State aid cuts to town could top $800k

With the state economy deteriorating and bad vibes emenating from Beacon Hill, folks here in Belmont have been waiting for news of further cuts to state aid for months. Now Rep. Will Brownsberger says that pre-release figures from Gov. Deval Patrick’s office suggest that Belmont could be looking at a 10% cut in state aid, totalling more than $800,000.

In an e-mail to constituents, Brownsberger said that Patrick’s office had shared figures with state legislators for his FY 2010 budget that shows him keeping Chapter 70 funding level. (Chapt 70 provides state aid to pulbic elementary and high schools.) However, Brownsberger points out that cuts to other aid to towns could have the effect of draining funds from schools anyway, as towns like Belmont, Cambridge and Arlington move money around between the school and town budgets  to cover losses.

Rather than cutting funds from Chapter 70, Patrick is targeting what he terms “Unrestricted Municipal Aid,” a catchall category that comprises Lottery and Lottery Supplement fund and “additional assistance.”

Reductions in state money to Belmont year over year (including Chapter 70) will be almost 11 percent, or $802,265, Brownsberger estimates. Increases to meals and rooming taxes that Patrick is pushing will take away some of the pain, but Brownsberger estimates a net loss of 6.5% or $482,968 in 2010, even with the tax increases figured in.

(By comparison, Brownsberger estimates Arlington and Cambridge’s hit to be even larger:  Arlington is looking at a 17% ($2,695,615) cut in total state aid in 2010 , 10% after the tax increases are figured in ($1,567,147). Cambridge faces a whopping 21.2% ( $7,633,144) cut in aid that would drop to 10%  ($3,605,401) after the meals and rooming tax increases are figured in (gotta love all those restaurants).

Will points out that there’s plenty of game left to play in the budget process and that things are just getting rolling. Depending on how the economy shapes up in the second half of 2009, the picture could get a bit brighter.

Another big unknown is the impact of the Federal stimulus package on the states, especially around issues like spending on schools and capital expenses. As the New York Times reported on Wednesday, the Obama Administration’s stimulus plan would send a “flood” of money from Washington to the states, much of it earmarked for education. Those funds could help offset or even erase the kinds of cuts Gov. Patrick (need we note: a close friend of the new President) is weighing. Cross your fingers!

Alternatives for towns facing cuts to libraries?

WBUR aired an interesting piece on this morning by (former Globe reporter) Sacha Pfeiffer on the dire circumstances facing Bay State libraries in this down economy. In the piece Pfeiffer profiled our next door neighbor, Arlington, where individual donors had stepped in with funding to preserve abbreviated Sunday library hours, at least through May. A couple things ran through my mind:

  • First — that, in the absence of an override, Belmont residents should expect that cuts — possibly deep ones – are going to be proposed for FY 2010. We’ve already seen the Benton Branch closed after more than seven decades as a branch library. Don’t expect that this will be the end.
  • That the Belmont Public Library and The Friends of Belmont Public Library may need to be more vocal in their appeals to the community to maintain vital services. If Arlington can raise funds in a pinch to preserve critical services, Belmont should take note. Frankly, this I hate the idea of this, as its really just an encouragement for people to enjoy town services that they don’t then have to pay for. A small cadre of generous residents in Arlington keep the library open on Sunday, but folks who turn their nose up at paying to keep the library open still enjoy its services during those hours. It’s unfair and — like deficit spending– just hides the real impact of the failure to address the revenue side of things.
  • Will Obama ride to the rescue? Libraries have figured prominently in a lot of stimulus talk. And for good reason. As the WBUR story makes clear: in a bad economy, people rely on their libraries more, not less. Netflix subscriptions go out the window as do Amazon.com habits. Moreover, jobless workers can use the magazines, computers and job related resources at public libraries to buff up their resumes. We don’t know yet how much federal money might be available for things like preserving library operations, but let’s hope that some money gets earmarked to preserve these vital community institutions. Belmont’s main branch is packed whenever I visit on the weekend or after work hours. This is an incredibly important resource for Belmont and we’ll all need to come together to make sure it can still serve the community.

School Budget cuts would mean layoffs and fewer, larger classes

The Belmont School Committee met Tuesday evening to discuss budget options for FY 2010 and possible cuts to school programs in the event that the town does not pass an operational override to patch a structural deficit in the town’s budget and make up for lost local aid from the state.

First the good news: The town has finally completed federally mandated safety changes to the drain at the High School’s Higginbottom pool, which is open again for public use.

In other good news, generous parents have donated $10,000 to the Wellington School for use towards the purchase of technology.

Now for everything else:

School Committee kicked off Tuesday’s meeting with a discussion of the decision by  Butler Elementary principal Bruce McDonald to leave his position. The School Committee will be meeting with the faculty and parents to gauge their response and start talking about a replacement.

Much of the rest of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of possible cuts to school programs for FY 2010. For parents interested in voicing concerns about the budget, there will be a public forum to discuss the school budget on February 4th in the Chenery Auditorium. Residents and, especially, Town Meeting members are especially invited to attend.

The School Committee made clear that, on the town’s current fiscal course, deep cuts to school programs will be inevitable in FY 2010.  Some of the worst case scenarios include:

  • Elimination of elective courses at the High School level (creative writing and public speaking were mentioned)
  • Elimination of AP courses (such as Latin) at the High School
  • The elimination of JV sports
  • The elimination of elementary science education
  • Steep cuts across the board in spending for supplies and book purchases
  • Curtailing or loss of laboratory science courses
  • Steep increase in use fees for all sports