The Mayor’s Budget in a Nutshell: Five Positions Cut, Two Departments Gone, No Capital Spending
NORTHAMPTON — Mayor David J. Narkewicz unveiled his fiscal 2013 municipal budget on Thursday, balanced with staff cuts and other savings. For the first time in many years, the proposed budget does not draw upon reserves.
The $95.8 million budget, which represents a 3 percent increase over FY2012, includes the $79.4 million general fund and three public works enterprise funds for water, sewer, and solid waste totaling about $16.4 million. The budget proposal may be downloaded here.
The biggest budget shock came from a Health New England renewal quote proposing a 12.5 percent increase in municipal employee health care costs, representing a $1.2 million jump from fiscal 2012. Narkewicz managed to negotiate that down to a 7.4 percent hike, but the city will still be out an extra $800,000 or so.
Debt service will hit a high in 2013 because it’s the first year taxpayers will be paying for the new $16.5 million police station on Center Street. $10 million of that is funded with a temporary hike in property taxes approved by voters in 2010, and the rest will be drawn from the general fund.
Narkewicz said no new capital spending projects will be introduced in fiscal 2013. The Department of Public Works’ request for a new $26 million facility will be shelved for now, pending the appointment of a broadly based building committee to reevaluate the plans.
In all, five staff positions won’t be filled — two police officers, two Parking Division employees, and a staffer at the Council on Aging.
The two police officer positions, vacant because of retirements, will be filled in February after new Police Academy recruits become available. Leaving those posts vacant for seven months will save the city $62,000.
City Council and License Commission Clerk Mary Midura will see her hours cut from 40 to 35.
As a result of the Health New England quote, the mayor said he will introduce legislation to allow the city to move into the state’s Group Insurance Commission plan if it proves more economical.
Schools Want More
All departments are being level-funded, except for the public schools, which are slated for a nearly 1 percent increase over last year. And the Forbes Library requires a 1 percent funding increase to maintain its certification, the mayor said last week.
The budget proposal sends to $29,873,807 to education — $5,870,164 for the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and $24,003,643 for the Northampton Public Schools. Those numbers represent a $36,000 cut to Smith Voke and and a $208,000 boost to the city’s School Department.
The School Committee is expected to present its budget in May.
Superintendent Brian Salzer had hoped for $2.5 million more than the city’s offer to fund what he’s calling an “educationally sound” budget. Salzer said he would work to persuade voters to pass a tax override for the schools, after the subject was introduced by Ward 3 City Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels at the annual joint meeting between the council and School Committee.
Parking and Economic Development Reorganized
Two departments, the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) and the Parking Division, will cease to exist as separate entities.
Former Parking Division director William Letendre retired under pressure from the mayor’s office in March, and his position isn’t funded in the new budget. Letendre’s chief clerk, Cindy Parsons has been given a layoff notice and her job has been eliminated.
Now, parking maintenance staff will report to David Pomerantz, the director of Central Services, and parking enforcement staff will answer to city tax collector Lissa Lampron.
Central Services has already started to attack a five-year backlog in fully-funded but uncompleted parking-related capital projects, the mayor told reporters.
Narkewicz is retaining a line item for an economic development director, even though that job has been vacant for more than four months. Former economic development director Teri Anderson, who served during the entire tenure of former mayor Clare Higgins, stepped down in December for a job in the private non-profit sector.
Higgins created the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), funded with federal Community Development Block Grant monies, in fiscal 2010, naming Anderson, then a staffer in her office, as its director. Under Narkewicz’ budget, the department will be eliminated, and its two staff positions will be moved back to the Mayor’s office.
Narkewicz said the reason for the structural change is that the anti-poverty CDBG funds have been cut to the point where they no longer support the administrative costs of a separate department.
The mayor is expected to announce appointments to a new economic development advisory commission next week, and one of its first tasks will be to define the new economic development director’s job description.
Fire and Ambulance Consolidation
The Fire Department will be merged with Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and ambulance receipts will be accounted for on the city side in the mayor’s first-year budget.
As it is now, the ambulance receipts stay within the Fire Department and support the growth and operations of the city’s EMS division. Spending from the account is subject to city council approval, and transfers have traditionally been granted on a quarterly basis following requests by Fire Chief Brian Duggan or EMS Deputy Chief Christopher Norris.
The proper use of the ambulance account, fed by third-party insurance billing, is a source of conflict between the union representing the firefighter/EMTs and Duggan.
Union firefighters, cross-trained as medics, are paid stipends from the account equaling 22% of gross ambulance receipts every July based upon ambulance runs completed and degree of certification in the last fiscal year.
Duggan has gained council approval for various equipment purchases from the fund over the years; the union claims those purchases were unnecessary and that the chief overstepped his authority by not meeting with a union-side EMS advisory committee before forwarding capital requests.
The public feud between the union and fire chief reached an apex last Friday when local 108 president Michael Hatch announced a “vote of no confidence” in Duggan taken by union members. Duggan and Narkewicz both shot back with sharply-worded press releases of their own, charging gamesmanship.
By removing the fund from the Fire Department, Narkewicz is forcing a detente of sorts within the conflict-ridden department: the firefighter/EMTs will now have to rely upon the advocacy of their chief as he appeals to the mayor and council every year for a bottom-line appropriation to staff ambulance and fire services.
Narkewicz has been coy when asked if funneling ambulance receipts into the general fund instead of into the fire department’s “receipts reserved” account will save the city money.
“It’s more of an administrative thing,” he has said.
Narkewicz has noted that changing way ambulance receipts are handled won’t erase contractual labor obligations. The local 108 and city labor counsel are headed to Boston next week for an arbitration session. The firefighter/EMTs have been working under the terms of an expired contract for two years.
Cloud Computing Instead of Basement Servers; Regional Public Health Services on Tap; Free Cash in Lock-Box
• Narkewicz will be moving MUNIS, the city’s central financial data and personnel management software, to the cloud, at a cost in fiscal 2013 of about $47,000.
Several months ago city workers across departments lost several days of work because of a server meltdown in the the city’s technology (MIS) department. The cause of the data loss was never identified, but the event shone light upon the city’s unreliable and poorly documented network infrastructure.
Now MUNIS and its related data will be professionally hosted on stable and secure offsite servers instead of on mirrored drives cabled together in the basement of the municipal building.
“Important city work functions can grind to a halt when MUNIS goes down,” said the mayor Thursday afternoon.
Narkewicz said he got excited about the idea of cloud computing after attending a Mass. Municipal Association conference and hearing about its advantages.
Over time, the move to hosted services will save money in equipment and free up staff time in the city’s MIS department, said the mayor.
• Beginning in fiscal 2013, the City of Northampton will employ a full-time public health nurse with 20 hours provided to the Town of Amherst; and Amherst will continue to employ a full-time inspector who devotes 20 hours to Northampton.
The municipalities will exchange no money.
Sharing employees this way not only encourages collaboration, but is less expensive than hiring multiple part-timers eligible for benefits, said the mayor.
• Narkewicz said it’s essential to start replenishing the city’s reserves, which have been almost completely depleted over recent years to make up for cuts in state aid.
To reduce the city’s reliance upon transfers from free cash, four accounts that have historically come up short in the middle of the year — legal services, snow and ice removal, fire department overtime, and veterans’ benefits — will be more realistically funded up front.
Unfunded comp time liabilities in two departments — the Council on Aging and the Fire Department — will be paid down to the tune of about $38,000. This protects the city from having to draw upon free cash to pay accumulated benefits in the event an eligible employee retires, said Narkewicz.
In another effort to shore up free cash at the end of the fiscal year, Narkewicz is enforcing the spending and hiring freeze he declared in January. Monies left over in departmental operating budgets on June 30 go back into the free cash account, but won’t be available until the Department of Revenue certifies the amount next January.
Building the city’s reserves back up will take some time, said Narkewicz, but it’s essential if the city wishes to maintain its favorable bond rating.
The single biggest challenge facing the city is the structural imbalance between rising fixed costs and the lack of revenues to meet them, said Narkewicz.
“We must join voices with other cities and towns to ask our state government to provide us with either the financial resources or the local tools to adequately fund our public schools, our police and fire, our infrastructure, and all the other vital services in our community,” said the mayor Thursday night, reading from his budget narrative.
The City Council will be holding budget hearings May 8 and 9 at 5 p.m. in Council Chambers. A balanced budget must be approved by the council before the start of the fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
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