From struggling cities like Brockton to comfortable suburbs like Walpole, Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to cut unrestricted local aid by $9 million has hit municipal officials like a cold blast of winter weather.
Added to targeted cuts of $28.7 million for local services ranging from special education to school transportation, Patrick’s proposal to trim unrestricted local aid, which can be used for any expense, is leaving many cities and towns with a frustrated sense of “been there, done that, why me” weariness.
“We don’t really have a choice whether or not we accept it,” said Jim Johnson, assistant town administrator in Walpole. “It’s one of those types of things.”
The prospect of losing even 1 percent of local aid, which is what Patrick has proposed for the state’s municipalities, would be enough to send Walpole’s selectmen, school officials, and financial planners scrambling.
“We have everything appropriated down to the last dollar,” said Johnson.
Patrick has defended the proposal as one piece of a broad, balanced approach that trims the state bureaucracy and taps Beacon Hill’s rainy day fund, while asking cities and towns to do their share to close the state’s $540 million budget gap.
“The 1 percent cut is manageable” and should not harm local services, said Jay Gonzalez, the state’s secretary of administration and finance.
Gonzalez pointed out that the executive branch is cutting its budget by 1 percent and that an additional $200 million, for a total of $550 million this fiscal year, will be withdrawn from the state’s rainy day fund to help balance the budget. To withdraw $9 million more from the reserves to preserve all local aid, Gonzalez said, would run counter to the administration’s long-term fiscal strategy.
“If we just forgo those policies or ignore them and deplete our rainy day fund to solve our problems today, trust me, we’ll have bigger problems tomorrow,” Gonzalez said.
Municipal officials counter that their resources only stretch so far and that the state can afford to take $9 million more out of a rainy day fund expected to have $1.2 billion at the end of the fiscal year in June.
“A 1 percent cut halfway through the fiscal year feels like a 2 percent cut,” said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “The point that we’re making is that communities are already doing their part” — because of the impact of the governor’s other, targeted cuts — “but this would force every community to open up their budgets. They can’t raise any more money.”
Beckwith said that cities and towns are already receiving $416 million less in unrestricted local aid this fiscal year, compared with the first year of the Patrick administration.
Gonzalez acknowledged that unrestricted local aid has dropped sharply under Patrick. But he added that all local aid, plus savings through health care reform and new revenue tools such as meals and lodging taxes, is generating $770 million more in annual resources for cities and towns. That difference, Gonzalez said, is an extra $300 million a year for the state’s municipalities.
State Representative John Rogers, Democratof Norwood, said a 1 percent cut would not harm his community, which has healthy reserves. But at the same time, he added, that cannot be said for many other cities and towns.
“I cannot say that the governor is acting imprudently or irresponsibly, but I would have preferred that he waited another 40 days,” said Rogers, former House majority leader.
By that time, Rogers said, lawmakers and Beacon Hill officials will have worked up a state revenue estimate.
After all the number crunching, however, the math nearly always leads to a delicate balancing act in town halls and mayor’s offices across the state.
In Brockton, a 1 percent cut in unrestricted aid would mean a loss of about $177,000, Mayor Linda Balzotti estimated.
“One result will be that I will be very cautious on any kind of additional spending from here on out,” Balzotti said.
The governor’s announcement, she said, “did surprise me, although any time you start to hear a discussion about revenues not meeting expectations, you know there’s a possibility.”
Balzotti said that she is conferring with the city’s chief financial officer and that school officials are starting to gauge the potential impact.
“There might be ways in which we can cut some kind of operational costs,” Balzotti said.