On May 6, Mayor Kirk presented to the City Council her city budget for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.
As council president and a member of the Council’s Committee on Budget and Finance, councilors Melissa Cox, the chair, Bill Fonvielle and myself have plodded through the document, department by department, page by page, line by line — 11 meetings, 190 pages, 37 departments, and a total of $113 million.
Each entry is looked at. Anything that changes significantly is questioned and an explanation requested from the department head.
This year, the big questions were around the Fire Department — whose budget had risen fairly dramatically, a consequence of a reorganization that will keep all four city fire stations open, including the long closed Magnolia station — and, as always, the schools. The schools are always the biggest chunk of the budget and therefore get special attention.
Wednesday was “revisits” day, when those items identified by the committee for a second look were to be weighed by the B&F committee.
Because the mayor is abroad, I found myself across the hall, sitting in the big office under the WPA mural of Gloucester high schoolers from the Class of 1935, charged with ensuring that whatever changes were made to the plan that began in January didn’t upset the delicate balance between revenues and expenses.
B&F had put forward a list of changes distilled out of its review. The list included some much needed, if modest, enhancements to the services we deliver: $40,000 for the schools, $50,000 for the DPW for maintenance of parks, roads and buildings, a second animal control officer, a part-time building inspector. The whole list came to about $250,000, about two-tenths of one percent of the total city budget.
The problem was how to pay for them. The council cannot, on its own, raise any budget line item except the schools budget. And if it does, it must re-estimate revenues or cut the budget elsewhere to offset the increase. The administration must agree with the changes.
As a councilor, I saw merit in the council’s wish to add to the services we deliver. As acting mayor, I have to ensure that the budget stays in balance. Was there any way to fund the requests and keep that balance?
Kenny Costa, the city auditor, and John Dunn, the chief financial officer, went back to the budget, even though they both had lived it for the last three months. In the end, they suggested a solution: it looked like the estimate of revenues for auto excise tax was a bit low. We could bump that up a bit to pay for the B&F additions.
It sounded good to me. The B&F meeting was at 4. At 3:15, Councilor Cox arrived. Would she agree to the changes? She did. The additional services sought by the committee would be paid for without risk of creating an out-of-balance budget.
Councilor Cox brought the ideas to her committee. One more time, each of the 37 departments’ budgets were discussed and voted. In the end, the modified plan was recommended.
The final step will occur Tuesday, when the full council will review the recommendations of B&F. One more time the budget lines will be called out; one more time discussed; one more time voted. At the end of that dry, voice-straining process the financial roadmap for our city for next year will emerge.
City government can be frustrating. There are too many good things that need doing, and there is never enough money to accomplish them, but in the end, good people working together distill and refine a direction for our city. It’s a dry and dusty process, but slowly, ponderously, one-budget-line-at-a-time, we work to provide the environment where our children can grow and learn, where our roads are less bumpy and we are safe in our homes.
It’s prosaic, it’s ponderous, but in the end, it works.
Paul McGeary, Gloucester’s Ward 1 city councilor and city council president, is serving as acting mayor during the current two-week period, when Mayor Carolyn Kirk is away on an economics-based visit to Japan.