Last week the governor announced that the state currently faces a $540 million shortfall in Fiscal Year 2013. He is seeking permission from the legislature to make $225 million in program cuts, using his 9C budget powers. Within those amounts, $28.75 million in cuts are being proposed as reductions to municipal and public education accounts.
As a mayor, I understand that when a new budget goes into effect on July 1, that budget is a living and breathing document that adjusts both positively and negatively by the month and sometimes by the week. If budgets were perfect, there would be no need for managers.
In the past, when the state has seen returns that were better than expected, the governor and the legislature have been generous in redistributing some of those dollars back to cities and towns. It is only fair in challenging times that cities and towns accept their share of reductions to promote the greater good, which is a fiscally strong commonwealth.
The question, in my opinion, is not whether we should reduce but how that reduction should be made and how it should be articulated to the public.
The governor is proposing a reduction in non-education aid accounts. But it should be clear that doesn't mean educational services aren't seeing reductions.
There are two parts of this reduction. The first cut of 1% to non-education funding is about $50,000 for the city of Melrose. That seems fair and proportional, based upon the size of the community and the amount of local aid we receive. The problem I have pertains to other reductions in municipal accounts. I will share with you some of those accounts I am concerned about and why these cuts create an even more burdensome unfunded mandate on cities and towns. These cuts lessen the partnerships that have been formed between state and local government and pass the buck onto taxpayers, ratepayers, and those who use our educational services.
The first is the MWRA debt relief fund. If you followed the water and sewer rate stories in Melrose, you know the MWRA assesses the City of Melrose, and the City in turn bills ratepayers. The largest driving force in increasing rates is the MWRA's debt burden, which as a percentage of its total budget is outrageous. By reducing the contribution to that debt burden, the state simply passes the buck to local cities and towns and ratepayers. That doesn't solve any problem; it simply exacerbates people's feelings toward the MWRA and decreases much needed investment in infrastructure throughout the Commonwealth.
The second is the special education circuit breaker program. Cuts in this program will result in reduction in aid of $40,000. The circuit breaker was created to offset extreme costs for students who require specialized services. Services to one individual might cost over $100,000. We have a legal and moral obligation to provide for these citizens. The fact that the state would then reduce that particular line item with no adjustment in requirements hurts all public school students, regular ed or special ed, and creates further divisions between the district and the parents and students who are entitled to these services.
These types of reductions are also seen in the 9C cuts in veterans benefit reimbursements (which in Melrose are skyrocketing with the return of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq), school based health programs, pre-kindergarten program, and homeless school transportation accounts.
The last reduction is something that has been quite controversial over the years: Charter school reimbursement. The controversy does not come in my opinion with the creation of charter schools, for in Melrose we have fostered a very positive relationship with the Mystic Valley Charter School and have worked with them on many issues. The issue has always been the disproportionate amount of funding taken from the district compared to the average per pupil spending on children within the traditional public school setting. The governor is proposing cuts in charter school reimbursement.
Although there is a reduction in reimbursement, there is not a reduction in the assessment we must pay. That only exacerbates a statewide issue that divides families and divides community. This is not the direction we want to go.
If the state has to reduce local aid, the right approach is to provide us with a dollar figure and allow the local officials to make the decisions themselves. Local government is where the rubber hits the road. As managers, we know which areas we can reduce with the least impact on direct services to citizens and students. None of it is easy, but our jobs aren¹t easy. We are, however, the most knowledgeable, and we have the most accountability and direct contact with our constituents.
Setting up state accounts to help individual subgroups such as veterans, special education students, charter schools, and homeless students, and then taking that money away mid-year, is bad policy. It is unfair to the most challenged in our population and divides the community. The state needs to take an honest and open approach as to what they are reducing and its effects on municipalities. State leaders must work with their partners in local government to reduce costs and maintain expectations, which should always be high.