Councilors Defeat Proposed $217 Million Haverhill Budget; Members Try Again Tuesday

Haverhill City Hall. (WHAV News file photograph.)

After first rejecting a proposed $217 million budget Tuesday night in a disagreement over creating a dedicated pool of money for mental health and youth recreation, Haverhill city councilors plan to take up the matter again next Tuesday.

The 5-4 vote against the budget was the second time in four years councilors defeated a budget proposed by Mayor James J. Fiorentini. If there is no agreement next week, only emergency services will continue after July 1. Councilor Colin F. LePage was the first last night to call the lack of a mental health fund for youth a “sticking point.”

“I think we should be putting in more money into this Department of Public Health as we’ve talked before—seniors, youth, everyone,” he said.

Opposing councilors favored creating a special revolving account comprising all of the “local option” taxes of up to 3% of gross sales the city is allowed to collect from cannabis retailers. Councilor John A. Michitson, for example, called for the tax—not to be confused with disputed “impact fees”—to be set aside every year. The amount, currently estimated at $700,000 in the next 12 months, could only be withdrawn by a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

“What I’m concerned though about is that the youth mental health crisis worsened by COVID in combination with substance abuse that that must be something that we address over a long period of time,” he said.

Michitson noted a $125,000 city match would recur annually for five years if Haverhill is accepted into the Drug Free America program. In addition, he said, such nonprofits as MakeIt Haverhill, Cogswell ArtSpace, Leaving the Streets Ministry and the Haverhill Public-Private Partnership—established by retired U.S. Army Lt. General Jack Gardner—could tap the dedicated money.

In an initial offer of compromise, Fiorentini said he would put $358,000 this year into a special fund even though he typically opposes dedicated funds because they lack flexibility in an emergency. The mayor then guaranteed $125,000 annually for Drug Free America. Alternatively, he offered, this and other expenses could be paid by taking 30% of any impact fees the city might collect from cannabis retailers. The mayor noted Haverhill is back in court in August to answer Stem’s suit that the city is not entitled to impact money if it can not prove any harmful effects from the store.

“The cannabis industry is extremely well funded. They have very high-paid lobbyists. They give very big political contributions and they’re doing everything they can—just as the liquor industry did before them—to get out of paying,” the mayor told councilors.

The mayor, however, said the owners of Full Harvest Moonz and CNA Stores do not dispute paying the extra 3% impact fee.

Councilors generally accepted the mayor’s compromise to add a second mental health clinician to the police department if the officials still believe it’s necessary next January.

Councilor Timothy J. Jordan argued no budget cuts are necessary to pay for these special needs because the city always has a surplus since Fiorentini has a “pattern for last several years” of underestimating income and overestimating expenses.

Council President Melinda E. Barrett urged the mayor to commit all cannabis money to the revolving fund, saying “you’re really close. We’re not asking for millions.” Councilor Michael S. McGonagle also asked the mayor for more than, what he called, “droplets.”

The remaining members, led by Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan and Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien, pushed to approve the proposed budget. Councilor William J. Macek called the spending plan “excellent” and Councilors Joseph J. Bevilacqua said members should think about taxpayers who are facing rising costs of housing, food and gasoline.

Following the council’s defeat of the budget, Macek appealed to his colleagues to reconsider. He called the eleventh-hour opposition “Unreasonable.”

Councilors meet again next Tuesday night.

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