GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 8, 2012

Schools, DPW eyed for 'free cash'

By Steven Fletcher Staff Writer
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Heating and ventilation upgrades for city schools and the Department of Public Works and a new boiler for the high school could be the first uses of the city’s new “free cash” surplus.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk announced earlier this week that the state Department of Revenue had certified a $4.8 million surplus from the city’s $87.5 million budget for fiscal 2012. The surplus, or unbudgeted “free cash” supply is the largest one since Kirk took office in 2008 when the city had a $2.3 million deficit. The 2012 “free cash” is the largest surplus the city has run in recent history.

Thursday, Kirk sent a memo to the City Council asking for “free cash” funding that would go toward fixing city schools and filling the stabilization fund.

In the memo, she requested $176,000 for heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs at Gloucester High, Plum Cove, Veterans and East Gloucester schools. The funding will also replace doors and windows at the West Parish School and acquire a generator for Veterans. West Parish was not on the list for ventilation repairs, however, even though its heating system has malfunctioned several times over the last year.

Kirk also requested $60,000 for ventilation repairs at the Public Works yard on Poplar Street. But her largest request by far was for steering $616,075 into the stabilization fund. Kirk said the allocation would replenish the fund after the city used it to bolster the Gloucester Public School District at the start of the 2013 fiscal year this past summer.

Kirk had said filling the already $2.1 million stabilization fund is a high priority for this year’s surplus. Along with that, she said, will come infrastructure investments, reducing the employee benefit and pension liabilities, capital account funding and mid-year budget adjustments.

Last year, the city spent most of the $3.2 million surplus from fiscal 2011 on the School Department. The department received roughly $684,000 which covered personnel, curriculum materials, special education expenses and new kitchen equipment. Last year’s free cash also paid for a firefighter and police officer as well as providing for Public Works supplies and maintenance expenses. Some of that surplus also purchased city office supplies,

City Council Budget and Finance Subcommittee Chairman Paul McGeary said he agrees with Kirk’s requests — save one. The $616,000 request for stabilization, he said, should be put on the back burner, so the council can see what other requests city departments have. Meeting those needs, McGeary said, should take priority over boosting the stabilization fund.

One-time expenses, like the ventilation repairs, are the kind of things for which the city should be using the surplus, said McGeary. Ideally, those costs should be in the budget, McGeary said, but after years of cutting maintenance to save staff, he added that Gloucester has a lot of catching up to do.

The problem, he said, is when “free cash” is used for recurring expenses like hiring staff or preforming routine maintenance

”There’s a balancing act,” McGeary said, “should we, or could we have put this into the budget in the first place and not be relying on “free cash.”

Kirk said the city raised its revenue outlook in the 2013 budget, but still kept it conservative.

She said she’d rather keep things tight and make midyear increases than loosen the grip and make midyear cuts. The city she said, doesn’t need that kind of volatility

“There are years where you are making midyear cuts; we’ve done that. I’d much rather be making midyear adjustments upward,” Kirk said.

McGeary said the city can still retain a surplus cushion, while being more aggressive in its revenue estimates.

”I think we can be a little more optimistic about revenue so we can budget up front as opposed to making a jump in the fall,” McGeary said.

Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or sfletcher@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.