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Patrick's police funding plan hit

Questions raised on officer hiring goal

House Ways and Means chairman Robert DeLeo (with Senator Therese Murray), says Patrick's police funding raises concern. (JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

It is one of the items Governor Deval Patrick has trumpeted repeatedly while unveiling his budget for next year: 250 new police officers to walk the beat in Massachusetts cities and towns.

But a closer examination of Patrick's plan reveals that the governor would pay for the initiative, in large part, by stripping money from a popular police grant program that sends money to local departments.

According to the administration, the money to hire the additional officers would come from a new $30 million account for local police. However, $20 million of that money would be taken from the police grant program, which is traditionally distributed to local police by the Legislature. And some of it is already used for hiring police officers, raising questions about whether the Patrick plan would actually add the number of officers that he asserts.

Yesterday, key members of the Legislature immediately rebelled, arguing that this much-publicized portion of Patrick's $26.7 billion budget would not survive the legislative process. The community policing plan is a key initiative for Patrick, who pledged during the campaign to put 1,000 new officers on the street.

"The goal is a noble one," said Representative Michael Costello , Democrat of Newburyport, cochairman of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. "But my personal belief is it's dead on arrival if you strip away the existing earmarks. . . . It's somewhat of a shell game. He's trying to get to the 250 mark by reshuffling the deck."

Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke could not say for sure that Patrick's initiative would result in a net gain of 250 officers, as promised. But Burke and other Patrick aides pointed out that the overall increase of $10 million in next year's budget for local police and that the money would now be distributed according to need rather than legislative whim.

"There will be 250 new cops put on the streets of the cities and towns that need them most," said press secretary Kyle Sullivan .

Currently, the state's community policing plan distributes the grants to cities and towns, including $3.4 million to Boston, as delineated by the Legislature each year in the budget. Patrick's plan would distribute the money according to factors such as crime data, population, and the number of police officers a community employs.

Costello and other lawmakers said suburbs could end up losing police to cities with higher crime rates.

"There will be winners and losers," acknowledged Burke, who said the distribution formula would be devised in consultation with the Legislature.

Robert DeLeo , chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the governor's community policing plan has emerged as the most controversial part of the budget.

"I didn't even anticipate the reaction this would get," said DeLeo , a Winthrop Democrat. "It's the biggest concern I've heard. Maybe the plan will work better, but on its face I see the problem. We're taking one program off the books and putting in another one. I have to be concerned whether the new one is better for the cities and towns than the old one."

The plan was among many issues singled out at the budget's first airing before a joint session of the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees yesterday morning, where Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan answered questions from lawmakers for more than three hours.

Many legislators asked pointed questions about Patrick's decision to consolidate line items throughout the budget and to eliminate $86 million in legislative earmarks.

Patrick has said the changes, which are sprinkled throughout the budget, would give maximum flexibility to the executive branch to administer programs in the most effective way possible. But for groups that depend on government subsidies, the changes have created great financial uncertainty, lawmakers said.

Senator Dianne Wilkerson , a Boston Democrat , said the governor's decision to consolidate funding for homeless shelters had "set off a whole flurry of nervousness and anxiety" among the shelters because they could not anticipate how much money to expect next year or whether they would get any at all.

Patrick aides have said the budget would increase funding for the homeless by nearly 5 percent.

DeLeo said later that lawmakers would consider the governor's proposals, but he said they may be too drastic to absorb in one year.

The governor's proposal to raise $295 million next year by closing so-called corporate tax loopholes also seemed to worry a number of lawmakers, including DeLeo.

"We've been trying to send a message to the business community that Massachusetts is a good place to come to do business. What I'm concerned about [is], are we sort of reversing that trend, not putting out the welcome mat?" he asked Kirwan.

Kirwan said that the governor's proposal was not meant to be antibusiness, but a move toward sharing responsibility for paying for the amenities that businesses want as much as individuals: good schools, safe streets, and solid infrastructure.

And she argued that the corporate tax burden in Massachusetts is among the lowest in the country.

"We've solved 78 percent of our budget gap before turning to the corporate loopholes," she added. "So by no means are we proposing a massive shift onto the business community."

A number of lawmakers also complained that Patrick had only spent an additional $200 million on local school aid next year, rather than the $255 million that would have been added under the new school aid formula the Legislature developed last year in an effort to make it fairer to suburban districts.

"We want to try to honor the commitments that we all set after we came through this momentous change in the budget last year," said Representative Paul J. Loscocco , Republican of Holliston . "We went back to the cities and towns and said, 'You can rely on us, we've worked out the details, and this is what you reasonably can start to expect year to year.' "

Kirwan pointed out that the $200 million increase was among the largest increases in local school aid since education reform began, but some lawmakers said it would not help suburban and rural districts enough.

Some lawmakers, however, also had words of praise for portions of the governor's plan.

Representative Alice K. Wolf , a Democrat from Cambridge , commended the governor for adding a large increase in public health spending, including children's immunizations and disease prevention, which she said would not only keep people healthier but save money on healthcare costs.

"It is very easy when times are tough to be penny-wise and pound-foolish," she said.