Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration, for the first time in a very long time, ended the last fiscal year with an $11.4 million operating surplus, said budget officer Margaret Cherone, while presenting the mayor’s fiscal year 2016-17 preliminary budget on Tuesday night.
Cherone said the surplus is the result of four tax lien sales and better than expected tax collection rate. She said this will allow the city to preserve the “integrity” of the tax levy. The city will work with a $149.2 million municipal levy the council agreed on earlier in the year, she said. The previous year’s municipal levy was $154.6 million, according to budget records.
“I’m extremely skeptical of the surplus,” said councilman Kenneth Morris, who is the chairman of the finance committee, on Wednesday afternoon. He said if there is a surplus then the administration should look to provide some property tax relief to homeowners hit hard by the last revaluation.
“There should be some relief. If those numbers are factual, I’m going to advocate strongly there’s some relief,” said Morris.
Morris, who was not present at last night’s meeting, said the administration convinced some council members last year’s budget would not have an impact on property taxes, but now homeowners are being hit with large escrow bills from their mortgage companies. He said his escrow payment went up by $600 a month.
Morris said he has yet to see the preliminary budget.
The better collection rate also allowed the administration to reduce the reserve for uncollected taxes by $5 million in the 2016-17 preliminary budget, said Cherone. The city also reduced police overtime to $1 million from $2 million the previous fiscal year, said business administrator Nellie Pou.
The city will borrow $1.7 million and $1.3 million to cover 34 workers compensation cases and the payout for Jeffrey Heffernan to avoid budget shocks. The city is counting on $25 million in state transitional aid. The city has yet to apply for transitional aid, said Pou. She said the deadline for state aid application is November 4th, 2016.
This fiscal year’s most significant increases were in police and fire.
The fire department line item for salaries jumped to $38.96 million from $32.15 million. Council president William McKoy sought an explanation for the jump.
Cherone said this is due to grant money and retroactive pay connected to the new contract. Similarly, police line item went to $43.84 million from $41.75 million the year prior due to the new contract, said officials.
The mayor’s office is receiving a 14-percent larger budget for salaries from the previous year. Torres had a $401,758 budget last fiscal year, this year his budget will jump to $458,894, according to the preliminary budget.
The city council’s salary and wage line is being cut by 9-percent from $660,178 to $598,489.
The preliminary 2016-16 fiscal year budget shows an overall $274.89 million budget down from $276.53 million the prior year.
The administration will present the introduced budget to the city council on November 1st, 2016 for a vote, said the business administrator.
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