An expansion of the Inspectional Services and Public Works Departments, more teachers and instructional support in the School Department, the preservation of police officers and firefighters who may have been lost as a result of the expiration of federal support, additional funding for summer jobs and a renewed focus on public health are just some of the features found in the $131 million budget City Manager Jay Ash filed to support the operations of City government in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1st.
“We’ve identified areas that are priorities for city councillors, school committee members and, most importantly, residents, and we’ve directed additional resources to augment or undertake new initiatives. That’s great news, and what’s even greater news is that we’re able to accomplish all of that and more while still proposing a balanced budget,” explained Ash, who says that Standard & Poor’s recent upgrade of the City’s bond rating to “AA-” indicates that the City’s sound financial management practices are putting it in a place to invest more into local programs and services.
Ash went on to explain that although the proposal for FY’14 is up 8 percent over FY’13, it is unlikely to stay that high.
“We base our budget on available figures at the time. In this particular case, the original proposal from Beacon Hill about state local aid is unlikely to be adopted at such a high level. When the final state budget is adopted, we expect an increase in school funding, just not as high as was originally floated, so our budget will need to be adjusted accordingly,” said Ash.
Notwithstanding the likely reduction in state aid, Ash said other revenues, especially those generated through economic development activities, are making it possible for a net gain of 25 new positions in the School Department to be added, and 7.9 full-time equivalent positions to be added on the municipal side of the budget. In the schools, new teachers, para-professionals and support staff will be added to reduce class size and bolster special needs education.
“We can and will continue to prioritize educating our kids,” said City Councillor Clifford Cunningham, who congratulated Superintendent Mary Bourque and the School Committee for their continued vision of an even more improved local school system.
At City Hall, a new ISD team will focus solely on neighborhood code enforcement, a top priority of the City Council and its president.
“At the start of each term, we come together to set our priorities, and increasing code enforcement was one. We want to make sure we do everything we can to eliminate overcrowding, improve the housing conditions of those living in our neighborhoods and promote the type of investment that contributes even more towards the revitalization our neighborhoods are enjoying,” said Council President Dan Cortell.
The ISD initiative will create a unit of two inspectors, one to be hired through the budget and another through grant funds, and will add clerical support to manage the work of the unit.
Ash’s proposal also adds two laborer positions to DPW to cover maintenance requirements in all the new parks the City has added.
“We’ve added nine new parks without adding any additional staff. We need these positions to make sure those investments in our neighborhoods continue to meet the recreational needs of our residents,” said Councillor Calvin Brown.
Single new hires in the Police Department and the Public Health Department will allow, respectively, for more sophisticated crime analysis by the police and an expanded local and regional public health program to reach local residents.
“Anything we can do to utilize crime data to prevent crime is a good thing, and, with emerging technology and techniques, the hiring of a crime analyst should make our police even more effective,” said Councillor Giovanni Recupero.
“From obesity to drugs, and everything in between, we need to continue and expand our focus on public health,” added Councillor Matt Frank. “I’m especially excited about regional efforts the City is engaged in to ensure uniformed and comprehensive messaging and programming, and this new position will help to ensure that.”
The remaining 0.9 FTE represent the continuation of lost funding that supported a portion of a human services administrator, and the creation of a hearing officer to conduct appeals from residents regarding trash enforcement and other violations. Additionally, the City is increasing its financial commitment to the Police and Fire Departments to maintain staffing levels which were threatened by the expiration of federal funds that were paying for as many as 15 positions.
“We continue to prioritize public safety supports, and with good reason,” commented Councillor Paul Murphy. “We’ve put ourselves in a position, through solid financial management, to have the resources to keep all our police on the street and firefighters ready to respond to our emergencies. That’s a good thing and something that sets us apart from other communities which are struggling to keep staffing levels up.”
For summer jobs, Ash said Councillor Leo Robinson and his colleagues made a pitch that more needs to be done to hire youth in order to keep them off the streets and give them work skills to build upon.
“I agree with that concept and believe that fulfilling that request is part of our longstanding desire to help our kids enjoy safer and more productive futures,” said Ash, who recommended a 50 percent increase in funding for local programming.
The budget is currently under review by the City Council, with department hearings having started this week and continuing this upcoming Monday and Tuesday evenings. The Council anticipates holding a public hearing on the budget June 3rd.