It was just four short years ago that Gloucester was operating at a deficit.
And when the state’s Department of Revenue certified a Gloucester surplus revenue — or so-called “free cash” — account of $1.9 million for fiscal 2010, there was justifiable celebration that Mayor Carolyn Kirk had indeed turned around the city’s finances in just three short years in the City Hall’s corner office.
There were a few eyebrows raised last year, however, when — after a gut-wrenching budget season, complete with initial city wage and job cuts — the DOR confirmed the city had $3.2 million in unbudgeted surplus revenues. Yet, Kirk eased many fears when she used that money to hire another, unbudgeted firefighter and to funnel some $600,000 into the city’s schools.
This time, residents shouldn’t be so accepting.
The announcement that the city’s fiscal 2012 unbudgeted surplus or “free cash” figure has been certified at a cool $4.8 million might be seen by the mayor and a few other city officials as a sign of frugal financial planning. And that will, as we’ve all heard time and time again, help maintain or perhaps even improve the city’s bond rating — securing a strong credit rating and low interest rate for Gloucester when the city seeks financing for, oh, say, its share of a $25 million to $30 million new elementary school without going to the public for a referendum approval.
But there comes a point when hoarding up to $4.8 million — a full 5 percent of the city’s $87 million fiscal 2012 budget — isn’t a sign of securing Gloucester’s credit and borrowing margins. It’s a case of downright under-budgeting, in a way that deprives residents of services for which they contribute their hard-earned tax dollars.
Simply put, how can the city continue to keep two of its four fire stations – those in Bay View and Magnolia — closed on a far-too-regular basis, yet come in with a 5 percent budget surplus? That’s a question the mayor now has to answer — and one that city councilors and others need to start pressing now.