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Malden’s $152.8m budget survives challenges

Malden Mayor Gary Christenson’s fiscal 2013 spending plan passed a City Council vote Tuesday, 8-3, after an emerging coalition of fiscal conservatives tried and failed 10 times to trim thousands of dollars from next year’s bottom line. The budget was Christenson’s first major challenge since taking office in January.

The $152.8 million figure is $7.3 million more than the fiscal 2012 budget. The new fiscal year begins Sunday.

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“City budgets should be like your personal checkbook,” said Ward 6 Councilor Neil Kinnon. “This was not an exercise in that. There were no cuts.”

Kinnon was joined, for the most part, by three other councilors who make up an emerging circle of conservative voices whose opposition has crystallized during the recent budget process. The coalition has called for fiscal restraint and savings, with Kinnon saying the city must build on its $5 million revenue reserves.

Councilors David D’Arcangelo, James Nestor, and occasionally Craig Spadafora joined Kinnon in a push to rein in spending. Spadafora voted with the majority in approving the budget, with D’Arcangelo, Kinnon, and Nestor voting against.

If state funding figures hold true, aid to schools could increase by nearly $2.3 million, to $48.2 million, and unrestricted aid to city government could increase by about $827,911, to $11 million, according to state Department of Revenue estimates.

In addition, Malden is projecting to collect $477,000 from the local option meals and hotel tax adopted in 2011.

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Other revenue boosts will include a 2.5 percent increase in property tax rates and higher fines and fees, while nearly $1 million will be saved from restructuring municipal government, Christenson said. He added that he shuffled 20 government jobs to free up cash so the city can pay for priority services for veterans, seniors, and teens.

“I want to make sure this council knows that for the last five months, it wasn’t ‘Let’s add new initiatives,’” Christenson said. “We didn’t backfill 13 positions. I could have chosen to fill [them] and keep the status quo” but instead he restructured, he said. “We need to keep our eyes on the big picture.”

Much of Kinnon’s ire was focused on school spending, which this year jumped more than $5 million , to $56.16 million.

The increase was unprecedented, Kinnon said, and outstrips any other department in year-over-year growth. “At what point does that eat up the whole budget?” he asked.

Before the final vote, Kinnon offered eight amendments that contained $1.45 million in last-minute cuts.

D’Arcangelo followed with two more, worth roughly $517,000. All eight of Kinnon’s proposals and the two offered by D’Arcangelo failed in roll-call votes.

Among Kinnon’s biggest-ticket proposals was the removal of $500,000 from the school department operating budget.

“If they need it, they can come back,” said Kinnon, who is chairman of the board of trustees for the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, based in Malden.

He also asked to take out an additional $212,500 from the school department’s reserve account and accounting expenses; $525,000 of new spending on water and sewer projects; and suggested slashing more than half of the $112,448 budgeted for a new teen center, a priority of the mayor’s.

“I’m not against teens; I’m not against a teen center,” Kinnon said, pointing out that low response rates on student surveys about the center indicated a lack of interest.

“The demand, nobody is sure exists.”

Instead, he proposed providing every high school student with a voucher for a Malden YMCA membership, and said that rushing to lease property now could trap the city into paying higher costs later, especially if fewer teens than expected participate.

A task force assembled by Christenson recommended in April that the city rent about 5,500 square feet of space at 1 Salem St., just a few steps from Malden High School, for the teen center.

Instead, Kinnon suggested the teen center be piloted at the high school, which he said has ample room to spare.

“It is a building, unlike the buildings that are being looked at, that has a gym in it, has a pool in it,” Kinnon said. “Like any start-up you try to go slow and you try to build off of something else.”

Kinnon also unsuccesfully asked his colleagues to curtail the mayor’s staff budget by $50,000, to eliminate one management position in the Water and Sewer Department, and to cut the salary for another city worker.

Including Christenson’s $105,000salary, his staff of eight will cost the city $555,097 in fiscal 2013, compared with $326,943 last year under Mayor Richard Howard.

Budget additions by the councilors that were approved include $25,000 to maintain the Bike to The Sea path that is under construction; $25,000 to plant new trees citywide; and $12,552 more than initially budgeted for the teen center, which may be ready to open by September.

Offsetting the costs will be a $56,636 reduction in the city’s roughly $5 million reserves, and $20,221 saved from a city worker whose hours were reduced to part time.

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.
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