‘Lean’ Lowell Budget Still Hikes Taxes
LOWELL -- The city budget is as lean as a sirloin tip side steak.
That was the message from city councilors on Tuesday, as they unanimously approved the $361.6 million Fiscal Year 2019 budget -- a 3.3 percent increase from last year’s $349.9 million budget.
With this approval of the “lean” budget, Lowell taxes are set to rise 2 percent.
Although this budget is about $11 million more than last year, it resulted in cuts for many departments.
“I couldn’t find any fat,” City Councilor Rita Mercier said about the budget before approving it. “I see no frivolous expenditures. I see no waste.
“This is an outstanding budget,” she later added about City Manager Eileen Donoghue’s first fiscal year budget.
Some of the challenges in the coming fiscal year include: A $1.5 million increase in the pension assessment, $1.9 million increase in state assessments largely due to the increase in charter school tuition, potential $2 million increase in salaries from collective bargaining agreements, and ongoing capital and operating needs of the Lowell Public Schools.
As a result, many line items were cut across various city departments.
The single-line appropriation for Lowell Public Schools in fiscal 2019 is $165.5 million, compared to last year’s appropriation of $162.1 million. The city continues to exceed its net school spending requirement, surpassing it by $9 million this year.
City officials recently freed up $500,000 to help close a $3.2 million shortfall in the school budget, saving six positions that faced cuts. The school budget had proposed cutting 43 positions, including library aides, school clerks and teachers.
The capital appropriation for the School Department is more than $3 million in fiscal 2019, including $1.15 million to complete the roof replacement of the 1922 building at Lowell High School and $1 million for general HVAC system repairs in various school buildings.
The city will complete a comprehensive facility assessment this year, studying each city-owned building and developing a preventive maintenance schedule for each site.
This year’s budget also places a priority on public safety, according to officials. The budget appropriates funding to maintain the total number of budgeted sworn police officers at 250. Also, the total Fire Department uniformed personnel will remain at 213, even though a federal grant alleviating some salary costs is expiring.
“This is a good budget,” City Councilor Vesna Nuon said. “It adequately addresses education and public safety.”
City Councilor Dave Conway added that economic development doesn’t happen without excellent public safety and education.
“We have to make sure we fund those areas as best as we possibly can,” Conway said.
Intergovernmental revenue makes up 47 percent of the revenue, while taxes make up 37 percent of the revenue. The other sources are charges for services (15 percent) and licenses and permits (1 percent).
Officials have pointed out that the 2 percent tax hike is less than the 2.5 percent increase allowed under Proposition 2 1/2.
Donoghue has said the city must continue to find creative ways to increase revenue streams, particularly as they get closer to bonding the largest high school project in state history.
The estimated $345.4 million high school project is expected to result in an average tax increase of $272. The debt service payment would last for three decades. By the end of fiscal 2019, the city should be in a position to execute the project funding agreement with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, according to officials.
Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.