Increase is the smallest in a decade; more cuts loom

By Seth Daniel
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Calling it the toughest budget he has ever assembled in his nine years as the city’s top official, Mayor Tom Ambrosino released a city budget Monday that totaled $128.417 million, an increase of $1.643 million over last year’s budget (1.3 percent).

The mayor indicated that the budget increase was really only the result of an increase in fixed costs, specifically that of group health insurance for city employees and MWRA water and sewer rates – both of which the city has no power to control.

MWRA sewer charges to the city were up $1.33 million over last year alone, while group health insurance soared by a $1.5 million increase over last year. It will cost the city nearly $15 million next year just to give its employees health insurance.

Mostly, the budget has been pared down to more than the bare minimums, said the mayor. Public safety has been cut by more than $500,000 and money for materials has been slashed across the board at the Department of Public Works (DPW).

Previous budgets saw much greater increases, including a 4.6 percent increase in 2008, a 7.5 percent increase in 2007, and an 8.3 percent increase in 2006.

“People will have to be much more patient with city government next year,” said Ambrosino. “There will be fewer potholes filled, fewer sidewalks fixed and just less of everything.”

Even with Monday’s release, there is still some uncertainty as to how much money the city will get from the state. In one version of the state budget – that of the state Senate – Revere would get cut nearly $6 million. However, in the state House of Representatives’ budget, Revere would get cut only $3 million. None of the options are good for the city, but $3 million is certainly better than $6 million.

“It’s certainly the most difficult budget I’ve ever dealt with,” said Ambrosino. “The cuts to the city are mind boggling. We can survive the House budget [without having more layoffs], but barely. We’ll have difficulty surviving the Senate budget unless the state adopts local option taxes and we get to use their pension gimmick…The $3 million cut is certainly the high water mark for us. I don’t anticipate we’re going to get there. It’s a bleak situation. I anticipate we’ll do more Friday closings for City Hall next year, and I hope we can avoid more layoffs.”

For the record, the pension gimmick is a proposal that will let cities and towns defer their pension payments this coming fiscal year to another year in the future. The local options taxes include increases to the meals tax and the hotel/motel room tax.

Already, it has been announced that City Hall will be closed the last Friday of every month, from July 2009 through June 2010. The mayor said he believes City Hall will probably have to be closed every Friday, but that isn’t certain yet.

In the public safety realm, the mayor’s budget assumes that seven firefighters will be laid off on July 1, unless the Firefighter’s Union reconsiders and accepts the mayor’s wage freeze package.

However, numerous firefighters showed up at Monday’s council meeting when the budget was officially delivered into the hands of the council. At that meeting, Union President James Caramello said the Firefighter’s Uunion stands opposed to the mayor’s budget.

“We would like you to know that we are opposed to any city budget that reduces our numbers by seven,” Caramello said to councillors. “That’s why we’re here, and we’d like to offer alternatives for saving money and not laying off those firefighters.”

In the police department, already there have been six layoffs and three officers that weren’t hired upon graduation from the police academy – for a total of nine officers off the rolls.

That brings the overall contingent to 86.

Ambrosino said he doesn’t anticipate any further layoffs to police, but he is basing that on a gamble that the state and federal government will come through with some money.

“There are 10 officers funded by grant money that may be lost, but it’s assumed that we’ll get additional state grant money and federal stimulus money to keep them on,” he said. “I’m kind of rolling the dice on that one. I’m really reluctant to lay off further police officers at this point.”

If that state and federal money doesn’t come through, the contingent will be down to a low of 76.

Asked what the city would do if that happens, the mayor replied, “We’ll punt.”

Even with all the above cuts, the proposed budget is still in the red by $1.53 million. That gap, said the mayor, would be made up by City Council cuts, new development growth numbers (which will come out in the fall), and – most importantly – rainy day fund reserves.

It doesn’t appear as if the city will have to engage in a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote this year, as did the city’s neighbor, Winthrop. However, that and other such measures couldn’t be counted out for next year.

“It’s not a viable option for an urban community like Revere,” said the mayor. “A trash fee is more likely.”

Finally, the mayor said his budget proposal was more sad than anything else, as it yanked away the positive financial steps the city has taken over the last few years.

“It is sad because we really did a good job of getting our finances in order over the last few years, and it’s been taken away by this financial meltdown,” said the mayor.

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