A plan by legislators to boost state support for cities and towns next year is drawing a mixed response from area municipal leaders, with some applauding the added help but others saying it falls short of what is needed, especially when it comes to public schools.
The House and Senate both adopted a resolution that calls for school aid to rise by $99.5 million and unrestricted general government aid to increase by $25 million in fiscal 2015, an overall increase of $124.5 million in the two key local aid accounts. Governor Deval Patrick had proposed the same increase in school aid but no increase for general government aid.
Melrose would see increases of $101,597 in school aid and $123,138 in general government aid. But Mayor Robert J. Dolan said he is disappointed, noting that the increase is significantly offset by an expected steep rise in tuition charges for students attending charter schools. Those charges would increase by a net $133,985.
Tuition charges are assessed against school districts for local students attending charter schools. The costs are partially reimbursed by the state.
“I understand the challenges the state faces. What I don’t understand is that revenues are at a historic high now . . . but that doesn’t seem to be reciprocated in terms of increased aid,” Dolan said.
“You can’t have Proposition 2½ and not have revenue sharing,” Dolan said of the property tax limitation law. “You are setting up localities for disaster.”
But Salem Mayor Kimberley L. Driscoll said she is content with the local aid figures for her city, which call for school aid to rise $352,168 and general government to go up $165,634.
“It’s an increase over last year. Obviously we all have needs and it’s always helpful when it’s higher but . . . I understand the struggle and the balancing act they have,” she said of lawmakers and the governor.
Driscoll said Salem continues to benefit from the added tools the state provided cities to bolster their finances, including a new law allowing municipalities to make cost-cutting changes to their health plans without union approval. She said Salem would welcome similar help in addressing the costs of infrastructure and providing health and other nonpension benefits to retirees.
John Robertson, legislative director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said that the Legislature’s willingness to provide local aid figures early in the year is welcomed by cities and towns because it allows them to better plan their budgets.
He said the association is still getting feedback from cities and towns. But he anticipates many of them will advocate for higher school aid, which would mean guaranteeing all districts more than the proposed $25-per-pupil minimum increase in aid.
Mayor Michael McGlynn said the increases proposed for Medford — $158,438 for school aid and $291,246 for general aid, fall short of the city’s needs. McGlynn said the net $457,502 rise in charter school tuition is largely wiping out the gains.
Robertson said the state has a formula for reimbursing school districts for charter school tuition costs. But he said the $75 million the Legislature allotted this year was $28 million less than what would be needed to fully meet the formula. He said the gap would increase to an estimated $29 million under the governor’s fiscal 2015 budget.
McGlynn said he is hoping the Legislature will double the minimum in school aid to $50 per student to help offset the charter school charges. “What we are getting isn’t a lot of money in terms of the increased costs in the school budget — it’s very minimal,” he said.
Chelsea would see its school aid rise by $3.04 million and its general government aid up $197,198. But City Manager Jay Ash said the resources are not enough, noting that even the added school aid does not cover the cost increases needed to keep pace with rising enrollments and to continue improving the schools.
Ash said that, although helpful, the tools the Legislature has provided to help cities and towns — such as allowing for a local meals tax and a higher hotel/motel tax — are just a “Band-Aid” for the chronic revenue shortage they face.
Malden would see a $283,789 increase in school aid and a $301,237 rise in general government aid.
“The figures are not what we had hoped for and will result in significant fiscal challenges for Malden,” Mayor Gary Christensen said by e-mail. “Compounding the problem is that we are faced with the struggle between limited revenue streams and the rising costs of providing quality services such as in education and public safety.”
But Mayor James J. Fiorentini said he was satisfied with the added money Haverhill would receive — school aid would rise $965,058 and general government aid $235,984.
“We feel the House and Senate came through and improved over the governor’s budget. We think they did a good job,” he said.
In Everett, Mayor Carlo DeMaria is also voicing no complaints with the local aid numbers for his city — school aid is up $5.6 million and general government aid is up $165,881.
“I’m happy to see our Chapter 70 local aid numbers increase,” he said in a prepared statement. “Everett is facing a significant increase in student population, and this will help reduce the burden on our schools in fiscal year 2015 so that we can continue to give Everett children the education they deserve.
“I am also pleased to see an increase in unrestricted local aid,” DeMaria said, adding, however, that “with current issues that municipalities are facing, such as [nonpension employee benefits] and infrastructure concerns, it is essential that we have the governor’s continued support in the coming years.”
Lawrence would see its school aid go up $10.09 million and its general government aid by $471,440.
Mayor Daniel Rivera said he was appreciative of the additional school funding but said the added general government money, while welcome, was below what the city needs.
During the economic downturn, “We lost a lot of unrestricted state aid. That’s the primary reason why our police department staffing is so low,” he said. “So we are happy to get the half million . . . but we are far from where we were before the Great Recession.”