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Mayors wrestle with budget

"Budget challenger" Mayor Susan Dawson (center) took the ring despite stern opposition for her $77.6 million budget. "I feel as though I have done the best possible job given the challenges," she said. Illustration by Leo Pilares, Graphic Design Department
Dawson stands by $77.6 million budget

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

AGAWAM Despite stern opposition from the vice chair of the School Committee and other members of town government, Mayor Susan Dawson told Reminder Publications she is standing by her proposed $77.6 million fiscal year 2009 (FY09) operating budget.

"I feel as though I have done the best possible job given the challenges of creating a balanced budget during difficult fiscal times, where gas prices are rising and the cost of living is increasing by leaps and bounds, while still maintaining services that the Agawam residents deserve," she said.

Dawson noted that in addition to the opposition of the School Department's budget expressed by School Committee Vice Chair Anthony Bonavita and other members at last week's meeting, other questions have also risen, specifically in regard to salary increases for department heads.

"As a School Committee member, my job is to advocate for education," Bonavita said at the School Committee meeting on May 13. "I was displeased to see the budget cut by $181,000 ... it is not something as a School Committee member I can advocate."

Dawson explained that she opted for an increase of 5.45 percent over the School Department's FY08 $32.2 million budget for FY09 as opposed to the 6.02 percent increase endorsed by the School Committee and Superintendent Mary Czajkowski a savings of $181,000.

School Committee member Diane Juzba, also chair of the Finance Committee, said she will be calling another committee meeting to discuss a course of action to advocate for the remaining funds.

"The budget proposed was fiscally responsible and reflected the needs of the students," Czajkowski said. "I would hope that the City Council and the mayor would reconsider [a 6.02 percent increase]."

Dawson explained that while the School Department received only a 5.45 percent increase for FY09, the department is also allocated $544,000 for capital improvements for an autism classroom at the high school, three new classrooms at the middle school and parking lot repairs at James Clark Elementary School. Last year the School Department received $200,000 for capital improvements.

Dawson also noted that salary increases for personnel were negotiated prior to her taking office.

"I am very simply trying to balance what I was left with and have not made any staffing cuts in the minor amount of money that I did not allocate in the school [department's budget]," she said.

The mayor has balanced the budget based on several estimates: a 0.3 percent increase in local aid, a 17 percent increase in Chapter 70 funds, $4.5 million in Lottery money, $4.7 million in local revenue, $350,000 in new growth and also the use of $2 million in free cash. Dawson noted that the proposed budget is not based upon the passage of a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

"As always the aid is never enough to cover the needs and certainly not the wants," Dawson said, adding that decreasing state aid has caused "a huge added burden" for the town of Agawam.

She noted that an increase in the sewer use charge from $2.4 million to $2.8 million will also be necessary to sustain town revenues in FY09 and the function of the service.

Appropriations in FY09 include $150,000 for street repairs, continued weekly trash pickup, continued ambulance service in Feeding Hills, two police cruisers, a School Resource Officer, new highway equipment, funding for the town's Household Hazardous Waste Day, an increase for veterans' services, an increase in property and liability and medical insurances, two new positions for Highway & Grounds and $998,000 for Capital Improvements.

"I haven't voted in favor of a budget yet," City Councilor Cecilia Calabrese, also vice president of the council, said. "I always feel that a budget still needs to be trimmed."

She explained that the council has been divided into three budget committees, who've been allocated one third of the FY09 budget for discussion. Calabrese said each subcommittee will be meeting on several occasions prior to the public hearing of the budget on June 16.