Mayor predicts rosier outlook as budget process moves forward

Budget numbers are looking a little gloomy right now, with the mill rate expected to jump 5.75% under the current 2014-15 spending plan. But Mayor Ben Blake said he hopes the picture will get rosier before the budget process is over.

As the budget stands now, taxes will rise $329 on the typical Milford home with a market value of $311,070. For the typical homeowner, that’s an additional $27 a month.

As the Board of Finance completed its step in the budget process Tuesday night, finance board member Joseph Fitzpatrick uttered the words “too high, too high, too high.”

Mayor Blake agreed the mill rate increase is high and said he hopes the numbers will be better come May, when the budget is finalized. Right now, the mill rate is expected to rise 1.51 mills, from 26.28 to 27.79 mills.

“Spending controls have been put in place,” Blake said, referring to spending and hiring freezes he imposed mid-February in hopes of creating more of a surplus, which could help offset taxes next budget year.

The spending plan as proposed calls for transferring $2 million in undesignated funds to the 2014-15 budget to lower the tax rate. Blake said he put the brakes on spending last month to create a bigger surplus: That way the aldermen can consider transferring more than $2 million to next year’s budget.

“That is something that might be considered,” Blake said.

After wrapping up its budget vote Tuesday, Finance Board Chairman Brian Lema said, “I’d like to think this is the worst case scenario.”

The $199.35 million budget proposal marks a $5.3 million increase in spending over the current year, which is a 2.74% hike, according to Finance Director Peter Erodici.

Blake has said much of that is “unavoidable.” Increases in pension contributions, debt payments and health care costs, plus wage increases, account for $5 million of the increased costs.

Finance makes changes

When the finance board met Tuesday, it added about $46,000 to the spending plan that had come before it several weeks before, making some changes in city staffing.

The board voted to eliminate the assistant city planner’s job, currently held by Emmeline Harrigan. That job pays about $77,000.

There was a movement to eliminate that position once before, following the release of a study of the city’s land use departments. The study suggested department reorganization. But residents rallied and argued to keep Harrigan’s job in place.

Also on Monday night, $54,884 was added to hire an additional building inspector, a position that officials have said is needed to address increased building projects due to Hurricane Sandy.

The board voted to add $50,907 to the budget for an open space manager. That position had been in the budget as a seasonal/temporary job, paid by open space funds. The change makes the job a little more stable for Steven Johnson, the current open space manager.

While Mayor Blake said he did not want to create new positions in this budget, he pointed out that Johnson, in the year he’s worked for the city, has brought in about a half million dollars in grants.

The board eliminated one animal control position, at $49,770, and added an accountant to the finance department, at $78,087.

“The board has considered this position for the last two years,” Lema said about the accountant’s position. “The finance department has eloquently stated the need, given new regulations and requirements.”

The were no changes to the Board of Education budget proposal. The school board came in with less than a 1% spending increase. Fitzpatrick suggested lowering that to .5% because he wanted to keep overall spending in check.

But the other members said they thought the school board did a good job keeping its spending plan low and voted to approve what they had requested.

“While I’m not looking to spend money, I think it’s a very reasonable budget,” said Finance Board member Scott Marlow.

Mickel Montano agreed, also calling the proposal “reasonable.”

The board voted to add $5,000 to the Beth El Shelter grant, increasing that from a recommended $75,000 to $80,0000. Beth El representatives spoke during budget deliberations and explained there’s been an increase in the number of people using the homeless shelter and soup kitchen services.

Next the budget plan moves to the Board of Aldermen. A public hearing is scheduled for Thursday, April 3 at 7 p.m. at Milford City Hall. Departments will meet with the board in April, and the board votes in early May.