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Deep cuts loom across state

Expenses outpacing revenue and state aid Fewer cities, towns seeking override votes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / April 6, 2008

In Canton, middle school students idle in vast study halls because electives have been pared and teachers have been laid off. In Shirley, selectmen recently removed 103 light bulbs from Town Hall and may switch off some streetlights to reduce electric bills. And in Brookline, where single-family homes regularly fetch $1 million, officials are seeking the first override in 14 years to avoid layoffs and the mothballing of a fire engine.

Across Massachusetts, cities and towns face the prospect of deep cuts in what appears to be the grimmest fiscal year since 2003. Local revenue and state aid can't keep up with such rapidly rising expenses as employee health insurance, heating oil, and even street paving. School costs, like special education requirements, are sapping local budgets. And now beleaguered residents are seeing home values dip even as taxes continue to rise.

Town and city officials face a difficult choice: cut staff and programs, or ask voters to override Proposition 2 1/2 and approve still higher property tax bills. In Beverly, for example, officials tried to avoid a tax hike by drafting a budget that would cut 61 full-time positions and close two elementary schools.

"It's very difficult medicine, and something we'd all rather avoid, but we're on our own," said the city's mayor, William F. Scanlon Jr., an ex officio member of the school board. "The state can't help us, and we have to find a way to live within our means."

In Canton, meanwhile, officials who saw a $3.95 million override fail narrowly last year are trying again this year, asking voters to approve a larger tax increase, about $4.5 million, even as the economy has worsened. The alternative, they worry, could cause services to erode and do long-term harm to the community.

"Things fall apart a lot faster than they're built up," said John Bonnanzio, outgoing chairman of the School Committee. The schools would receive about $3.5 million from the override, which would be spread over three years, to restore some of the past cuts and forestall new ones.

About half of the school districts in Massachusetts are planning some reductions next year, and one in four expect the most visible cuts, like teacher layoffs, program reductions, or steep fee increases, said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

The last statewide budget crisis occurred five years ago, when Mitt Romney slashed local aid to address a deficit in one of his first official acts as governor. At that point, communities had had a decade to recover from the previous recession and reap the benefits of a booming late-1990s economy. But now the communities' budgets haven't caught up to where they were before the last crisis. State aid had increased somewhat in the last few years, but the 351 cities and towns combined this year still receive $566 million less from the state than they did in fiscal 2002, adjusting for inflation, said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

The state budget for next year is unlikely to provide enough aid to towns and cities to avoid widespread local cuts, Beckwith said. Governor Deval Patrick's casino proposal failed, knocking out a potential revenue source. However, his proposed budget includes a local aid boost for schools in the coming year.

Other longer term measures to help cities and towns financially may not be in place to help for the new budget year, which starts July 1. House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, for instance, wants to help communities restrain insurance costs by buying into the plan for state employees without needing local union approval.

Proposition 2 1/2, passed by voters in 1980, puts officials in a bind by capping the increase in a community's annual tax levy at 2.5 percent, not counting taxes on construction and other new growth, though voters can override the limit. But with a looming recession, the same residents who are eschewing home repairs and car purchases may be reluctant to approve overrides.

Last year, 76 towns sought overrides to balance operating budgets, less than half of which passed. About 50 are expected this season, a sign not that fewer face budget problems but that many officials are now resigned to cut without trying overrides, to avoid the divisiveness they often cause. This year, eight communities have sought operating overrides; five have failed.

"More and more communities are going to hit the wall," said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "It's not a pretty picture, and it's going to get worse before it gets better."

Brookline was able to avoid both cuts and overrides for years in part because of new taxes generated from home and condo renovations. The town also increased parking fees and fines, and saved money by making municipal buildings more energy-efficient. This year, though, the town needs a $2.1 million override to balance the budget and prevent cuts, said Betsy DeWitt , a Brookline selectwoman and cochairwoman of the Yes for Brookline override coalition. Add in overdue road and sidewalk maintenance - a backlog that developed during a five-year stretch in which paving costs roughly doubled, she said - and the figure becomes $3.6 million, she said.

Without the money, officials project, the town would have to shed three teachers, four police officers, all school library assistants, the equivalent of 2.8 school social workers, the fourth-grade instrumental-music program, and the use of one of the town's seven fire engines from May through August, among other cuts.

Brookline officials have used the override proposal to add new spending as well as to prevent cuts of current programs. They have presented voters with three choices: no override, a $5.4 million override or a $6.2 million override.

The $5.4 million would avoid cuts and add 20 minutes to the school day, and the more expensive option would do that while also extending foreign-language instruction, currently available at one elementary school, to all elementary schools.

"We in Brookline have people willing to come here and live with one less bedroom so their kids can go to Brookline schools," DeWitt said. "We owe it to those people to keep the standards up."

Roger Blood, cochairman of the Brookline Coalition Against Unfair Taxation, said supporters have unfairly bundled new spending with the package. "They invoked the old override campaign playbook of 'You get an override passed by scaring the dickens out of voters about what will get cut and who will get pink slips,' " he said.

In nearby Newton, the failure of a $12 million override on May 20 could mean the loss of 83 school employees plus cuts to the police, fire, and public works departments, said Jeremy Solomon, a spokesman for Mayor David B. Cohen. The taxes on the median home (valued at $690,800), currently about $6,701, would rise an estimated $165 without the override and $538 with it, said Elizabeth Dromey, the city assessor.

Layoffs would cause some elementary schools to squeeze 28 students in a class, compared with an average of 20 1/2 now, Jeffrey Young, superintendent of the Newton school system, told officials at a presentation in February. It would also mean education cuts at the same time Newton is in the final stages of approving a new high school, the cost of which has ballooned to $197.5 million.

Swampscott, which has about one-sixth the population of Newton, opened a new high school last year at the same time it was closing an elementary school and imposing more than 30 layoffs. More layoffs are needed this year, in part because utility costs for the new high school are $1 million more than the old one, said David P. Whelan Jr., chairman of the School Committee. Swampscott has no appetite for an override, he said, so the school board is cutting instead, with technical education at the high school and band at the elementary school slated to go.

The district still provides a strong education in core college-prep classes at the high school, Whelan said, but cuts and expanded class sizes are eroding the overall school experience.

"We're unable to provide a well-rounded education for kids at this point, and we're not going to be able to do it anytime soon without additional funding," he said.

In Canton, Galvin Middle School principal Thomas LaLiberte said, students who could take art or music every other day a few years ago now have specialty subjects once every six days. Most of the 714 students in the school have at least one unstructured study hall a day, with up to 90 students gathering in the cafeteria at once, he said.

In neighboring Randolph, voters rejected four overrides in recent years, forcing the elimination of dozens of teachers, about half the high school's academic offerings, and most freshman and junior varsity sports.

"With all due respect to our next-door neighbors in Randolph, they're a prime example of what happens when benign neglect sets in," said Bonnanzio, the Canton school official.

But that changed last week, when Randolph voters approved a nearly $5.5 million school question, making the town one of three - along with Dartmouth and Natick - to override Proposition 2 1/2 this year.

Although the money at best will restore staff and program offerings to about three-fourths of what they were five years ago, it's a good start, said Larry Azer, chairman of the School Committee.

"This is the first time I've been on the School Committee and not had to make cuts," said Azer, now beginning his sixth year. "It's kind of a new feeling for me. I like it, though."

Globe correspondent Connie Paige contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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