Two years after community organizations called for Worcester police department funds to be diverted back to the community, the city’s proposed budget includes a $2.4 million bump to the department’s budget.
Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. has submitted a proposed fiscal 2023 budget of approximately $778 million to City Council, including a $5.5 million increase for the public safety budget.
Augustus’ proposed budget is a $14.3 million or 2% increase over the current year budget.
The city manager also submitted a recommended FY23 Capital Improvement Plan to City Council, which includes a total borrowing of $150 million. Of that, $60.8 million is related to school construction projects.
The proposed increases in public safety’s budget contrasts the current year budget which saw public safety spending increase by just 0.6%, with the Worcester police budget increasing by only $600.
The primary drivers of the increase in the public safety budget are the additional resources for the Worcester Fire Department budget, according to Chief Financial Officer Tim McGourthy.
The recommended police budget is $55,189,137 compared to current year $52,767,291 FY22 approved budget.
The $2.4 million increase includes increased salaries from adding four sergeants and six police officers and other increases in salary due to promotions and cost of living adjustments.
Save for a handful of city executives, Worcester police salaries are largely the highest on the city payroll. Of the city’s 100 highest-paid employees, 192 work for the police department.
The additional sergeants and officers will help implement a “community-based policing focus,” according to McGourthy.
The department isn’t the only one receiving cost of living adjustments. The FY23 budget includes a 2.75% cost of living adjustment for all employees.
Augustus said the “Great Resignation” has impacted Worcester like every other employer.
The police department also saw an increase because of the proposed body camera program.
The body-camera program, if implemented, would include 300 body-worn cameras, with an additional 160 body cameras needed to outfit the entire department.
The cameras, along with an order of TASERS, will cost the city $3,973,484 paid out over five years, according to Augustus.
The near-level funding of the police budget for the current year came after dozens of community members called into budget hearings in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hadns of Minneapolis police, to demand cuts from the police department budget.
In June 2020, the council approved an FY 2021 budget that included a quarter-million-dollar increase for the police department, despite protests in the city calling to defund the department and divert funds back into the community.
“The city council ignored four hours of public comment and the voices of hundreds of Worcester residents who called and emailed expressing their opposition to this budget. We are disappointed but not surprised,” Defund WPD, a group working to advocate for the reallocation of police funds, wrote in a statement at the time.
After weeks of residents expressing concerns about where budget funds were going, Defund WPD said, “the city council decided to value policing over people.”
Augustus said the expansion of the police department’s operations in FY23 is to provide “a more neighborhood based approach, with a geographic focus that will build understanding and relationships between officers and the communities they serve.”
He said new technologies like the body cameras will be used to ensure the city has the tools to analyze and adapt behavior so that both police and residents remain safe and that questions and concerns can be addressed quickly and without bias.
Public safety costs account for $108.8 million or 14% of the city’s proposed budget.
The most important investment in the proposed budget, according to Augustus, is the “expansion and restructuring of the Worcester Fire Department.”
The city has not kept pace with the needs of the department, he said.
“We are an old city, with older buildings, older equipment and older ways of doing things,” Augustus said, “At the urging of this City Council, we have focused and redirected the WFD with new resources and insights gained from national strategies and modern policies.”
The proposed budget for the fire department is $45,535,675 compared to the $42,420,212 current-year budget.
The $3.1 million increase will include recruiting two new groups of thirty firefighters in August 2022 and February 2023, a Fire Captain and two Deputy Chief positions.
Funding was also added for consultant work, portable radios, equipment maintenance costs, chemical supplies and a required funding match for an Assistance to Firefighters grant.
The resources for the department are essential, according to McGourthy, to address the challenges raised in the 2021 “Master Plan – Community Risk Assessment: Standards of Cover” completed by Emergency Services Consulting International.
The department’s goals for the year including maintaining its fleet of vehicles by ensuring that no more than 22 vehicles are overdue for replacement and conductive maintenance on all apparatus and vehicles to reduce downtime by 25%.
The department also has an initiative for a gear replacement plan that ensures no less than 100% of gear meets standards.
The FY23 capital budget includes a request for loan authorizations for $7.7 million to purchase new and replacement equipment for police, fire and inspectional services.
The police department evaluated 10 marked and 10 unmarked police vehicles and found they are in fair to poor condition and should be taken out of service and replaced. Another 15 marked vehicles are rated at fair to poor condition.
The department is also looking to obtain a Boston Whaler and trailer to “address the growing needs of those Worcester Police officers and officials assigned to marine patrols each boating season.”
The fire department is looking to replace three engines and two ladder trucks.
The majority of the increase in the proposed operating budget is going towards education, with a $27.8 million increase in its budget. Other increases include $8.7 million in fixed costs and the increase in public safety.
Augustus said the operating and capital improvement budgets, “have been constructed as we seek to move beyond the impacts of COVID-19 and accommodate the City’s economic resurgence, unprecedented population growth and rising standard of living.”
This budget cycle will mark Augustus’s last as city manager. He’ll be leaving the position at the end of May, but he offers an optimistic yet cautious view of the coming fiscal year.
“The current fiscal year has illustrated the potential for normalcy for the City’s finances,” Augustus said, “State revenues are roaring back, property values continue their rise and local revenues are meeting or exceeding budgets. Real estate investment continues apace, with new construction especially in housing and life sciences.”
However, the threat of COVID still remains, with outbreaks and the fear of new strains, Augustus said.
“We continue to struggle against aging infrastructure, out-date-technologies, institutional inequities and the impact of limited resources on comprehensive services to our neighborhoods,” he said.
Education accounts for the lion’s share of the proposed operating budget at 57.7% or $448.7 million.
The city is expected to receive $322.6 million in state aid for education costs.
The majority of capital improvement funds going towards education, $64.8 million, will be going to the construction of the new Doherty Memorial High School. The project is $23 million over budget due to increased costs in materials.
Some of the funds will go towards the final elements of South High Community School, the roof replacement project at Worcester Arts Magnet School and accessibility and code compliance upgrades at the Challenge & Reach Academy.
Other areas the Capital Improvement budget looks at are maintaining and improving city buildings, $18 million; borrowing for Public Works activities, $14.1 million; and various parks projects, $8.3 million.
The parks projects include investments in Greenhill Park, Foley Stadium and Burncoat Park. The operating budget also includes two new foreman positions for the parks.
Ensuring a healthy community is listed as a goal of the operating budget, which in addition to improving the built environment includes adding capacity to better help those afflicted with homelessness and drug use.
“These dual tragedies are all too common in our city, and the recent settlements of national opioid lawsuits offer the City a funding stream to increase the homeless coordinator position to full-time, add capacity to the Commissioner of HHS to work on the opioid epidemic, and adds supports in Public Health for maternal & child health as well as regional coordination,” Augustus said.
With the majority of Worcester residents renting their properties- the city of 206,000 residents has an estimated 50,000 rental units, the city will also look at creating a Rental Registry.
The registry would allow the city to hire five new inspectors to assess rental properties for health and safety violations.
“It would hold bad landlords accountable and endure that households across the income spectrum are guaranteed safe, livable conditions,” Augustus said.
In a letter to the city council, Augustus said it is bittersweet to submit his last budget in the role, but he is grateful for the council’s input and looks forward to seeing the proposed investments, “build a strong foundation for the ongoing development of the City and its neighborhoods.”
Augustus will be discussing the proposed FY2023 operating budget and the capital improvement plan budget at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.