Watertown lawmakers expect to ask questions about city budget

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WATERTOWN — City Council members are going to have a lot of questions for City Manager Sharon A. Addison when they meet to discuss her proposed nearly $45 million budget.

The city manager on Monday released her $44,957,709 spending plan that carries an $8.7 percent property tax increase. Appropriations would increase $2,254,864, up from $42,702,745, or 5.28 percent from the current budget.

The projected tax rate would be $9.25, up from $8.51 per $1,000 of assessed value, or a roughly 8.7 percent increase. That would equate to a $74 increase in taxes on a property assessed at $100,000.

After going through the 4-inch-thick document over the weekend, Councilman Cody J. Horbacz is confident that council members can whittle down the proposed budget so that it’s below this year’s 2.4 percent state tax cap.

“I’m not surprised with the budget. We’ve seen similar scenarios,” he said, adding that the city manager presented a budget proposal a few years ago with a 11 percent property tax increase.

He intends to go through the financial document line by line, with the goal of finding small cuts here and there, and be ready to ask questions.

“We’re going to be creative,” he said. “There a lot of work to be done, but that’s what we’re here for.”

After taking a first look at it, Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero would not characterize her reaction to the financial document, only to say “it was too early,” and she has “a lot of questions.”

She wants further explanation from the city manager about such things as adding a fleet manager at the cost of $87,841, appropriating $60,000 for first responder equipment and storage for the fire department and spending $46,273 for another staff member in the IT department.

Councilman Horbacz said he, too, wondered about some of those kind of proposals that he’s “not seen before.”

The city manager wasn’t available to answer questions because she’s not in the office this week, so council members won’t be talking about the spending plan until they meet at 6 p.m. May 1 for the first budget session, the councilwoman said.

Both council members, however, liked the idea of seeking $1,000 to $3,000 in renaming rights for athletic fields and $5,000 for the ballpark at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.

In her budget message, Ms. Addison said she and her staff worked hard to keep taxes down, but they faced “challenges similar to those we encountered during the last several years.”

The budget proposal includes:

$275,000 in lost hydroelectric revenues from the Marble Avenue plant shutting down for two months during an equipment upgrade.

$90,000 for investment in hardware to fix the city’s aging email system.

$61,954 for an additional detective assigned to the Metro Jeff Drug task Force.

$12,000 for legal fees for the city’s charter commission.

$80,000 for crosswalk improvements in front of the county office complex on Arsenal Street.

$50,000 for Washington Street school zone improvements.

With appropriations at $44.9 million and proposed revenues at $42.7 million, she plans to use more than $2 million from the fund balance.

She’s projecting an $859,128 increase in the cost of the city’s self-funded health insurance plan. It’s the second year in a row that the budget plan includes a large increase in health insurance costs, following a $1 million increase this fiscal year.

In explaining her budget, Ms. Addison said state aid remains flat at $4.7 million, she expects sales tax revenues to continue to underperform, mortgage and cable television franchise fees to continue to decrease and the hotel occupancy tax not to hit expectations.

Water rates would increase by 5 percent, while the sewer rates would decrease by 5 percent.

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