By GAIL LOWE
WAKEFIELD — When former Gov. Deval Patrick made his exit from the State House earlier this month, new Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker may have had an inkling that the $329 million mid-year budget deficit Patrick disclosed in November was an optimistic figure and if this is the case he would have been right.
The figure is actually more than double that amount, Baker stated — $765 million — and cuts that will have to be made could affect every community in the state.
Part of Patrick’s response to the deficit was to issue cuts in local aid but Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio said approval for some line items would have been needed by the Legislature, something that Patrick did not get.
One example is unrestricted local aid.
“Wakefield gets $3 million each year from the state,” said Maio. “In order to cut that, you would have to have Legislature approval.”
Maio is not overly worried, since any cuts would add up to about $32,000.
“The $765 million deficit is not a surprise,” he said. “All signs pointed to a larger deficit (than $329 million). And the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation pointed to a larger deficit, as well.”
On Friday this week, Maio will attend the annual Massachusetts Municipal Association Conference in Boston to hear first-hand what the new governor has to say.
“At the meeting the governor always addresses us and talks about local and and what it means,” said Maio. “I am anticipating that in Fiscal Year 2015 there may be some cuts in several line items.”
The cuts Maio referred to include a reduction of $2,500 on Charter School Reimbursement (previous budget of $167,106), reduction of $523 on library aid (previous budget $34,909) and reduction of a possible $28,182 on transportation for students enrolled at the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School.
“I’m still working on the impacts of the cuts to reimbursements for METCO, Special Education funding and sewer rate relief will have on the town,” said Maio.
“If these line items were cut, we’d only be looking at less than $32,000,” he continued, adding that the town has reserves to handle the cuts as they happen.
For Fiscal Year 2016, Maio said he is anticipating no increase in state aid. “Everything will be flat from the state,” he said. “However, I do think there may be cuts in other areas like Circuit Breaker funding for Special Education. It worries me.”
Maio commented that as a community, Wakefield is “pretty self-sufficient.”
“I have railed for years about lack of local aid — but in the end it made us stronger.”
Wakefield’s Police Chief Rick Smith spoke this morning on the matter of the state budget deficit and impending cuts issued by the governor and said that usually the first item cut is training.
“Lack of training has a direct impact on local police,” said Smith. “Massachusetts is the 47th or 48th state in the country that is given money for police training. This, despite being a leading state in medicine and technology. In the last eight to 10 years — with the exception of last year — our police training has been reduced.”
Smith said he fully anticipates that if the past is any indicator of the future, then training could be cut further.
He spoke specifically about “in-service training” each new officer must complete. Other trainings such as what is required when responding to domestic violence calls may also be cut, as well as recruit training, which he said is difficult to obtain.
“Recruit training is needed for officers before they go on the streets,” said Smith. “It’s devastating for all of us.”
“People are calling not only for better trained and educated police but for better communities. It’s counter-intuitive as to how they (the Governor) make the cuts. It’s my hope that as a Chief of this very progressive municipal police department we are allowed to continue with the programs we have in place and that we can continue to grow.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen K. Zrike commented that he and school administrators are watching the budget cut issue carefully but said that it is difficult to speculate if there will be any impact.
In a letter to the state’s Beacon Hill delegation from Wakefield’s Board of Selectmen dated Nov. 24, the board chastised Patrick’s middle of the fiscal year cuts and found it galling due to the fact that the state is “flush with a rainy day fund of over $1.2 billion.”
“These cuts are designed to shift the state’s fiscal problems onto communities in the middle of the fiscal year. By slashing education funds that have been promised to reimburse Wakefield for the cost of special education programs, charter schools and the transportation of students, our school department will be forced to shift resources from programs vital to meeting the educational challenges of the 21st century in order to cover costs, which are statutorily placed upon Wakefield and other municipalities. To remove promised money in this manner is unfair.”
The board also pointed out that Patrick had asked the Legislature to cut an additional $25.5 million from Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA), the major municipal aid account that was previously cut by $400 million during the recent recession. Wakefield like most cities and towns relies on Unrestricted Aid to supplement the local tax levy and receipts in providing vital services to our citizens. This reduction in Wakefield could quite simply result in our reducing our public safety responses to our citizens or lead to further reduction in the support of education. Frankly, this destabilization of our budget is unacceptable, particularly where we have relied on the full amount pledged by the State Legislature during the budget process (as promised in the local aid resolution passed earlier this year).
Maio said that with a rainy day fund of $1.2 billion he does not believe that the Legislature will cut unrestricted local aid.
“We do, however, need to be aware of the strain on the School Department, especially in the area of Special Education.”
In his final comments to the Board of Selectmen, Maio said that he was “actually invigorated” to analyze this issue.
“We have spoken about stress management and how we as a town are prepared to handle such an unexpected drop in state aid is an exogenous stress that we must be ready to address,” he said. “I look forward to working through models with the Selectmen and Finance Committee members and our very capable management team over the near future as we meet the challenges ahead.”