It took 90 minutes of dogged negotiation, but the City Council finally has a 2014 budget.
The council approved the $79 million budget in committee Tuesday and will vote on it at 5 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall. It includes a 0.96 percent tax increase, down from 2.2 percent in the original budget proposal.
The typical homeowner, with a house assessed at $100,000, will pay about $15 more in taxes. Property owners will also see a $34.50 increase in sewer, water and trash fees. That’s $3.50 lower than in the proposed budget.
“Granted, it’s not a lot of money,” said Councilman Carl Erikson, the finance committee chairman, “but we’re here literally fighting for every dollar for the taxpayers.”
No fights actually broke out, but it was a contentious night. At one point, Mayor Gary McCarthy said he would call back city employees, keep the lights on at City Hall all night and take the entire council on a walk-through of a sewer pump station to prove he needed the funds to fix the station.
Erikson questioned the need to borrow $3.2 million to repair the station, but told McCarthy he was willing to discuss it at another time. The council does not have to vote on borrowing until spring, when the Finance Department has prepared paperwork to take out a bond.
The issue came up because capital projects are included in the budget.
But the biggest stumbling block proved to be a deputy fire chief.
McCarthy had proposed a budget that cut one of the six deputy chiefs, while adding an assistant chief. Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco argued for the restoration of the deputy chief, and Councilwoman Denise Brucker said she wouldn’t vote for the budget unless it included that position.
Erikson offered a series of compromises to get four council members to agree on the budget. With Brucker not budging and Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo not present, he had to get the other three council members on his side.
Two of them were fellow Democrats. The third was Councilman Vince Riggi, the only non-Democrat on the council. Suddenly, Riggi was in the spotlight. Erikson needed his vote.
He turned to Riggi and asked what he could cut from the budget to get an affirmative vote. Riggi shrugged.
“I’m light years away from everybody, so I don’t matter,” he said.
Erikson asked again and Riggi laid out his terms: Cut back on the garbage fee increase, cut more money out of the health care line and keep the deputy fire chief out of the budget.
Erikson had already pressed council President Margaret King to accept an $80,000 cut in health care, a far cry from the $1.5 million Riggi and Erikson said wasn’t needed. But King wouldn’t go any farther, so Erikson told Riggi they would have to accept that.
“They will learn,” he said, confidently predicting the city will spend much less than it budgeted for health care next year.
Riggi reluctantly agreed.
“I guess it will take us another year,” he said.
Erikson eagerly turned to Councilwoman Marion Porterfield and asked if she was satisfied enough to vote for the budget. Porterfield said she wanted the garbage fee increase cut, too.
“I haven’t heard a garbage fee reduction, so I’m not there yet,” she said.
Erikson, Brucker and Porterfield turned back to the budget, flipping through pages, trying to find something to cut. After 20 minutes, they had $71,000 in cuts — enough to pare back the garbage fee increase by $3.50.
Erikson looked at Riggi.
“Mr. Riggi, we started out at light years. Are we light weeks? Light days?” he asked.
“We’re getting closer,” Riggi allowed.
Erikson quickly listed the various cuts he could offer: a small garbage fee increase, a tax increase of less than 1 percent, a small cut to the health care line and no deputy fire chief. The health care line was the sticking point for Riggi, Erikson acknowledged, but he couldn’t get the others to cut any further.
“Compromise,” he urged Riggi. “Take something we could have done in one step and do it in two steps.”
Riggi considered it.
“It’s not my Christmas wish list, but ...” he said. “It’s much more palatable. I could live with this.”
Porterfield also agreed she could accept the compromises. King said if the council agreed to reconsider the deputy fire chief position mid-year, particularly if the city ends up with more money than expected, she would also support the budget.
“Success,” Erikson said.
Council members also agreed to do a lot of work at the beginning of the year. First, they will start a recycling program, beginning with a citywide educational campaign to explain the law requiring recycling, as well as what can be recycled. Then code enforcers will start ticketing those who do not comply.
The goal is to divert so much recycling from the wastestream that the city could cut some of the garbage fee next year, Porterfield said. The city must pay for waste to be dumped at a landfill, while it can get rid of recycling for free.
The council will also look closely at the $3.2 million project to rebuild the North Ferry Street pump station, Erikson said.
A new program to fix residents’ sewer and water laterals will also be up for debate. The council left the money for it in the budget, but could not agree on how the program should be run. It may be restricted to those who cannot afford to fix their laterals themselves after an emergency — and they might have to repay the cost over the course of a year.
The council will have to decide the rules of the program before it is implemented.
Erikson and Riggi also plan to do a year-long analysis of the city’s vehicle maintenance contract with the county. Riggi suspects the city could save money by maintaining more of its vehicles in-house. Erikson said they should analyze it together early in the year so they could use the figures in the 2015 budget if they find a cheaper way to maintain vehicles.
The city switched to the county contract to save money in 2004.