Increase in OT partly due to installation of new computer system
By GORDON VINCENT email@example.com
WOBURN - The Police Department's budget was the topic as members of the City Council were given updated fiscal year 2007 budget figures this week by the City Auditor's office.
Police Chief Philip Mahoney was on hand to answer questions as part of a newly-instituted "quarterly update" process with the council's Finance Committee.
No votes were taken, though the FinCom put Mahoney on notice that it will be looking for more exact accounting once Mahoney submits his budget for FY'08 in the coming months.
"We're at the limits of (Proposition) 2 1/2, and the schools are saying they want a 7.5-percent increase," said City Council President Charles Doherty. "We need to cut back line items, and to do that we have to understand the costs.
"The taxpayers are fed up. They don't see the justification for the increases in taxes, and we don't prove it to them," added Doherty. "If we can not make a go of it (by reducing non-personnel expenditures), we're going to face a political storm of attrition."
Mayor Thomas McLaughlin also briefly spoke about "program based budgeting," one of the themes of his state-of-the-city address from earlier this month.
He suggested a meeting with officials with the town of Lexington, which he said has used the technique for years. The mayor said he plans to use program based budgeting on a trial basis in FY'08, with one or two departments.
"It's a big leap," said McLaughlin.
If the council favors the new approach, the city could eventually "wean ourselves off line item budgeting," the mayor added.
Deputy Auditor John Danizio presented recap sheets of spending so far this fiscal year, which is just past the mid-point. Line items in which more than 50 percent of the revenue were flagged, and there were projections for the rest of the fiscal year based on what was spent in FY'06.
There are some special circumstances, Danizio noted, like a contractual agreement or a maintenance expenditure that requires an entire line item to be allocated, which are noted by the auditor.
If there are any line items which are in danger of being under-funded, the auditor's office can notify the department head that there may be a problem looming, Danizio said.
While the city has no choice other than to fund certain budgetary items that fluctuate like fuel or snow removal, Doherty said he would like to get a long-term picture of which accounts are serially under or over-funded.
"I'd like to go back five or six years and see if they are spending this money from this line item; areas we know that are not being spent fully," said Doherty.
Alderman at-large Paul Denaro said the accepted practice over the years has been not to fund line items properly, but to make estimates based on the previous year's budget and then adjust the accounts as needed during the course of a given fiscal year. This practice is sometimes known as "balancing the baskets" and results in a flurry of financial transfers, typically toward the close of the fiscal year in June.
Doherty said he preferred "true budgeting," which he suggested might end up saving the city money.
"Every line item should be based on true expectations," said Doherty.
Denaro said that while true budgeting may be a reasonable expectation, the council "can't beat up the mayor for coming in for a 300 percent increase (in a particular line item) because that's what the data shows."
"But we've established a policy that allows department heads to cover their own over-spending by moving (money from) one line item to another," replied Doherty.
Mahoney first issued an apology with a detailed report from the past seven months on the gasoline used by his department. By ordinance, the report is supposed to be furnished to the council on a regular basis. He said he has designated Capt. Richard Kelley to be the liaison to the City Council, to help avoid such lapses in communication in the future.
"You can call me any time you want, but if you want a record (of gas usage), Capt. Kelley can make sure that gets done," said Mahoney. "I'm not trying to pass the buck here; I'm just trying to make it work smoother."
"I couldn't think of a better person than Rick Kelley," replied Dwyer, of the highly-regarded captain.
McLaughlin said he has also scheduled a meeting with Mahoney to discuss the issue of take-home cars used in the police department, a list of which has been asked for in the past by the council.
The list is supposed to be on file, though it is not generally made available to the public since some of the department's vehicles are used for undercover surveillance.
For the budget, Mahoney said he didn't favor the line item format, claiming he can't plan more than a year at a time. Generally, any increases in his budgets are due to contractual pay increases, which are negotiated by the mayor and not the chief.
Doherty suggested that the council may not be as generous with the bottom line figure in FY'08, with the economy still tight and the city coming off an average $250 hike in residential property bills.
"This city does very, very well as far as the things we offer to the community," said Mahoney. "Look around at towns like Winchester, Stoneham, places that have trash fees, student bus fees.
"We're in good overall shape, but we have to keep it under control," said Mahoney. "I hear it just the same as (council members) do."
Mahoney addressed the issue of overtime, which he has tried to scale back for a "training officer" who earned $33,628 in overtime pay last year. However, there has been an overall increase in overtime as the department converts to a new computer system, the last phase of which is the installation of laptops in the cruisers this month.
There are also the usual unforeseen circumstances that require extra officers, like the incident on the MBTA commuter tracks this month, when a train struck and killed two rail workers.
"There are many reasons why (overtime) is up where it is," said Mahoney. "It's not unusual. I don't think I've ever stayed within my (budget) allotment."
Dwyer asked if there could be a way to increase traffic enforcement, which is cash positive for the city.
"They do a great job, but they're an under-funded revenue stream," said Dwyer.
Mahoney said the money from citations goes into the general fund and would thus have no direct bearing on his departmental budget, and pointed out every patrol officer also has the ability to cite motorists.
"At least 50 percent of my tickets are written by (beat officers)," said the chief.
Mahoney also made a pitch for not one but two resource officers in the schools, one at Woburn High and another split between the two middle schools.
"We really need an SRO at that high school, but the question is where am I going to take him from," said Mahoney. "And who is going to pay for that?"