.

Sounded like bipartisanship to me.

And by the 7 p.m. hour, the dinner hour had passed for most Northampton families without their having given a thought to the fiscal 2010 budget, the state sales tax or the downtown hotel controversy.

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