Mayor calls for override

May 10, 2018 by

Published in the May 11, 2018 edition

MELROSE — Mayor Gail Infurna feels the only way the city can grow is through a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

Monday night she spoke before a joint meeting of the Board of Aldermen and the School Committee.

Following are the mayor’s remarks.

I am honored to be here this evening to present my first budget as mayor. During the development of this budget, I looked at a number of actions so that I could send you a balanced budget for Fiscal 2019.

The fiscal 2019 budget I submit this evening results in the lowest increase in at least five years on both a dollar and a percentage basis.

Here are a few facts about the budget:

• Through restructuring, we have eliminated one position.

• Unfortunately, this budget does not add a much-needed school nurse, nor does it address critical custodial needs in our municipal buildings, including the library.

• I am pleased to say that in the past few months, our negotiating team has settled the Fire, Police Superior Officers, and DPW contracts, and this budget includes the provisions of those contracts.

• I am pleased to report that we have been able to achieve minimal increases in our water and sewer rates for the second year in a row, while maintaining fully funded reserves.

• This budget also includes funding for several road projects and the implementation of the Complete Streets program.

• We have increased police and fire overtime by $100,000 in order to bring them to the levels they need to run their departments effectively.

• This budget will also include $75,000 in fire turnout gear.

— This equipment must be replaced every 10 years, and it is now 10 years old.

— Previously we were able to use grant funds for this purchase, but that grant money is no longer available.

• We have maintained our commitment to put $50,000 in the Stabilization Fund and $50,000 to the OPEB Trust Fund, to help us meet our future obligations.

• We will use free cash to balance the 2018 snow budget, so we will not be carrying a snow deficit into Fiscal 2019.

• We will increase the snow budget for Fiscal 2019 by $50,000 to more accurately reflect the cost of snow operations.

We were able to do several things this year to keep the budget balanced. Here are some of the measures we took:

• Outside of the turnout gear and our road program, unfortunately, there is no other capital investment in this budget.

— We decided to avoid any new spending because of the circumstances that are before us.

• Overtime has been reduced at the Department of Public Works.

• Our payment to the Vocational School is lower because fewer Melrose students opted to go there.

• This year, the GIC health insurance rates were lower than expected, which helped keep the budget in balance.

— However, we do expect a steeper increase in the next few years.

• I have also eliminated health insurance benefits for the members of the Board of Aldermen, which is a change I have long advocated.

As in previous years, we have invested almost every available dollar in the schools. In addition to educational and academic support, this also includes health insurance and Medicare for school staff, utilities, the cost of maintaining school buildings, and other school costs.

Although we were not able to fully fund the budget that was initially approved by the School Committee, we have worked out a plan. This includes an additional $175,000 for our schools over and above what was originally planned. For its part, the School Committee agreed to use revolving funds to close the funding gap.

Nevertheless, I want to be clear: The school budget is not OK. It does not add much-needed positions, and it eliminates or reduces purchases of supplies and textbooks throughout the system. This budget is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

While we have balanced the fiscal 2019 budget, I want to make it clear that the inevitable path we are on is a dangerous one.

As I have stated before, we do not have a spending issue, nor do we have a money management issue. We have a revenue issue. Without additional tax revenues coming into the budget every year, we will not be able to provide a level service budget for the city and the schools, nor will we be able to provide the needed level of services for a growing school population.

Furthermore, we cannot grow and improve the city — including the schools — with this budget.

I believe in keeping things simple, so here are the facts:

• Our operations are very lean. Our city runs as efficiently as possible.

• Enrollment in our schools is up dramatically and continues to grow, especially in the elementary and high schools, and therefore the cost of running the Melrose Public Schools is up — that is simple math.

• Over the past number of years, we have benefited from new construction that has helped increase the tax base, but development is slowing down as most of the available properties have been developed.

• The level of state aid we receive today is over one million dollars lower than it was 10 years ago.

• While property values have never been higher in Melrose, taxes are growing more slowly because of the cap imposed by Proposition 2 1/2. As a result, tax revenues are not keeping pace with the city’s growth and demand for services.

• Revenues are not keeping up with costs, and this has been the case for over 10 years now.

The fact is, we need more money. We need more money so that we can plan wisely for the future. Here are some of my concerns:

• If we do not invest in our roads, our water and sewer systems, and our municipal buildings, it costs us more in the long run.

• Right now, our per-pupil spending is the ninth lowest in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That means we are failing to invest in our students—and the cost of that is much higher than the cost of neglecting our infrastructure.

• Doing nothing brings a cost of its own, and that cost will fall on all of us.

• Once again, let me put it simply: If you ignore a warning light in your car, the eventual cost of repairs will be higher than the trip to the mechanic to check it out.

I’m here to tell you that the warning light is on.

It is my opinion that if the citizens of Melrose do not approve an override in the near future, we will have to start making very painful cuts that will change the quality of life as we know it here in Melrose. We must increase our tax base so that we can:

• Maintain the fiscal stability of the city, including our bond rating;

• Continue to keep our infrastructure and buildings in good repair

• And better prepare the students in the Melrose Public Schools for the future.

The Fiscal 2020 budget will be very different from this one. How it will look depends on you.

My own vision, which I hope you will share, is a sustainable budget that allows us to fully fund the schools so that the Superintendent can:

• Offer salaries that will retain quality teachers;

• Hire additional teachers to reduce class sizes, to meet the needs of the increasing population, and to provide appropriate services for all students;

• Provide our teachers with the resources they need, including continuing our excellent professional development program;

• And fully fund up-to-date learning materials, new books for our school libraries, and supplies for courses such as art and health.

A sustainable school budget will allow the city to invest in itself, to maintain the current level of services, to improve services where possible, and to continue planning for the city’s future building needs. This means that the city budget as a whole must be sustainable going forward, so that we can fully fund the schools without reducing city services.

And the budget will only become sustainable with an override (of Proposition 2 1/2).

Over the coming months, we will need to take this challenge on as a community. We will need to work together to decide what our future will look like.

As we used to say at the Lincoln School PTO, together we can make a difference.

In closing, I ask for your favorable action on the budget I am submitting tonight.

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