Mayor Scott Avedisian put his political capital on the line and it paid off.
As of press time last night, it appeared the City Council did not have the six votes needed to override Avedisian’s veto of its budget. The overall spending package of both the mayor’s and the council’s budget at $288.8 million were virtually the same, each calling for a 23 cent increase in the residential tax rate.
But last week the council eliminated elements of Avedisian’s plan, including a $1,000 bonus for every full-time city employee and a level-funded school appropriation. The $800,000 the bonuses cost was reduced from what the council would have appropriated from city reserves, while additions the council made for schools and road repaving came from departmental cuts including $607,929 from health insurance coverage. The council was unable to override the vetoes of both of those amendments by a 5-4 vote, meaning the bonuses will go through and cuts won’t be made in healthcare premiums. Voting to sustain the veto were Council President Donna Travis, Camille Vella-Wilkinson, Charles Donovan, Joseph Gallucci and Steven Colantuono. Voting to override were Joseph Solomon, Steve Merolla, Ed Ladouceur and Thomas Chadronet.
On Friday, the mayor released a six-page veto letter to the City Council, giving an overview as well as line-by-line rational of his action.
He opened his remarks saying he takes pride in his public service and in balancing budgets in difficult economic times.
“As such I do not take governing lightly. It is serious business and we owe it to those we represent to take it seriously,” Avedisian writes.
In remarks last night Solomon called the mayor’s veto “a travesty to the taxpayers.”
In his letter to the council, the mayor said the budget approved by the council would leave the city with a deficit. The options, Avedisian said, would be to direct department directors to develop contingency plans or to use reserves at the end of the year to cover the deficit. He said neither of the options are “representative of responsible government.”
As for the council’s efforts to boost funds for repaving, Avedisian disclosed that he intends to submit a resolution calling for a $5 million capital improvement bond that he feels would “result in a long-term, sustainable solution rather than a knee-jerk reaction resulting in irresponsible budgeting.”
He said the addition of $597,929 to the $450,000 he budgeted for repaving is “not sound fiscal policy and is subject to undue political influence on spending.”
He said general obligation bonds would enable taxpayers to vote on plan to undertake a road network improvement plan in an effort that is “transparent, objective and equitable.”
Ladouceur disagreed last night. He favored budget allocations rather than bonding for road repairs. And Merolla maintained if the road work was to be bonded actual repaving wouldn’t start until 2017.
“Roads, schools and education are not priorities in the mayor’s budget,” he said.
The mayor defended level funding schools at $119 million as he has done for the past several years. In its budget, the council increased city funding of schools by $400,000.
Avedisian pointed to the continual decline in school enrollment since the 1980’s and how consolidation of schools was accomplished on the elementary level. He went on to outline how the department has looked at consolidation at the junior and senior high levels and that he has pledged to allow the department to keep any savings it generates though consolidation. Further, he pointed out that under state law defining the city’s maintenance of effort, the city could lower its contribution based on dropping enrollment and that based on enrollment as of October 2013, the city could have reduced its contribution to schools by $3 million.
“In my opinion the School Department does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem. Until and unless the School Department addresses these and other systemic deficiencies presently faced, $119,082,424 is enough at this time,” he writes.
As of press time, the council was still voting on each amendment and had not come to the school appropriation.
In his line-item-by-line-item response to actions taken by the council, Avedisian underscores his logic for a $1,000 one-time payment to full-time city workers. He said the city’s three collective bargaining units and non-union full-time personnel agreed to three years of zero pay increases. This has enabled the city to post surpluses to the reserve fund that is now at $11.8 million. In addition, since police and fire retiree pension increases are linked to the wage of current employees, Avedisian said the city’s pension fund advisor has calculated the pension fund liability has been reduced by more than $32 million.
In eliminating the bonuses from its budget, the council applied the savings to the $3.6 million the mayor recommended be taken from the reserve account. He justified the action on the basis that it would have been a one-time expense and the city is projecting a $1.2 million surplus in the current year.
As for the logic of the $1,000 per full time employee, Avedisian said, “It is only fair and equitable that the gains enjoyed by the taxpayers due to the prudent and selfless actions of the city employees be shared so all benefit justly.”
Avedisian offers reasons why he disapproves of each of the council’s budget amendments that include: $100,000 cut in insurance premiums; $40,000 cut in building maintenance; $40,00 reduction in the contingency account for the finance department; $75,000 cut from the salary account for the Planning Department; the elimination of $15,000 in professional services for the Finance Department; the elimination of $100,000 from the Legal Department at a point contract negotiations are to start and outside consultants are needed in hearings before the Tax Assessment Board of Review and the elimination of $20,000 in salaries from management information services that is to be used for a change in salary scale based on a department re-organization.
(With reports from Kelcy Dolan)