Brockton mayor defends $317 million budget
Brockton’s $317 million budget for fiscal 2014 is a mixed bag of blessings, city and school officials say — a lean, to-the-bone plan that maintains services while offering some pay raises, a new planning department, and the influx of state cash needed to hire 55 new teachers.
Critics, though, believe any positives pale with the accompanying $3.7 million property tax hike that they say struggling residents, from immigrants to senior citizens, can’t afford.
The opponents, including the grass-roots group Brocktonians for Limited Taxation, have slammed the budget the 11-member City Council approved on June 24, complaining that millions of dollars in cash reserves that could lower the burden on cash-strapped taxpayers remain untapped.
They blame Mayor Linda Balzotti and the city’s chief financial officer, John Condon, who have warned against using the money, and they say the unusually high tax rates set by the city will scare off new business.
“Take a look down Main Street” and its many vacant storefronts, said businessman Ed Byers, one of the group’s leaders, and the owner of Cindy’s Kitchen, a salad-dressing manufacturing plant on Brockton’s south side.
“We cannot measure the lost opportunity,” Byers said.
Balzotti, who is seeking a third term, disagrees with the critics, convinced the budget city councilors passed by a 9-2 vote has the best interests of everyone in mind.
“It continues our commitment to maintaining the core city services that all Brockton residents rely on,” she said.
Balzotti described her spending plan as sound, conservative, and fiscally responsible, something that reflects the state and federal budget cuts Brockton has endured.
“And it continues our investments in public safety and education and all services essential to Brockton residents,” she said.
Condon could not be reached for comment.
In December, city councilors applied $1 million in new growth and state aid revenue to lower the tax rates when they were set for the year. But residential and business tax rates — at $16.88 and $31.91 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, respectively — are still among the state’s highest.
Byers said large annual tax increases have priced Brockton out of the marketplace as an attractive location for new business and it’s up to elected officials to tip the scale back in favor of residents and businesses.
Ward 2 City Councilor Thomas Monahan voted for the new budget. He said he and fellow councilors trust the judgment of the finance officer who was hired in 1990 to bring Brockton out of receivership, and accomplished a five-year plan to solvency in three years.
In recent weeks, the council also cut another $1 million from the spending plan to make it more palatable to residents, Monahan said. Some expenses that have raised a fuss, such as raises for 27 non-union employees — including about a dozen department heads — were unavoidable, he said.
Many union employees with settled labor contracts, like teachers, will be receiving a 2 percent increase, he said. “Basically, we are just keeping it fair,” Monahan said.
If reserves were to be spent, Monahan said, he’d rather see the funds go to capital projects, such as new roofs for fire stations.
The schools’ $157 million budget has a silver lining, the School Committee’s vice chairman, Thomas Minichiello, said. It’s lean and took an eleventh-hour hit of $100,000, but for the first time in five years will be adding teachers instead of sending out pink slips threatening layoffs, he said.
About half of an additional $6 million in state Chapter 70 funds will pay a year of 2 percent raises for members of the Brockton Education Association as part of a deal struck earlier this year, Minichiello said.
As part of the compact, teachers and other staff agreed to participate in a new evaluation system and be retrained in new methods for students for whom English isn’t a first language, he said.
The Chapter 70 funds will also pay for the dozens of new teachers needed to help accommodate burgeoning student population.
Enrollment grew by 800 students in the last year, he said. In fact, Minichiello said, the student population has grown so much that a new school for kindergartners will be opened to make room in other buildings for older students.
“Brockton is experiencing huge growth, and we are playing catch-up,” Minichiello said.
Much of the increase comes from students from other countries, he said. They account for about 28 percent of the district’s 16,000-plus students. The Chapter 70 funds will largely focus on English language learners, he said, as well as special education.
“Other school districts don’t have the levels we do,’’ Minichiello said.
Historically a melting pot of residents from European nations, today’s Brockton is also an amalgam of families from countries such as Cape Verde, Haiti, Brazil, and Mexico, he said.
“This defines what a ‘gateway city’ is, and also correlates to the level of social services the city provides,’’ he said.