NEW BEDFORD — The City Council on Monday night adopted a new budget that spends a bit less out of local revenue than the city does now, making the deepest cut in what the mayor’s administration considers mandatory costs, including trash collection, payroll taxes and insurance.
Total new spending from the general fund — raised by property taxes and other local receipts, plus state and federal aid — comes to just over $416 million in the plan approved by a vote of 8-3 Monday night. Current general fund spending is $418 million.
In the new budget, state and county assessments, over which the council has no say, add another $34.4 million, and funds collected in service charges for water, the airport, downtown parking and cable access bring the total to $505 million.
The property tax rate won’t be set until December, once figures on property valuation and local revenue are in. The rate is now $14.29 per thousand of valuation for residential property and $29.88 for commercial and industrial.
The overall cut of $8.77 million from the mayor’s proposal is only about two percent or less, but most of that figure makes up more than half of spending allocated in a bundle that includes contract spending, federal payroll taxes and trash pickup. That budget item is a common target for council cuts, and often those expenses are made up during the course of the year through budget transfers that do not exceed the allocation approved by the council.
The council also cut about $800,000 by eliminating two proposed positions from the Department of Facilities and Fleet Management and the City Solicitor’s Office, and by cutting money that could be used to fill vacant positions this year, without eliminating those positions entirely.
Mayor Jon Mitchell said on Tuesday that the cut of $7 million in proposed $13.5 million “General Government Unclassified” spending is larger than usual, raising the likelihood that the administration will have to come back to the council in the months to come for more money in a “supplemental appropriation.”
Mitchell said that cut is emblematic of what he calls a “flawed process” in which the council discusses the budget in hearings held online, but does not make the actual cuts public until the final meeting, and does not discuss the implications of proposed cuts with the administration.
Years ago the cuts list was put out days before the meeting, but council members say that unleashed a flood of emails and calls from people protesting their decisions. Now, the list is not made available until the meeting begins.
The general government category, for instance, is “not a slush fund,” Mitchell said, noting that it includes federal payroll taxes for some employees, property and liability insurance, and a $6.7 million trash collection contract with Harvey Industries.
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“How does that make any sense” to cut that budget, he asked, decrying many of the cuts as “arbitrary” and not made with awareness of how they will affect city operations.
The argument over the budget in many ways is an argument about how to handle money allocated for positions that are funded, but are vacant. City government is now 154 employees shy of a full complement of employees, including 45 sworn officers and 15 civilian employees in the Police Department, but all those positions have been funded.
The city often meets expenses during the year by shifting money from one place to another without adding to spending, often using money that is not being spent on salaries. Both administration officials and councilors say they’re not happy with this, but it goes on.
City administration officials say the council is forcing the city to do this with budget cuts made without regard to city operations. It’s a bad approach, they say, as it can lock the city into being understaffed. In other words, the city becomes dependent on sustaining understaffing as a way to make sure bills get paid.
“You don’t want that to be your plan,” City Auditor Emily Arpke said on Monday.
“It is not best practice,” said Neil Mello, chief of staff for Mayor Jon Mitchell.
On the other hand, Councilor at-Large Shane Burgo, who at first proposed an even larger cut in general government spending on Monday night, has his own questions about city operations. He wondered aloud why the city is keeping positions vacant for years and not filling them.
“My concern is these positions have been left vacant so long,” Burgo said on Tuesday. “The taxpayers have to fund these positions as if there’s someone in them. I feel the directors are being told not to hire people.”
He said he suspects this in part because many positions have been open so long, and in part because of personal knowledge of three qualified people who applied for city jobs and did not get calls back.
He said his constituents are willing to pay for city services, but not for having so many funded vacant positions that do not deliver services.
Burgo said he’s not worried about the administration finding a way to make up that cut in general government spending by transferring money from one account to another. He said he would not support a supplemental appropriation.
An appropriation above the sum approved in the budget is not that unusual. According to the auditor’s office, it happened each year from 2018 to 2021. Three requests adding up to nearly $10 million were related to school spending, including matching increases in state aid. Other requests totalling more than $1.1 million were chiefly for general government unclassified spending.
Asked about that option, Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima — who voted for the overall budget, but not the $7 million cut in general government — said that “doesn’t go over well with the taxpayers.”
Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira, who was among the eight votes for the budget as a whole and the six votes for the $7 million cut in the general government allocation, said a supplemental budget request “might happen and probably will happen,” but rather than trying to avoid that step in the months ahead he said he would rather make the effort now to keep spending down.
“Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said shortly after the meeting.
Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey, who voted against the general government cut and the budget as a whole, said he was not happy with the outcome.
“I wasn’t with the number that was cut from the budget,” Markey said Tuesday morning. “It was too high.”
Markey, who was elected in 2017, said he’s never seen a general government cut this big. He said understands salaries for vacant positions can be used to make up such spending, but he said “I also don’t agree to cut it to the bone.”
He said he was aiming for an overall budget cut of about $2.5 to $3 million, or about on par with the reduction the council made last year.
The 6-5 vote on “General Government Unclassified” — which started as a $10 million cut that Burgo proposed and was whittled down to $7 million — was one of 292 separate roll-call votes on budget cuts that councilors took in the session that ended about midnight, running five hours, about three times the usual length of a council meeting.
The session culminated a process that began in early May when Mayor Mitchell presented his proposed budget. The plan includes no new programs, but reflects a 10.5% rise in school spending and 10% more for health insurance for city employees.
Mitchell told council members at that time that to control spending, the council was going to have to tackle health insurance costs by changing the way these benefits are negotiated with city unions.
Early this month, the mayor proposed that the city adopt a state law that would change the way the city negotiates health insurance benefits, which he argues would save money. It was the third time he has submitted this plan to the council since 2018, but the move went nowhere, as the council voted to take no action on it. Councilor Markey’s motion to send it to committee for further discussion did not even get the “second” needed to take a vote.
The move has been opposed by city unions who say it would diminish their bargaining power and, in turn, the quality of insurance coverage.
Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.