Medford mayor approves budget after council threatens his salary

It was a brazen act of political blackmail that finally got the mayor of Medford back on track at 12:45 p.m. on June 29 to broker a deal with the city council that would see the city’s $201 million budget for the 2023 financial year adopted unanimously.

But Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn only returned after city council voted to cut the legal services item by $86,100: the cost of the retainer for consultant KP Law, and $202 $887 from the position that funds the executive office: its salary and staff.

The cut was offered by Councilor Kit Collins who suggested it was a ‘last chance to defend council’s priorities’ and hoped the move would ‘galvanize the mayor to negotiate with council to change the budget proposed to include funding for board priorities”.

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That, and every councilor’s promise at the meeting that they would vote against the budget.

It was a futile victory for the mayor.

It is true that the funds to pay the provision for KP Law have been restored, as have the cuts in the budget line financing his office.

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But councilors asked the mayor to restore $300,000 that had been cut from the school’s budget, a cut that resulted in the pink slip of about two dozen staff earlier in the month. Additionally, $90,000 was added to fund weekend staffing of the new library, $85,000 for an assistant city attorney who would focus on council priorities, and $15,000 for the new election commission.

Council secures funds for legal counsel

The board also accepted the mayor’s budget addendum tabled earlier that evening to add $60,000 to the library budget and $50,000 for the technical and legal services board.

Funds will be taken from the facilities maintenance and repair budget and reimbursed later in the year through an appropriation of “free cash” or cash in reserve.

Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn

“It doesn’t solve anything long-term or short-term,” Councilor Justin Tseng noted after the dust settled and the council voted to approve the budget, hours before the June 30 deadline. His fellow lawmakers agreed.

However, they noted it was “a step in the right direction”.

Veteran councilor George Scarpelli chided the mayor, reminding him that when she sat with them behind the railing as councilor she would not have tolerated these same shenanigans that the current council endures.

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“We should sit down together, collaborate, share our success,” Mayor Scarpelli urged, adding that collaboration could lead to “great things.” He noted the frustrations the council feels when it is not respected by the mayor and his staff.

Georges Scarpelli

“We ask questions, over and over again, and get no answers,” Scarpelli said. Other communities have collaborative executive and legislative branches that work together to find solutions to problems.

“But there are no give-and-takes, the body is looked down upon every time,” Scarpelli said. “We’ve been asking for information for years and it’s falling on deaf ears.”

Late budget process due to lack of CFO

Councilor Adam Knight reminded the mayor that council established its budget priorities in the spring, “seven or eight weeks ago”, when it demanded to start the budget review process. Requests which, according to the advisers, fell on deaf ears.

There were two non-negotiables: funding for teachers and funds for a dedicated attorney to address board concerns about issues that arise at meetings.

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Lungo-Koehn took responsibility for the delay in preparing the budget; blaming the absence of a CFO and the time spent finding and hiring a replacement. Accounting errors have plagued the budget process, in part due to the lack of financial expertise and a true ongoing accounting process, both of revenues and expenses and the amount of federal ARPA funds allocated to the city. .

The city’s former chief financial officer, Aleesha Nunley Benjamin, resigned in July 2021, after finalizing the FY22 budget, amid allegations of racism and being in a hostile work environment. She has since filed a complaint against Medford with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), a complaint that is still pending.

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The bickering started early, with the council questioning the funding allocated to KP Law. He also took Lungo-Koehn to task over the lack of funds to keep the new Charlotte and William Bloomberg Medford Public Library open over summer weekends.

The board lamented the stripped-down budget presented for approval, calling the spending document flawed and a “structural deficit”.

“Medford deserves better,” was the council’s consensus: better services, more funds for repairing roads and sidewalks, top-notch schools. Residents agreed; and many in attendance and speaking in public have suggested a revision of the charter to balance the balance of power in the city. Some also endorsed circumventing the 2.5% budget cap and opting for a tax waiver.

ARPA funds to rehire furloughed teachers

The council asked for an accounting of funds allocated to the city, money spent, and money in reserve from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). After all, the city hired a federal funds manager: Molly Kivi, who reported that the city allocated $23 million of the $48 million lump sum to revenue replacement and budget stabilization and spent $643,000 from the allowance.

Now, an additional $300,000 will be used to fund the teacher salaries portion of the current budget.

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Council Vice Chairman Isaac B. “Zac” Bears hammered the mayor on key points: specifically what the council wanted to see in the budget. He called the timing “unacceptable”.

“It’s the last minute, the last day,” Bears said.

The board also asked the city to provide it with a list of unfair labor practice lawsuit and complaint settlements. The request came after Steven South, vice president of the United Brotherhood of Teamsters, the business agent for many of the city’s bargaining units, presented councilors with a large package of documents detailing the unions’ lawsuits and grievances. Included was a $475,000 settlement of a federal lawsuit.

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Another settlement, paid by KP Law, totaled $137,000. This amount was not included in the budget; however, the administration requested a year-end fund transfer to cover the amount. The settlement involved personnel issues, according to Chief of Staff Nina Nazarian, speaking on behalf of the mayor.

Where does the money go?

As council discussed cutting funding to KP Law, questioning why an outside firm was needed when the city was paying an in-house lawyer for legal advice, the mayor pointed to the need for a firm with expertise in many areas municipal law.

“We need a special advocate for special issues,” Lungo-Koehn said.

Part of the KP Law bill includes hiring private investigators, the mayor said, to help identify and root out corruption in the city. She cited instances of racism and jobs not showing up, employees clocking in and disappearing for their shift.

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“Please allow me to do my job,” Lungo-Koehn pleaded.

Nazarian reminded the board that these were personnel matters and therefore confidential.

Scarpelli responded, suggesting the information could be shared without naming names or compromising employee privacy and reputation.

“We can’t allow the administration not to meet with us to tell us where the money is being spent,” Scarpelli said.

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As the night wore on, many teachers got up to tell the board about COVID-19-induced fatigue, the need to “do more with less” and how the administration’s praise resonates when it doesn’t. there is no increase to support it.

A kindergarten teacher works in both education and catering, serving tables and making drinks at a local restaurant three nights a week. She told the board that her students sometimes saw her working and encouraged tutors to tip well.

Work for a living wage, no mercy tips

“I don’t want their pity tips,” she said. She would prefer a living wage.

In the end, the council acknowledged that it had engaged in political maneuvering, but said it was the tool it had in the toolbox to effect change.

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“No one respected the council enough to believe they would vote against the budget,” Knight said. “In the past 20 years, this is the first time I’ve seen the board freeze on an issue, the need for the body to have its own legal counsel.”