Local communities prepare to absorb mid-year cuts
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NORTHAMPTON — While not thrilled with midyear cuts proposed this week by Gov. Deval Patrick, local municipal leaders say they should be able to handle the reductions without major impacts to their communities.
“We’ll be able to absorb these potential cuts if and when they take place,” Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz told the City Council Thursday.
With state officials already talking about cuts caused by less-than-expected revenue figures halfway through the fiscal year, Narkewicz called Patrick’s announcement a “harbinger” for fiscal 2014.
“This is probably not a good sign,” he said.
Easthampton Mayor Michael A. Tautznik is not surprised by the mid-year cuts, which will hit the schools in his city the most.
“We’ll be able to absorb it in our (city) budget,” Tautznik said. “It won’t mean any reductions in staff or services. We just have to live within our means.”
Patrick ordered spending cuts Tuesday across state government to close a projected $540 million budget hole that he said is caused by the economic uncertainty of the looming “fiscal cliff.” The governor said he would use his authority under state law, known as 9C powers, to cut executive branch spending by $225 million. That’s about 1 percent of each agency’s budget.
Many of those agencies funnel money to municipalities for various programs, including veterans’ benefits, charter school reimbursement, a special education circuit breaker program and homeless student transportation account.
Patrick also announced he would ask the Legislature to approve a similar 1 percent reduction, or $9 million, in unrestricted local aid to cities and towns. These cuts would need approval from the legislature.
Northampton stands to lose about $45,700 with the 9C cuts Patrick has already ordered. This includes $25,700 for the special education circuit breaker program, $15,700 veteran’ benefits reimbursements and $4,200 in charter school reimbursements.
Should the Legislature approve the local aid cuts, the city would lose another $37,700. The combined impact of all cuts to the city would be nearly $82,900. Narkewicz said the local aid cut might have a tough time getting past the Legislature based on conversations he’s had with local legislators.
Northampton School Superintendent Brian Salzer announced Wednesday he is freezing the school budget and current staffing levels. New hires and replacement positions can only be made with Salzer’s approval.
In a memo to all school employees, Salzer said there is the potential of a “worse case scenario” of an overall 8 percent to 10 percent reduction in this year’s budget.
“A budget freeze at this time of year is not uncommon; it is a prudent measure to ensure that even with budget cuts looming, we are in control of our current expenditures,” Salzer wrote.
The 9C cuts will have minimal effect in Amherst, but a $9 million cut in unrestricted state aid would mean a $71,000 loss for the town’s general government budget, as well as additional impacts for schools, said Finance Director Sanford “Sandy” Pooler.
Pooler said town and school officials are waiting to see how the Legislature responds, likely after Jan. 1. “It’s still very much up in the air if this cut will happen,” Pooler said.
If the cut does occur for general government aid, Pooler said town officials will find ways to minimize the impact to the public in services by three means: locating additional revenue in this year’s budget, holding back expenditures or asking annual Town Meeting next spring to appropriate cash reserves or stabilization money to close gaps.
“We certainly don’t like having mid-year cuts. It’s not a practice we want to encourage the state to do,” Pooler said.
The budget, including schools, is $66 million, with the town portion about $19 million, Pooler said.
Patrick’s proposal doesn’t affect the fiscal 2014 budget proposal, which Town Manager John Musante will release Jan. 16, based on requirements of the Town Government Act.
Musante Monday struck a confident tone that projections for next year’s state aid, made in October, will still be realized.
“I really don’t see it being cut at this point,” Musante said.
In Easthampton, Tautznik isn’t so sure. He expects legislators to OK Patrick’s suggested cut to unrestricted local aid, which would mean about $23,000 less for the city’s budget. He said the city can squeeze that small amount out of its $33 million budget.
“It’s been worse; the cuts under Mitt Romney in 2003 were about $350,000,” Tautznik said.
Special education in Easthampton will take the brunt of Patrick’s 9C cuts, which is slated to take almost $60,000 from the school department’s budget.
“I think the schools are likely going to try to make up for it by using one-time monies to help stabilize this year, but that’s going to make things difficult in the coming years because those funds won’t be available to help fix other budgets,” he said.
Veterans in Easthampton will not feel the squeeze from reductions to veterans benefits accounts, or at least not anytime soon, Tautznik said. The city budgets for paying the veterans benefits is reimbursed 75 percent from the state, he said, so if that rate is reduced, the city will not find out until next year.
Staff writers Scott Merzbach and Rebecca Everett contributed to this report.