There is no doubt that the Covid-19 epidemic is putting a huge strain on our local economy. Many of our neighbors are out of work, local businesses are struggling to make ends meet, and city tax revenues are down. As the City Council begins its deliberation on the Mayor’s recent budget proposal, I believe we must lead by example by focusing on what we know and not on speculation and by demonstrating with our actions that we value both the people we represent and those who work for the city. We should operate knowing that this budget is not going to be a final product until federal and state allocations are finalized.
Now is not the time to panic. It is not the time to respond to financial adversity with extreme measures that will have long-term negative impacts. There is room for careful reductions in the Mayor’s proposed budget, but we cannot give in to the siren song of broad and deep cuts in spending without enough thought to the impact on important services and on people – including both residents and city employees.
It is important to note that the budget now before the council has no tax levy increase and already reduced services and new initiatives by more than $10 million before it was submitted and that 80% of city operating budgets were cut below FY20 levels. Any additional cuts would lead to the elimination or reduction of many services that residents rely on and value. I know my neighbors do not want to see an increase in wait time for police and fire services, roads that are unrepaired and unsafe, reductions in trash and recycling, or schools without the resources and staff needed to manage the immense challenges faced by our teachers and students right now – and likely over the coming year.
What is needed is careful specific budget adjustments rather than broad across the board cuts. We need to make surgical cuts rather than use a sledgehammer. And we need to be willing to tackle these decisions collaboratively both now to adopt a budget before the start of the new fiscal year, and again as we monitor and revisit the budget when the final federal and state aid amounts are known.
In particular, given the current fiscal situation, the Mayor’s proposal for the schools is appropriate under the circumstances – though it will certainly be a huge challenge for the School Department to continue its progress with such limited resources as they face growing enrollment and unique challenges. It is especially disappointing because prior to the coronavirus outbreak, we were expecting an infusion of Student Opportunity Act funding that would have empowered our schools in powerful, long-overdue ways and supported our growing population.
Unfortunately, truly creative work of the Spicer Administration presenting strategic efficiencies for council review hasn’t occurred in our first three years and that is a lost opportunity. For example, the charter called for the reorganization of the Planning and Economic Development departments. This would have been a great opportunity to streamline services and reduce costs, but it has not happened. It could still happen in the near future as part of a collaborative approach with the City Council.
Nonetheless, I am still hopeful that the federal government will get its act together and provide financial support to our state and local governments that would allow us to provide supplemental support to the school department during the fiscal year. Already, the CARES Act helps by reimbursing our school system and health departments for Covid-related expenses in support of new remote learning and public health needs. That is a positive, small start but is nowhere near the level of support municipalities across the nation need.
Overall, we need a balanced and measured approach rather than a reactionary tact fueled by panic. While we need to ease the burden on Framingham taxpayers, we also need a budgetary strategy that will serve us well if the current economic downturn lasts beyond the next several months. We also need to preserve essential services. We can always revisit, adjust, add, or subtract later on when facts are known. We must treat our city employees with respect, show them that we value their work, and not talk about them on TV and Zoom like they are solely a statistic we can live without.
Together, I am confident that we can pass a budget, continuously adjust it as needed, and keep services strong for our community. Now is not the time to rush budget cuts without recognizing their true cost. Our community is already suffering enough during this global pandemic.
Adam Steiner, serving his second term as District 3’s City Councilor also Chairs the City Council’s Finance Subcommittee.