Thursday, April 19, 2012
House budget: Watertown would see more local aid

WATERTOWN — Watertown Representatives Jon Hecht and John Lawn praised a budget proposal House lawmakers released Wednesday and the aid it would deliver to the town and to schools.

The proposal from House Ways and Means, the chamber's budget committee, would guarantee more municipal aid up front and boost Chapter 70 school aid more than an earlier spending plan from Gov. Deval Patrick.

For Watertown, that means $515,000 or 6 percent more than last year, Hecht said.

“Watertown would still be well behind where it was on local aid before the recession hit, but this would be a big positive step,” Hecht said. “The House Ways and Means budget also contains some additional funding for special education costs, which would be very helpful to our schools. We would also see an increase in veterans’ benefits.”

Patrick's budget proposal, released in January, included $834 million in unrestricted general government aid for cities and towns next fiscal year. It promised another $65 million if enough money was left in state coffers at the end of this fiscal year in June.

The House Ways and Means budget would guarantee all that funding to cities and towns up front next fiscal year, for a total of $899 million in unrestricted aid. That's the same amount local governments ultimately received this year.

As his first budget, Lawn said he made local aid a priority and hoped the worst days of the recession were behind the state.

“I am pleased that the house budget included an increase in local aid over the last fiscal year,” Lawn said. “The cuts to local aid over the last few years have made it increasingly difficult for our communities to carry out basic services.”

Municipal leaders said under Patrick's plan, they could not be sure the extra $65 million would come through, and would not know if it would be available until they had already set their budgets for next year.

"From our perspective ... that direct municipal aid that's guaranteed is $65 million higher in the House Ways and Means budget," said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

While Patrick's budget proposed boosting Chapter 70 school aid by $146 million, the House plan would deliver an additional $18 million, for a total of $164 million.

The House budget would spend $221 million on the special education circuit breaker program, which reimburses districts for extraordinary special needs costs. That's up $8.4 million from Patrick's proposal, which would level-fund the program.

Regional school transportation aid would receive $45.5 million under the House plan, up $2 million from Patrick's budget.

The House budget also would set aside $11.3 million to help school districts pay for transporting homeless students living in shelters or temporary housing back to schools in their hometowns.

Hecht said he was “happy” that the budget maintains or slightly increases funding for Watertown services like Springwell, the Boys and Girls Club, early education programs and the Perkins talking library, but also said there was room for improvement.

“These have been important priorities for me and the other Watertown legislators, and I’m pleased the Ways and Means committee understood how much these services mean to the community,” Hecht said. “While these are positive developments, overall funding for many programs is down from where it was before the recession…There are some areas, like mental health services and the environment, where we have a ways to go to restore programs to where they were pre-recession.”

Lawn agreed that there was room for improvement.

“Increasing local aid, working to find a long term funding solution to our public transportation as well as working on legislation…are all things I have been involved in,” Lawn said.