Approval of Haverhill’s More Than $200 Million Budget Hinges on School Maintenance

John Greenleaf Whittier School. (Jay Saulnier file photograph for WHAV News)

Click image for Haverhill City Council agenda.

Approval of Haverhill’s more than $200 million spending plan hinges Tuesday night on improved school maintenance.

City councilors voted 8-1 Thursday night to ask Mayor James J. Fiorentini to add five more maintenance workers to the school department. Not counting 43 janitors, that would provide a total of 11 people including the schools’ facilities supervisor. Most councilors and the mayor told WHAV there is room for compromise. Councilor Timothy J. Jordan, however, is drawing a line in the sand over the issue.

“If you focus on just the square footage of the 17 school buildings, four maintenance workers—who also maintain other city buildings—is woefully inadequate,” Jordan told WHAV. Even adding five more workers, Jordan said, “still leaves us below the lowest recommended level.” He also noted a recent study by the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials suggested the city consider bringing more jobs back in-house. The study said these jobs “can often be provided more cost effectively by in-district staff since prevailing wage rates for outside contractors are often two to three times greater than rates paid under local collective bargaining agreements.”

Jordan said the mayor’s spending plan is doomed if the eight councilors hold firm. “There’s no savings by avoiding maintenance. It’s like not changing the oil in your car. Someone might they think save a little on oil, but then have to replace the car’s engine.”

Two years ago, a similar dispute over hiring more police officer brought the city to near crisis as the July 1 fiscal year approached. Councilors in 2017 voted down the budget forcing 11th hour negotiations to take place in public.

As WHAV first reported more than a week ago, Joanna Dix of the Haverhill Education Coalition brought school maintenance issues to the top of the agenda. She called for 14 full-time maintenance staff for the schools to move the city out of the “unkempt neglect” ranking described by the APPA trade association.

Following a budget review meeting last Wednesday, Councilor Colin F. LePage proposed putting both school and city maintenance staff under a larger public property department. He explained to WHAV, “Why are we doing these divided silos? I’m trying to keep all of the options open so something gets done.” After the idea was formally introduced Thursday night, it won support from Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua—the lone councilor voting against hiring added staff.

“The primary responsible of the school department is educating students and not maintaining buildings,” Bevilacqua said. As a former member of the School Committee, Bevilacqua said, he voted unsuccessfully against the schools taking on the city’s task of property upkeep. Either way, he said, there is a misunderstanding. While the schools may have only four or five maintenance people, there are dozens of outside contractors on call.

Michitson: Better School Maintenance Reduces City Debt

Council President John A. Michitson sees the whole issue in a different light. Citing the city’s outside financial advisor, Michitson told WHAV, “The most significant action the city can take to improve our bond rating is to reduce the debt.” While the debt includes the former city-owned Hale Hospital, employee health insurance and pensions, it also includes building maintenance.

“Deferred public building maintenance is another form of mounting debt for the city, also in the hundreds of millions of dollars in magnitude,” he said. Assuming on the low side the current replacement value of school buildings is $250 million, national benchmarks suggest the city set aside 3% annually—or $7.5 million—for cleaning, groundskeeping, minor repair, utilities, security and other related items.

The council president said he can’t support the mayor’s budget unless five positions are added—whether for the schools or in a consolidated city property maintenance department.

No Disagreement from Fiorentini

Fiorentini said he doesn’t dispute the need for more help, but said “There’s some confusion between capital projects, maintenance and cleaning.” He said he already agreed to add one job and noted custodians also do some minor maintenance. Beyond that, the city has outsourced work to an array of roofers, plumbers, electricians and other professionals.

The mayor said he adopted Superintendent Margaret Marotta’s proposed budget and increased school spending 5.7% or nearly $5 million. “She emphasized, as she should, academic improvement. She asked for one more maintenance worker which we funded.”

He told WHAV he would work with councilors on adding staff especially if the city receives more money from the state. However, he said, “Maintenance is important, but keeping people safe is even more important.” He said he has taken about half of the city’s surplus to bolster public safety.

Bevilacqua, LePage and Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan are expected to meet with Fiorentini today. The mayor told WHAV, “They have some very interesting ideas concerning building maintenance that I would like to know more about.”

Fiorentini warned the city has had extra money because of the good economy. “Excise taxes are over $1 million up, health insurance was down, state aid was up, and new growth was up, but we can’t bank on that every year.”

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