Methuen School Committeeman Releases Letter to City Council on School Budget/Layoffs

Dear Members of the Methuen City Council:
I am very concerned with the dismal state of our current budget in the City of Methuen and with the budget for Methuen Public Schools.  This is truly unfortunate, but was a predictable outcome of years of mismanagement.  City spending increases have averaged 3% annually for the last 10 years.  In contrast, the School Department has increased only 2.2% annually over the past 10 years.  The School Department has made numerous cuts while the City continues to add positions to the budget and give out huge raises. 
The Mayor suggested at the May 29th meeting that City officials may want to consider a Proposition 2.5 Override.  I reject calls for a Proposition 2.5 override.  Our residents cannot afford this.  We need a fairer allocation of resources within our current budget.  It’s time for shared fiscal responsibility.  Our schools should not have to face cuts every year while the City continues to add other positions to the budget. 
In my July 2016 Valley Patriot newspaper column, I wrote:
A 6.25% non-Educational Operational Budget increase is too much.  The current levels of spending in our City are not sustainable in the future. 
At the time, I proposed nearly $1.7 Million in cuts to the Mayor and City Council for the FY 2017 budget following the Mayor’s asking for suggestions. The job of the Mayor and city council is to listen to and consider department requests, but to put the brakes on when those requests are unreasonable given the constraints of the budget and the burden being placed on taxpayers.  The warnings were ignored and now the chickens have come home to roost.
Last year, in FY 2018, the School Department was the only major department in the City to reduce its operating budget.  It cut its operating expenses by 2 percent.  In contrast, the Police Department saw an increase of 3.2 percent (9 percent in FY 2017), the Fire Department received an increase of 1.5 percent (9 percent in FY 2017), and the Department of Public Works (DPW) saw an increase of 5 percent (6.5 percent in FY 2017).
The number of students enrolled in Methuen Public Schools is climbing and the number of students in need of special services is also increasing significantly.  The number of students with disabilities has increased from 15.3% in 2005 to almost 18% in 2018.  The Mayor has proposed a $76 Million budget, but with rising enrollments, approximately $78 million will be needed to level-fund services.  This means no new positions will be added.  Less than that amount means cutting services, imposing user fees, and layoffs of teachers and school personnel.  If the schools had received 3% annual increases like other city departments over the past 5 years the FY 2019 budget would be $78.7 million. 
It should be noted that 81% of school districts in the Commonwealth spend above state-mandated Foundation levels for their school systems.  Historically, the City of Methuen has spent at or below Foundation levels.  Methuen was fined by the state just a few years ago for underfunding the schools.  In considering the Methuen Schools Budget, the following facts taken from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education regarding Methuen Schools should be noted:


      • Bottom 15% of districts for total per pupil expenditure


      • Bottom 9% of districts for per pupil expenditure for administration


      • Bottom 38% of districts for per pupil expenditure for guidance and school psychologists


      • Bottom 34% of districts for per pupil expenditure for classroom teachers and specialist teachers


      • Bottom 5% for per pupil expenditure for instructional materials, equipment, and technology


      • Bottom 20% for per pupil expenditure for operations and maintenance


      • Bottom 23% for per pupil expenditure for other teaching services


This comes after years of not filling positions through attrition as enrollment numbers continue to climb and Special Education mandated costs continue to soar.  At the same time, spending on other city departments continues to spiral out of control while the School Department remains underfunded.  City leaders must demonstrate fiscal responsibility to help offset state-mandated school expenses. 
All things considered, the teachers and support staff are doing an excellent job educating and providing quality services to the students of Methuen Public Schools without user fees and bus fees.  Let’s not forget that our property values are largely determined by the desirability of our schools.
Methuen certainly does not have a problem generating revenue from property taxes.  In FY 2014, $71,289,005 was seen.  In FY 2015, the City raised $75,096,643.  Finally, in FY 2016, the last year for which data is fully available, the City generated $79,380,338.  This amounts to an increase of 5.4 percent and 5.7 percent respectively.  These are the results of rising property values and assessments.
Many homeowners have been rightly complaining about the increases to their residential property tax bills.  In Methuen, the residential tax rate was lowered to $14.27 per $1,000 assessed value for 2018 from $14.65 per $1,000 assessed value in 2017, but the average value of a single-family home increased by 6 percent.  The average homeowner can expect to pay over $150 more per year in taxes.  This increase is much higher for many who have homes valued at over $220,000.  A Proposition 2.5 override would adversely impact many seniors, new families, and low-income residents. 
The previous City Council also voted to increase the commercial tax rate by 3 percent to $28.10 in FY 2018 from $27.17 in FY 2017.  Kudos to Councilors Kannan and Vidler for voting against these tax increases in December.  There is broad consensus on the need to attract new businesses to Methuen, but the current business tax rate makes that task very difficult.  This is especially true given that the commercial property tax rate in neighboring Salem, New Hampshire is only $20.84 per $1,000 assessment. Let’s not forget that the previous City Council also rejected bringing in marijuana dispensaries, which would have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in additional revenue for the City.
There is much to be disappointed about in the Mayor’s proposed FY 2019 Budget for the City.  First off, there are an abundance of raises for city workers contained in the budget proposal.  Spending on Police and Fire departments are out of control.  The Mayor’s proposed budget gives the Fire Department a new position of Municipal Communications Officer at over $65,000 per year.  This is just another waste of taxpayer dollars just like the two current social media coordinators for the Police Department that are costing taxpayers over $140,000 per year.  Worse yet, the Mayor’s budget creates two new added positions for the Mayor’s Office, an Executive Assistant to the Mayor at a cost of $112,500 per year, and an Administrative Assistant to the Mayor at a cost of $56,100 per year.  The Mayor currently has a chief of staff, executive secretary, and head clerk.  How many positions do we really need?
Last year, the City filled 13 non-civil service municipal positions, hired 10 new firefighters and 3 reserve firefighters, hired 3 new police officers and 9 reserve officers.  There were 23 new hires in FY 2016 and 26 new hires in FY 2017.  The School Department has been very conservative over last 5 years.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the City.  I suggested a freeze on all new city positions until the budget spending is brought under control two years ago and I repeat that call today.
Let’s take a look at the Department of Economic and Community Development.  We have a Director who makes $112,000 per year, an Assistant Director of Planning who makes $88,000 per year, an Assistant Director of Community Development who makes $71,000 per year, a Community Development Secretary, a Community Development Confidential Secretary, a Head Clerk, a senior Planner, and an Environmental Planner (Position created in 2017).  It’s time to look seriously at consolidation.
What are some other areas where cuts can be made?  Current city employees have a 62/38 split for their health insurance while retirees enjoy an 80/20 split for the same health insurance.  I am certainly not looking to take away benefits promised to our current retirees, but this benefit needs to be changed for future retirees.  Retiree health insurance benefits are currently costing the City over $1 Million annually.
Longevity benefits cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.  Longevity needs to be grandfathered, capped, and negotiated out of future contracts as a benefit for new employees.  Many cities and towns in the Commonwealth have already eliminated this costly expense for new hires and Methuen should do the same.
I urge Mayor Jim Jajuga and the members of the Methuen City Council to do better!  It is time to stop kicking the can down the road.  The Mayor’s budget in its current form should be rejected by the City Council.  We need a fairer allocation of resources within our current budget.  It’s time for shared sacrifice and fiscal responsibility.  Our schools should not have to face cuts every year while the City continues to add other positions to the budget.  It is time to provide adequate funding for our schools using our current revenue sources.  A Proposition 2.5 override is not an option.
Thank you for your attentiveness.
D.J. Deeb
50 Conrad Street
Methuen, MA 01844