The first budget proposal by Mayor Aaron Richardson puts a priority on restricting the city’s spending.
His proposed 2020 operating budget, released Sept. 20, lists five “commitments” he considers the most important, and the result is a budget that provides only a fraction of department requests for staffing and funds roads at a lower level than the mayor and staff believe it ought to be funded at.
While his introductory letter states keeping taxes low is his top priority, it’s clear that other limitations, set by the state, are the main driver for the tax rate, which would go down by just under 1 percent but still likely would mean a tax increase for most people.
Whether alders agree with the resulting compromises remains to be seen.
Amendments were due Thursday afternoon, Oct. 10, two days after the mayor’s budget went to a public hearing, and alders will hold a general discussion of them at the Oct. 24 Committee of the Whole meeting. That all leads up to a Nov. 12 public hearing, after which alders will vote on the amendments, and then the resulting budget.
Alders had a preliminary discussion of the budget process and priorities at the Aug. 28 Committee of the Whole meeting, and Richardson said there were “no easy cuts” in department head requests this year.
“Some of the stuff I’m cutting I want to do, we just have to come up with the money somewhere,” he conceded.
Among the items his proposal funds are about $55,000 of departments’ $785,000 in requests for added staffing, an increase of about $75,000 in road maintenance, two technology upgrades designed for long-term cost savings and maintenance at McKee Farms Park.
Requests his proposal leaves out include a police lieutenant, a fire division chief, another building inspector, additional public works and parks maintenance workers and added hours in limited-term or part-time roles at several positions.
State limitations provide for about a half-million dollars for the city to work with this year, though much of that goes to increased costs in general and a proposed 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for most employees. That increase is determined by the city’s new construction, calculated for the 2018 assessment year at 3.7 percent, slightly higher than the county average of 2.5 percent.
Other limiting factors for this year’s budget include a drop in state transportation aids of $176,000 (based on a rolling six-year average of spending) and an ambulance crew for Fitch-Rona EMS. That crew was funded last year to start more than halfway through the year and therefore represents an even bigger increased commitment for this budget cycle. That’s known as a structural deficit.
At the Aug. 28 meeting, finance director Misty Dodge lectured alders on such practices, pointing out that last year’s council went against her recommendation to reserve some spending capacity for the move.
“What actually happened was that money was spent,” she told alders this year.
Alders offered few comments about items in the budget at the Aug. 28 and Oct. 8 meetings, though there were discussions during department head presentations Oct. 1 and 2.
Though city budgets typically put an emphasis on tax rates, those are offset by any increases in assessed home value, and home values are up 6 percent on average in Fitchburg, just as they are across the county.
Richardson’s budget includes six of the staffing proposals brought to him by city department heads, one of which is a cut.
Included in the budget is additional hours for staff in multiple departments, including a senior center activity instructor, a part-time human resources representative and an intern in the planning and zoning department. Each of those costs less than $10,000, and Richardson’s budget explains that senior center activities have increased and the city is required to put together its comprehensive plan prior to the April election.
It also funds increased part-time election workers who will be charged with managing the 2020 presidential election cycle in the city. And it eliminates a vacant part-time court assistant position.
The proposal would keep a grant-supported beat patrol police officer who was hired earlier in 2019 and add another new hire. For both, 75% of their salaries are being covered by a state grant given to communities with a population of 25,000 or more that have high violent crime rates.
Most staffing proposals requested by department heads didn’t make it into the budget. The police and fire departments both requested to either create or restore administrative positions or promote current staff to that level.
Other staffing requests include a Geographical Information Systems employee, code inspector, an additional public works employee, a parks employee and a restored part-time horticulturist.
The GIS employee was jointly requested by multiple department heads because of how often their departments do data management. Having a dedicated GIS employee would allow a “more coordinated and comprehensive approach” to data management, the proposal document stated, and would free up employees to do work elsewhere.
Richardson’s budget doesn’t include a dedicated city staff member to manage GIS, but rather funds the migration of the city’s data to a center where it will be kept safe, and an off-site cloud back-up system.