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Mid-year budget cuts present opportunity

December 10, 2012

Lower-than-projected state tax revenues and continued economic uncertainty forced Gov. Deval Patrick to announce $540 million in mid-fiscal year emergency state budget cuts last week. With legislative approval, Patrick wants to take a sledgehammer to local aid to cities and towns, cutting that fund by 1 percent, or $9 million. The governor is also axing millions of dollars from a host of other state programs that direct money to cities and towns, including Walpole’s famed $750,000 prison mitigation pork. The governor is also cutting a slate of other state programs, while simultaneously ignoring common sense proposals to eliminate waste in the state budget.

Unrestricted local aid is already about $416 million below what it was in FY 2009, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. During Patrick’s first term, according to a WBZ-TV analysis, local aid dropped by a larger percentage than most other areas of the budget, and Patrick has done little to back off from that trend in his so far disastrous second term. That’s why municipal officials across the state are rightly and unsurprisingly protesting the move, calling for the legislature to oppose even more cuts to local aid.

“Tell the governor that cities and towns already gave,” Chicopee Mayor Michael D. Bissonnette told The Springfield Republican last week. “We don’t have any more left to give back.”

So far, Walpole municipal officials haven’t commented publicly about the cuts. But their attitude should not be one of complaint and outrage. This year, Walpole has been extraordinarily fortunate with its finances, hitting quite a few financial windfalls not seen in this town in many years. Overall, it has been a good year and the cuts put only a debt in the town’s budget.

First, let’s have some honest perspective: this governor is no friend of municipal governments and never has been. The governor’s friend in The White House, just re-elected to a second term a month ago, has also done quite a number on our economy, insulting business owners with his “You didn’t build that” comments, and supporting extreme, burdensome regulations and unsustainable spending.

Anybody who follows the news knew that this was going to be a tough year financially, and the coming years are likely to provide little improvement. And despite raising taxes by $1 billion, it should not have surprised anybody that state tax revenues didn’t meet projections, and that Patrick predictably went to the local aid account to find places to cut.

That said, town officials should see the Patrick-Obama cut as an opportunity, rather than a setback.

In an editorial last week, The Boston Globe pointed out that while the local aid cuts are “a tough message for local officials to hear,” there is still plenty of room to cut spending in local governments.

“Local officials [… are … ] quick to object when their local aid is cut,” the editorial read. “Yet they are often slow to craft their own solutions, such as regionalizing services. The mid-year cut is unfortunate and unwelcome. But it should serve as a reminder that the best way for towns to protect local services is to find their own savings.”

It’s not often that I agree with The Boston Globe editorial board, but on this issue they have it right. And that is especially true here in Walpole.

In June, voters passed a mammoth $3 million Proposition 2.5 override. In July, town officials discovered nearly $200,000 in savings within the school budget. In August, town officials announced that free cash was certified at a whopping $3.9 million – one of the largest amounts in years. This year, Town Hall also collected $360,000 in unanticipated state aid, $200,000 from a local developer for field renovations, $200,000 for the sale of the old library, and more than $100,000 in unanticipated permit fees. Times were so good, in fact, that the town hadn’t even found a way to spend its $750,000 prison mitigation pork yet, and only spent $180,000 of last year’s prison mitigation.

In total, the town pocketed almost $10 million of our money this year – not the government’s money – and has cut very little from its budget. Actually, Town Administrator Michael Boynton has announced that the town will move full speed ahead in its capital budget spending plans for next year – complete with a new fire truck purchase and likely several new take home cars and building renovations to go along. Meanwhile, the School Committee is negotiating a new teachers’ contract, but a Walpole Times article about the talks published last week offered no indication that the town has learned its lesson from the last unsustainable teachers contract it approved. Will the Walpole Teachers Association’s outrageously costly “layoff-by-seniority” provision finally be removed from the teachers’ contract, just as so many other teachers unions have been doing?

Rather than complaining about Patrick’s savage cuts to local aid, local officials should see these cuts as a challenge, and an opportunity to be even more fiscally prudent with tax dollars.

One Comment leave one →
  1. John aaronson permalink
    December 26, 2012 10:29 PM

    Sam, if you ever plan to work as a legitimate journalist you should be careful before you go down the road of the Fox News crowd. I am talking specifically here about the taking of the “didn’t build that” comment out of context, and the “extreme, burdensome regulations” nonsense. Remember that Brit Hume and the like are at the end of their careers, and will not need to look for jobs elsewhere. And the extreme end like Dick Morris and Rove have even been kicked off of there as they have proved to be so blatantly misinformed. But as you start out in your career you will be in a bad position if you have already shown to a potential employer that you are willing to distort or just make up information to support your ideology.

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