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New mayors, old problems

Email|Print| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / January 3, 2008

Nearly a dozen new mayors and 27 incumbents are being sworn into municipal office this week with all the usual pomp and pageantry: parties and speeches, glad-handing and back-slapping, and, in some communities, inaugural balls.

But for most, the party will be short-lived.

Across the Commonwealth, cities and towns are considering laying off staff, cutting services, and preparing to make cuts to school sports programs as they struggle to close multimillion-dollar budget deficits in the coming fiscal year. Some municipalities are once again considering property tax overrides, even though voters in a majority of towns have rejected tax increases over the last two years.

And it could get worse, officials say, if a state budget deficit projected at more than $1 billion in fiscal 2009 gives communities even fewer dollars to pay for the services that people have come to expect.

"The writing on the wall, to me, is that we shouldn't be looking to the state for any additional aid, so it's a little sobering," said Tom Koch, who will be sworn in as Quincy's mayor next Monday. "It's a challenge to run local government without hitting the citizenry for increases in taxes, and that's always going to be a challenge, whether it's Quincy or Weymouth or Boston or wherever you go."

In Chelmsford, town officials may be forced to send firefighters and police officers packing. In the Lincoln-Sudbury regional school district, officials are threatening cuts in staff and in underclass sports. And in Gloucester, officials are staring at a projected $2.5 million shortfall in a budget of roughly $90 million.

"So what are you going to do?" asked City Council President Bruce Tobey of Gloucester. "You have to cut."

At a time when cash-strapped communities have become the norm, this year's financial outlook appears especially troubled. Since 2002, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, local aid from the state's major accounts is down $621 million annually. Attempts by communities to generate more revenue through Proposition 2 1/2 property tax overrides have more often than not failed to gain voter support. In the last two years, 138 communities have asked voters to approve property tax overrides and 71 of those efforts have failed.

These fiscal circumstances have left many communities squeezed, said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Municipal Association.

On the one hand, he said, communities have maximized their reliance on property taxes or exhausted voters' tolerance for more property tax overrides. And on the other hand, Beckwith said, the price of so-called fixed costs, such as fuel and road salt, keeps rising.

As a result, cities and towns across the Commonwealth have been forced in the last year to cut staff, trim library hours, and slash services once thought of as essential, such as school buses. Beckwith predicts that even more communities will be forced to make cuts this year, leaving newly inaugurated mayors with a tough job ahead of them.

"There are dozens of people raising their hands and taking the oath of office this week to step into the mayor's office for the first time or return to office," Beckwith said. "The common problem they all share is when they look out the front window of City Hall, they're looking at a pretty bleak fiscal landscape."

In Saugus, town officials had to cut $5 million in services last year to come in under budget. Though Andrew R. Bisignani, the Saugus town manager, said he expects to recover somewhat in fiscal 2009, problems remain.

Already, Bisignani said, the town has spent roughly $100,000 more than it budgeted for snow and ice removal.

"I'm nervous," he said about the year ahead. "There's just so much uncertainty."

In Chelmsford, a projected $3.3 million shortfall in the roughly $100 million budget for fiscal 2009 may force the town to lay off police officers and firefighters.

Town Manager Paul Cohen said that the town does not want to cut staff, but that soaring costs leave officials no choice unless voters approve a property tax increase this year.

"We're very concerned," Cohen said. "We will address the shortfall. But unfortunately, addressing the shortfall will affect education and public safety."

In Gloucester, still more cuts are looming. Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who was sworn in this week, projects a $2.5 million shortfall for the city's upcoming budget, and she announced a hiring freeze in her inaugural address.

"I call it an austerity program," Kirk said. "The hiring freeze is part of that. But, also, I will be reviewing every expenditure over $100."

By saving pennies, Kirk said, she hopes the dollars will follow.

But Kirk and other mayors also say the state needs to do its part. Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, president of the Massachusetts Mayors' Association, wants the Legislature to approve several pieces of Governor Deval Patrick's Municipal Partnership Act.

That measure, among other things, would eliminate local tax breaks to phone companies and give cities and towns the right to levy meals taxes.

For Somerville, Curtatone said, those changes would generate an additional $1.8 million a year for its approximately $155 million budget.

But just as important as the money, said Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, would be the stability that would come with the revenue. "We're not looking for a windfall," he said. "We just want to be able to determine our own destiny."

The Legislature has not budgeted based on Patrick's proposal. But Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray said the administration plans to continue pushing for the changes this year.

Eliminating tax breaks to the phone companies alone would generate $78 million in revenue for communities, Murray said.

There is at least one other possible source of revenue in fiscal year 2009: money raised by the sale of casino licenses.

"That's on the table," said Murray, who would not say whether the administration would include casino revenue in its upcoming budget. "We haven't made a final decision," he said. "But we aren't ruling it out."

In the meantime, mayors will continue looking for ways to pay the bills. In Braintree, that process begins this morning, said Mayor Joseph Sullivan, who was sworn in last night as the town's first mayor. His first meeting, he said, will be with the town's finance team.

"There's not going to be any time to settle in," Sullivan said. "My agenda's already booked for the next several weeks."

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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