LOWELL — The City Council approved a $417.7 million city budget with no amendments Tuesday night.
"This budget is a reflection of the stability the city has," Councilor Rodney Elliott said.
The decision came amid a finance heavy meeting, which also saw the approval of $25.2 million in city spending on capital projects during Fiscal Year 2020 — the first year in a five-year plan.
The City Council also approved two loan orders for a total of $112 million.
They fund ten years of projects to improve water and wastewater infrastructure.
The projects fulfill a negotiated agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the number of water pipes with suspected lead, to address unreliable water transmission lines, to reduce sewer discharges into waterways and to increase storage for water.
The approved Fiscal Year 2020 budget is $19.3 million greater than last year's proposed operating budget, due to rising recycling, charter school and health insurance expenses, among other costs.
It is funded by a just over two percent property tax increase, under the two and a half percent cap. In this plan, property taxes for the owner of an average priced home, about $289,000, would increase by $92.68 next year.
City officials said funding for departments will remain roughly level with the current year.
Several City Councilors praised the approved budget as lean and the budget document as informative.
"I'm very happy with the budget this year and kudos to the team who put this together," Councilor James Milinazzo said.
Elliott said he is happy to see the city's AA- credit rating remain stable. Property values have also increased in the city from $7.7 million last year to $8.2 million this year, a sign of a good economy, he said.
Elliott said he is concerned by the projected pension costs, in a forecast he described as "bleak."
Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin said pensions and other post employment benefits, or OPEB, continue to be large expenses, which the city is allocating money toward. The city is on-track to pay off OPEB by 2036, he said.
Councilor Rita Mercier asked why fifteen police department positions are empty. City Manager Eileen Donoghue said the vacancies are mostly due to retirements and the city is working to fill these positions through the police academy.
Councilor David Conway called the budget "lean," but urged the city to continue to find ways to "stretch the taxpayer's dollar."
"We need to concentrate and explore ideas collectively that will save money for the city," he said.
Councilor John Leahy urged prioritizing efficiency, especially in the Department of Public Works, and referred to an earlier motion he made asking for reorganization of the department.
"I want to make sure that we're still focusing on efficiency within our departments," he said. He later added: "As we go forward with this reorganization, if you want to work here you have to do your job."
Councilor Ed Kennedy said the school department and the Department of Public Works needs to start working together better.
Donoghue said this year has been difficult for school conditions and though city and school officials have met weekly, most meetings have addressed short-term, emergency situations.
She said city officials plan to meet with the outgoing and incoming superintendent of schools next week regarding long-term planning for school maintenance. The city intends to apply for state funding for school repairs every year, she said.
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