LOWELL -- The City Council unanimously approved a $333.98 million budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 that will increase the city's property-tax levy by 3.5 percent.
The spending plan proposed by City Manager Kevin Murphy for fiscal 2015 was approved by the council, 9-0, without any cuts being made to either the general or enterprise funds. One proposed cut to spending on legal services was defeated.
The tax-levy increase follows two years in which the levy, not including new growth, remained stable.
Murphy said the tax increase was needed to address budgetary challenges, such as rising pension costs, while funding City Council priorities.
The budget funds five new police officers and includes a $2.9 million, or 20 percent, increase to the city's direct contribution to city schools, which is part of the city's plan to eliminate its multi-million dollar net-school-spending deficit.
The budget relies on $452,338 from the city's general stabilization fund, which Murphy said he plans to replenish when free cash becomes available next fiscal year. The budget also depends on a 7 percent sewer rate increase.
Several city councilors praised Murphy for his work on his first budget proposal since becoming city manager in mid-April.
"I think it was a very commendable first effort," City Council Bill Martin said.
Councilor Ed Kennedy agreed, though he encouraged Murphy and his administration to further review projected revenues to see if any tweaks could be made in hopes of reducing the tax-levy increase.
"I think that the City Council did a great job," Murphy said afterward. "They understood the challenges we faced and made the appropriate votes."
Mayor Rodney Elliott was the only councilor to propose a reduction, making a motion to cut the proposed $25,000, or 14 percent increase, in the Law Department "professional services" line item, which among other things pays for outside legal counsel.
Elliott and Councilor Corey Belanger highlighted their concerns that the city has accrued more than $200,000 in outside attorney fees to defend library employees against legal claims filed by two former library employees.
"Somebody seems to have carte blanche here with taxpayer money," Belanger said, supporting the reduction in the line item from $200,000 to $175,000.
Elliott, Belanger and Councilor Dan Rourke voted for the cut.
Councilors Martin, Kennedy, Rita Mercier, John Leahy, William Samaras, and James Milinazzo were opposed.
Murphy said he supports reducing the reliance on outside attorneys, and announced his decision to have any disciplinary hearings regarding Alyssa Brame's death in a police cell block conducted in-house. Former City Manager Bernie Lynch had chosen a private attorney for those hearings.
Murphy told The Sun that Eric Slagle, the leader of Development Services and an attorney, will be the hearing officer.
In defending the $25,000 professional-services increase, Murphy also pointed to two high-profile cases he anticipates being filed, though he did not divulge which ones they were.
Martin said he saw nothing unreasonable in the requested increase for professional services, which also includes $105,000 for the city physician and nurse-case manager services.
Follow Moran on Twitter @lylemoran.