The tugs-of-war over the city's fiscal budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 have entered an intense final phase.
Among the unresolved problems looming large is the allocation to the city's school district, with the School Committee's request and the Mayor Carolyn Kirk's preliminary allocation about $833,000 apart — a year after the schools were level-funded at a cost of close to 40 positions.
Also unsettled and disputed is the budget for Sawyer Free Library, the city's other educational institution, which, lacking a deputy director among other staffing needs, will be required for the fifth straight year to apply for a state waiver to allow the Sawyer to continue to participate in the inter-library loan program.
Needs of the school and library were vocally advocated Tuesday night during the full City Council's annual public hearing on the income and expenditures proposal submitted by the mayor in May.
"We are still working to close a gap in the school budget and anticipate a resolution," Kirk said. "As a reminder, the proposed increase for the school budget that is before the City Council now is an increase of 4 percent or $1.35 million over last year's appropriation."
Councilor Bruce Tobey sought to point the Council in an alternate direction to the fiscally conservative road Kirk chose in leading the city out of the red ink swamp she inherited. Kirk made it clear from her first campaign in 2007 that fiscal responsibility was her imperative, and through it, the city protected its bond rating and has begun enjoying "free cash" — including a figure of more than $3 million for fiscal 2011.
Tobey said he had decided against pressing for the council to reject the budget outright to protest raises budgeted for Kirk's department heads that average about 15 percent in her submission to the council.
But he said the time had come to abandon the "Wall Street model" of municipal management in favor of the "Jim Brennan model," Tobey's bow to a beloved retired teacher who died at 85 in the aftermath of an auto accident Monday.
"If the schools aren't up to snuff," Tobey argued, economic development efforts "won't matter."
Kirk made it clear she was willing to compromise down from the lofty raises submitted for her department heads.
Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Paul McGeary took a related tack to Tobey's, urging the audience and, by extension, the city to break the fiscal restraints of Proposition 2 1/2 by backing an override of the 2.5 percent limit on increasing property tax revenues.
"Otherwise," he said, "we'll just be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
Teachers, former councilor and school parent-advocate Jason Grow, and School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope made the case for the city's finding the funding to provide the School Committee with the money it is seeking.
Sawyer Director Carol Gray and board members, meanwhile, argued that the library — like the schools — had been underfunded for too long while doing so much on so little it would be foolish to continue to withhold from the resource.
With each successive need for a waiver, Gray said, the city runs a greater risk that the state will refuse and leave library patrons effectively limited to reading just what the Sawyer has on its shelves.
There were 152,000 visits to the Sawyer last year, said Gray, who noted that the library is also required to stretch itself into a social services agency for abusers or "drugs and alcohol" and the problems of "homelessness," a reference to visitors who often take refuge in the library during the daytime when the Action, Inc. homeless shelter is closed.
Decision-day on the budget is set for next Tuesday, following a marathon hearing on "revisits" — what Budget and Finance subcommittee Chairman McGeary estimates will be a list of 25-30 line items that the committee considers subject to change.
Once the committee completes its work, the full Council will convene to vote through the entire document, pegged to account for $85 million, based on revenue estimates subject to change.
Kirk said she and the Budget and Finance subcommittee were "working through a compromise ... to lessen the impact" of the salary hikes she proposed for her department heads.
"We have agreed on a plan that preserves the placement of the positions at the mid-range of the benchmark that was established by comparing these positions to similar positions in 17 other communities," she said.
Still, the contrast was stark to the status of teachers' salaries, which rank at the bottom of the barrel for neighboring communities, Superintendent Richard Safier told the meeting in answer to a question.
The mayor also reported a negotiated agreement with the firefighters' union on overtime for the coming year to support shifts of 14 firefighters, sufficient to operate the two ambulances and the West Gloucester substation, but leaving Bay View and the Magnolia stations closed.
The contract that was signed last year requires funding for a minimum manning of 14 firefighters on every shift.
Union President Phil Bouchie said the administration had initially underfunded the account by $89,000, but that, after the union's attorney contacted the city solicitor, the $89,000 was added in.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.