AMESBURY — The City Council approved Mayor Ken Gray’s $61.3 million operating budget by an 8-1 vote during a contentious meeting Tuesday night.

Councilors Matt Einson, Pam Gilday, Nick Wheeler, Joe McMilleon, Mary Louise Bartley, Donna McClure, Rick Marggraf and Mark Roccograndi all voted to approve the city budget, while Steve Stanganelli cast the dissenting vote.

Fiscal Year 2020 begins on Monday, July 1, and Gray’s new operating budget keeps city services at their current level.

A $32.6 million school budget makes up over half of the city’s operating number.

Although it represents a 2.93 percent increase in spending over last year’s number and adds full-day kindergarten, the school budget still eliminates more than 25 employees, including a dozen paraprofessionals.

Just over 20 residents attended Tuesday’s City Council meeting to voice their disapproval with the school budget.

“This budget, with its cuts to over 25 positions of teachers and staff will likely leave (the Amesbury Public Schools) critically wounded,” former School Committee member Gretchen Marinopoulos said. “We have one of the highest attrition rates of students within the district in the state. This budget will likely only make that worse.”

The school budget was ultimately passed 8-1 with Stanganelli voting against it as well.

“I do not believe this budget represents the values and the best interests of this community,” Stanganelli said.

Wheeler expressed his sympathies for the residents who will be affected by the reduction in school positions but also said he would vote for the operating budget.

“When the budget gets to the City Council, our hands are tied,” Wheeler said. “Even though I would very much like to restore the cuts that have been proposed, I am not legally allowed to do that as a city councilor. We get a budget that is approved by the School Committee, it gets vetted by the mayor who gives us a number. If the School Committee and the mayor agree, that is the number that the City Council is given. We can accept it as it is or we can reduce it.

“The only other alternative would be to vote against it and that would give the schools no money.” Wheeler said. “If we were to do that, we would be giving pink slips to every staff member in the district.”

Gilday echoed Wheeler’s sentiments.

“I’m not going to vote ‘no’ because because I’m not going to give everyone a pink slip,” Gilday said.

McClure defended the school budget.

“We have 300 fewer students in the system,” McClure said. “We can’t keep hiring teachers when you don’t have a student for them.”

Einson further explained his position.

“There have been no secrets about what the mayor’s priorities have been, that is lowering taxes,” Einson said. “This budget is consistent with that. He was elected three times. I think, by this time, people have recognized that, with the reduction of the tax rate, our taxes still go up. So, it is important that you make sure that the administration knows that you will be willing to pay a little bit more money and you will support him if he does raise your taxes a little more.”

The Police and Fire Departments make up the city budget’s second-largest expense at $7.7 million, with the Public Works Department coming in as the third-largest amount, at $2.8 million.

 Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at jsullivan@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.

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