As performance art, the annual City Council budget-cutting session might qualify as good politics if it were not so discouraging to actual good budgeting.
Brian Gomes can always be counted on to pound a table or two and claim he’s not being respected; Linda Morad can always be counted upon to say the proverbial fiscal sky is falling and claim her fellow councilors don’t care about the taxpayers.
But good politics is not good government, and it is the quiet councilors who often seem to do the best and hardest things — despite all the hemming and hawing of their more vocal counterparts.
Morad and Gomes have been around a long time, and like an endearing uncle or aunt at Christmas dinner are genuinely earnest, even if their solutions usually have their fellow councilors putting their heads in their hands. More recent council arrival Maria Giesta, a member who also takes the job seriously, is learning the showmanship ropes but is not quite there yet. She proposed about 100 budget cuts and then quickly withdrew most of them, sending a message about something, but definitely not about realistic budgeting.
Almost none of the many cuts proposed by Morad, Gomes and Giesta went anywhere.
There’s always a lot of huffing and puffing that the taxpayers can’t afford this and the taxpayers can’t afford that, but the councilors rarely make significant budget cuts. This year it was only a little less than $700,000 out of a $431 million budget.
Average single-family residential property tax bill in city
The grandstanding councilors look for meaningless things like transfers of money between departments to make up for the departments that have come up short, often after unexpected situations like a lot of overtime from an unusual number of fires. They do things like look to cut items in the general fund that have not yet been earmarked for any specific purpose. That’s an account the city uses for emergencies so if you cut it, you could quickly end up going to personnel or program cuts. But if no one is yet getting the money, there is no one to complain about the council cut.
Giesta, for her cuts, looked to things like the privatization of departments like the zoo and the airport that she knew were not going to happen overnight and so would not make any real difference to the annual budget.
Above all else, the councilors tend to avoid making any cuts to the salaries, health care and pension benefits of city employees, lest they incur the wrath of municipal unions. The unions, it seems, always have enough money to run a campaign or two against a councilor renegade. They are an interested party.
It’s funny. The councilors who seem to have the most to say at these budget sessions are the councilors who have previously run for mayor. Or maybe would like to run for mayor again?
Thus Morad, Gomes and Giesta — all of whom have run mayoral campaigns that lost soundly — ring the budget alarm bell, sending the message that their fellow councilors somehow don’t care about property tax rates and sewer and water bill increases. That’s not been a winning message in recent mayoral races but perhaps it could be; it has in the past. Personally, I think people vote for the mayor they think has the best combination of character and competence.
The quieter councilors — by whom I mean most of them — Ian Abreu, Joe Lopes, Debbie Coelho, Brad Markey, Hugh Dunn, Naomi Carney and Scott Lima — try to avoid the meaningless cuts proposed for the cable TV cameras. Perhaps it’s fair to say they also don’t engage in enough creative solutions to come up with ways to save money, frustrating the intentions of the fiscal hawks.
And then there is freshman Ward 4 Councilor Derek Baptiste who didn’t even bother to attend the budget cutting session this year, or according to City Clerk Dennis Farias, call in an excuse for why he wasn’t there. Maybe that was his message: No budget cuts are necessary.
Possible uses for the city’s pandemic relief aid include Zeiterion fix-up, water and sewer upgrades, Capitol Theatre restoration.
So, all this council posturing and politicking has resulted in the following over the last 10 years.
The average single-family residential property tax bill in New Bedford has grown from $2,761 to $3,910 between 2012 and 2021, or almost an increase of a third in just a decade. The cost of the municipal employee pensions has grown from $22,077,203 to $30,527,351 between fiscal years 2012 and 2021 and the cost of health insurance for city employees has grown from $35,442,224 to $38,675,704.
Now, a good argument can be made that this spending and these taxes are just the cost of quality local government.
We want to have good teachers in our schools and professionally minded police and firefighters. We want dedicated public works employees and administrators at City Hall.
In order to attract good people, we need to pay competitive money and provide good benefits. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in life, as the cliche goes.
All that is true, but one does pause over the sheer rate of the property tax increases in recent years. And one notices when municipal employees have better health care and pensions than many of their private-sector fellow citizens. One stops and thinks a bit to reflect on how rapidly more expensive it is all growing. Although to be fair in an increasingly complex and technological world, a lot of stuff just costs money.
Last year, when the pandemic wolf was at New Bedford’s door, the council cut an already lean budget submitted by Mayor Jon Mitchell, and the city ended up eliminating 28 full-time positions (without doing layoffs) and reducing the non-personnel budget by a little over $1 million.
But this year, with the American Rescue Plan Act pouring almost $65 million into the city’s coffers, and an additional $73 million into the School Department’s kitty, the mayor and the majority of councilors have approved bringing back many of the lost positions and non-personnel budget items.
At the June 24 budget-cutting session, Ward 1 Councilor Markey seemed to have finally had enough of his fellow councilors. The council has an unwritten rule that councilors do not criticize each other by name but Gomes and Morad often get around that by criticizing their colleagues as a group.
But Markey, who speaks sparingly on the council, put it best when he rose to defend himself against the councilors who seemed to want to use the pandemic cuts to permanently reduce the size of city government.
“To me, the most important part is to make sure the money is there to get things done in the city that need to get done,” he said. If the city starts using the pandemic cuts to eliminate necessary jobs, those positions won’t come back in the future, he predicted.
Markey said he would have been willing to give all city departments a 1% percent cut across the board to make sure they live within their means. But the councilors proposing the cuts wanted 2% and they wanted to exempt certain departments, such as the City Council’s own staff.
For Mayor Mitchell’s part, he presented a responsible budget and pointed to a few savings in what otherwise was a budget designed to restore city government to what it was before the pandemic cuts. In his annual budget message, he pointed out he had eliminated four full-time accounts payable clerks through consolidations; reduced the city’s electric use by 16.2% through green energy programs and saved $5.9 million since 2012 selling surplus city properties and closing out tax titles that were in foreclosure.
None of it is enough, of course, and it’s hard to swallow the fact that everything in city government just keeps getting more expensive. But it does.
As the proverb says, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Even on the City Council.
The number of fully vaccinated Hispanics in New Bedford is just 24%, compared to 40% of whites, 36% of Blacks and 17% of people who identify as multiracial.
As people get ready for a big summer of art and music, the city continues to lag behind most of the state in the number of folks who are vaccinated.
The three-member Board of Selectmen has made it clear over the last month that the Pride flag has no place on the property that is the seat of town government in Fairhaven.
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