Analysis: Whether City Can Afford More For Schools, Police A Matter of Opinion

School Committee members Sven A. Amirian, Gail M. Sullivan and Richard Rosa, front, make the case for adding another $425,000 to the school budget, while Mayor James J. Fiorentini listens. (WHAV News photograph.)

Editor’s Note: Last year, Haverhill city councilors twice rejected the city budget over spending differences. This year, the stakes appear higher with councilors symbolically pushing for even greater spending on schools and public safety. WHAV offers the following analysis of the threatened impasse.

Haverhill City Councilors voted twice in recent days to increase the city budget—first, to add a minimum of $340,000 for six more police officers and, then this week, to add $425,000 in additional school spending. That’s on top of a proposed $5 million education increase.

The votes were merely symbolic since, under the city’s strong mayor charter, councilors typically may only subtract—not add—to the mayor’s budget. Councilors hope to “horse-trade” with Mayor James J. Fiorentini to win the budget they want. For his part, Fiorentini doesn’t quite see it that way.

“Of course we want all of those things—absolutely—but we cannot jeopardize our future,” the mayor said Tuesday night.

Can the city afford the extra spending? The answer appears to be a matter of opinion.

City Auditor Charles J. Benevento. (WHAV News photograph.)

Over the past 15 years, the city has gone from, what was called in 2003, “negative free cash” to more than $10 million in surplus. That’s not counting at least $3 million set aside in the city’s rainy-day fund. While it took a decade and a half to save this much, the mayor said he would spend nearly 60 percent of it this year alone to bolster the schools. Taking any more than that, he said, risks a pinch when this year’s total becomes next year’s starting point. The city, which now has a AA bond rating, also risks its lower borrowing costs. On this point, Fiorentini received support Wednesday night from the city’s financial consultant Cinder McNerney.

McNerney advised city councilors that taking so much money this year from surplus won’t harm the city provided it has a plan to replenish it. She explained Haverhill is right in the middle of what other communities are doing, but that it must take steps not to drop below the average.

City Auditor Charles J. Benevento told WHAV he does expect the city’s free cash to be mostly replaced after the state Department of Revenue certifies the city’s current-year surplus. The certification won’t come in time for budget planning though—usually taking place no earlier than late October. He warned, quoting state revenue officials, “it’s not free and it’s not cash.” Benevento also noted the state doesn’t typically allow all of the surplus to be counted.

Councilor: The Extra Money is Already There

City Councilor Colin F. Lepage. (Jay Saulnier photograph for WHAV News.)

If history is any guide, at least one city councilor says, the money will be there for the wish lists without touching more of the surplus or the rainy-day fund—and without raising taxes to the limit. Councilor Colin F. LePage argued Tuesday night, “Through the year, things happen. More money comes in, less money, whatever goes on, the number changes.”

Over the past four years, LePage explained, Fiorentini’s proposed budget ended up higher every year—between $750,000 and $2.3 million. The councilor believes it will happen again because the administration tends to overestimate expenses and underestimate income, including money from automobile excise, meals and hotel room taxes to investment returns and building permit fees.

While Fiorentini disagrees with the term “horse-trading,” he told WHAV he is willing to work the City Council up to a point. His line in the sand is raising taxes above the annual limits imposed by the state’s tax-limiting law, Proposition 2 ½. This is technically possible because the city may recover taxes from those years where it didn’t tax to the limit. However, the mayor said, “A lot of people are hurting. Wages haven’t kept up.”

Last year, after councilors twice voted down his budget, the mayor made limited concessions by telephone—adding additional police officers, but not as many as the legislators wanted.

In light of two recent murders, Fiorentini has said any extra money this year will be set aside for police.

The Case For and Against Education Spending

Outgoing Haverhill Superintendent of Schools James F. Scully.

Outgoing Superintendent James F. Scully told councilors Tuesday night the mayor’s education increase is enough to pay for the schools.

“It’s my opinion that that money—that 6.3 percent—is the amount of money that we can properly run the school system next year,” said the school chief.

Counterpoints, favoring spending an additional $425,000, came principally from School Committee members Gail M. Sullivan, Sven A. Amirian and Richard Rosa. According to Amirian, “We believe that there are critical needs that the school department has. We understand that the budget is not in balance, but that’s why we’re coming to you to say now, it’s time for us to collaborate together. Let’s see if we can find some ways to fund these positions that we believe are critical.”

Sullivan backed up her colleagues, handing out a sheet showing that, compared with state averages, Haverhill students are not meeting expectations in English or Math at any grade level. Rosa said some of the spending increases—especially hiring a special education supervisor—ultimately will bring savings.

Both Fiorentini and Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua noted Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School spends less per student than similar schools, but still outperforms its peers.

“You’re still able to have a 99.1 percent graduation rate,” Bevilacqua said.

Can City Council Override the Mayor?

While rare, the city charter does allow the City Council to bypass the mayor’s budget caps.

During the final year of former Mayor Thomas S. Vathally’s administration in 1981, city councilors chose to add money to the budget to fight Vathally’s decision to close the city-owned Glynn Memorial Nursing Home. The “Save the Glynn” effort was spearheaded by Councilor Marjorie E. Goudreault.

Members successfully overrode the mayor’s veto of $5,000 to hire attorney John J. Ryan III. Councilors had to vote twice on the effort and secure a super majority. The closing was actually halted when voters ousted the one-term mayor that fall and installed Goudreault’s brother, William H. Ryan.

While John Ryan did work on the council’s legal case, he ultimately was never paid. Despite the council’s override, Vathally’s signature was required on the check to pay him. Vathally refused.