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Officials await cuts in local aid

Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to impose a midyear cut in local aid is drawing grumbles from local officials, but so far, few cries of alarm.

Patrick announced last week that he will seek approval from the Legislature to cut unrestricted general aid to cities and towns by 1 percent, or $9 million. The cut is part of a plan to erase a projected $540 million deficit for the current fiscal year that has resulted from lower than projected tax collections.

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Billerica Town Manager John C. Curran said the town should be able to weather the $50,000 loss in aid he estimates will result from the cut. But he is not pleased at the timing of the reduction.

“I think it’s a little late in the game to start talking about cuts halfway through the year,” Curran said.

Maureen Lemieux, Newton’s chief financial officer, said, “We are certainly understanding of the governor’s dilemma, and for Newton, we believe the impact of the reduction will be minimal,” estimating the city would lose $49,000 in unrestricted aid.

“It’s unfortunate but it’s not unprecedented when revenue shortfalls have occurred with the state,” said Peter Morin, chief of staff to Braintree Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan. He said the town’s responsibility is to “meet the challenge rather than pointing a finger of blame.”

Municipal leaders said that coupled with $29 million in other cuts that directly affect municipalities — including for special education, regional school transportation, and homeless student transportation — the reductions in unrestricted aid will only sharpen the financial pinch that many cities and towns alreadyface.

Patrick said he would cut $225 million, or 1 percent, from executive branch agencies, which would yield a net savings of $157 million when factoring in federal revenue losses. He plans to seek legislative authority to tap $200 million from the state’s rainy day fund and to make $34 million in other cuts, including the $9 million in local aid. The remainder of the budget gap would be closed through other savings, reserves, and anticipated revenues.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his group is asking lawmakers to reject the proposed cut “because communities are already doing their part” by shouldering the $29 million in other cuts and have absorbed $416 million in cuts to unrestricted aid since 2008.

“I certainly understand the governor’s dilemma and motivation. But given the fact that our budget is locked in stone . . . it just becomes very difficult for a community to react halfway through the year,” said Robert J. Halpin, Framingham’s town manager.  

Halpin said that while the town is not happy with the possible cuts, reductions in other areas — notably those affecting the schools — would have an even greater impact.

Needham Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said of greater concern than the approximately $15,000 loss in unrestricted aid to the town are funding cuts to special education, veterans benefits, and police training.

“We have a projected revenue shortfall this fiscal year and we need to solve it and make sure we are living within our fiscal means,” Jay Gonzalez, the state’s administration and finance secretary, said in a telephone interview.

“We are trying to solve it in a way that minimizes the impact as much as possible, and in part we are doing that by asking all our partners to share in the impact.”

Gonzalez noted that even after all the cuts this year, the support the state provides cities and towns this year is up $370 million over the level when Patrick took office in 2008.

He said in the past fiscal year alone, cities and towns also raised or saved more than $400 million through new tools provided to them by the state.

But some municipal leaders maintain that the cuts to cities and towns could have been avoided by better budget planning at the state level.

“They saw an uptick in revenues and they loaded up the operating budget prematurely, and now we are in a position where we have to cut,” said Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

“I’m certainly disappointed the revenue estimates assumed by the state would not be sufficiently conservative to handle the current economy we’re in,” said Andrew Maylor, North Andover’s town manager.  

Gonzalez said the need for midyear cuts was the result of economic growth — and resulting revenues — lagging behind what not only the state but economists had predicted.

Melrose Mayor Robert J. Dolan called it “disingenuous” for the administration to present the local aid cut as a 1 percent reduction when it is “proposing reductions that are far more than 1 percent.”

Other officials were less critical.

“I think we have to share in the pain. I’d rather not have it, but state revenues are down and I guess we all have to do a little bit,” said Beverly Mayor William F. Scanlon Jr.  

“I’m not going to criticize the tough choices the governor has to face. What I’m hopeful for is that the revenues can hold sufficiently that he doesn’t have to go through with the cuts,” said Amesbury Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer III.  

“I am disappointed, but when you read about revenue projections not meeting the actual revenue collections, you know at some point in time you are likely going to face a cut,” said Brockton Mayor Linda M. Balzotti. “I had hoped it wouldn’t impact local aid, but clearly it’s going to do so.

“We will try to find ways to cut and control [costs] so we don’t have any midyear layoffs to make up for that revenue,” Balzotti said of the $177,000  she estimates Brockton would lose in unrestricted aid.

Quincy would be able to absorb the $160,000 the city estimates it would lose in unrestricted aid, according to Christopher Walker, spokesman for Mayor Thomas P. Koch.  

“By the same token,” he said, “I think every mayor would suggest to our friends at the state [level] that we should be thinking about increasing local aid and not cutting it.”

John Laidler can be reached at jlaidler@globe.com.
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