HOLYOKE — Mayor Joshua Garcia presented his first budget as mayor, deciding not to raise taxes and city revenue, but instead take a cautious approach amid the uncertainty of the continuing COVID pandemic -19.
“I’m trying to lead conservatively until I get a better sense of the situation,” Garcia said in an interview this week.
City council chambers were packed on May 12 as Garcia delivered his first “state of the city” address and presented the budget. In an optimistic address, he said that for the first time in more than a decade, the city budget is presented with a surplus. He said that instead of raising taxes to the levy limit allowed by state law, he decided to take a “fiscally responsible approach – a combination of conservative budget controls and sources of alternative income”.
“In other words, we are now providing taxpayer relief and saving some of our potential capacity for when we really need it,” Garcia told those gathered last Thursday. “And we’re doing it while maintaining – and in some cases improving – the services people rely on.”
Garcia presented a balanced budget that adds jobs to the city or restores jobs that have been cut in the past, including more Department of Public Works staff to better maintain our public parks, a tree climber position to the city tree guard, an additional inspector for the building department, an assistant purchasing manager, two part-time associates in the law firm, a senior project manager in the economic planning department, and a captain and lieutenant in the police department.
City Council will of course have the final say on whether further cuts are made to Garcia’s budget, which he said he could increase in the coming days with additional budgets. Last year, the city council cut a fourth captain position from the police department’s budget, for example — a position that Garcia is now trying to return to the department in addition to an eighth lieutenant.
In an interview at his office on Monday, Garcia said the budget also increases the salaries of professional supervisors and DPW workers to slow the high turnover rate in those positions.
“They were underpaid and we weren’t competitive with other communities,” Garcia said. “The goal for me was to fill those gaps by creating turnover into those positions.”
However, other city workers may have to wait for wage increases. Garcia said that as he negotiated new labor agreements with all the unions in the city, he “kind of held back a bit” when it came to wage increases. He said he wanted to make sure the city’s revenues were healthy before raising the wages of these workers, and said he told them to wait a year. He said the fire and police departments have filed for mediation with the state.
Garcia said he initially asked department heads to set budgets that factored in 3% increases in employee salaries. But he said the ability to grant those increases has been eaten away by rising pension and insurance costs, as well as the city’s increased funding obligations to the school department under the Student Act. Opportunity Act which was passed in 2019.
New revenue coming into the city — from Baystate Health’s new behavioral health hospital to the construction of new housing — has Garcia optimistic about his ability to raise salaries for other city employees.
“These things make me feel good about what we can potentially do,” he said. “I just don’t want to commit to anything until we get it back.”
Garcia said that by 2024, the city also plans to replace health insurance networks with the state’s Group Insurance Commission or Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, which would save the city money. on these costs.
Garcia also offered to spend $130,000 in free cash in the coming fiscal year on several special projects: consulting services to conduct a police audit, a parking management study, and a management study. and waste recycling. He said the waste management study would cost about $40,000. When asked if that was enough money for all those special projects, he said the city wouldn’t be sure until those projects came to market.
“This budget isn’t shooting from the hip,” Garcia said. “Rather, the budget is doing what it can to fill the gaps while using the flexibility of the money available to be proactive in other areas, allowing us to continue to think and plan ahead.”
Garcia’s other proposals for the city’s nearly $2.4 million in available cash include allocating $50,000 to a capital stabilization fund, $240,000 for municipal finance support to “strengthen internal controls” in the city’s finance departments, $170,000 for outside attorneys to help with caseloads in the city. law firm and $68,000 in external engineering services to assist the municipal engineer.
The “biggest pill to swallow in this whole budget,” Garcia said, were costs over which he had no control, such as insurance and pension costs. The city has had to invest more money in its schools than in the past, but Garcia said he has no problem with that.
During his first semester in office, Garcia said his past experience in municipal government and project management helped him understand what it takes to do his job well.
“I lead through the prism of management,” he said. “I don’t care about politics…my perspective and vision is, ‘What do I do to defuse accountability, protect resources, maintain quality of life, and make sure people have services.'”
Dusty Christensen can be contacted at email@example.com.