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Local aid cuts hit staff, pay, services in Massachusetts communities

Posted July 5, 2010 11:35 AM

By Matt Carroll and Kathy McCabe, Globe Staff | July 5, 2010

Hundreds of city and town employees are being laid off across Massachusetts as the recently signed state budget forces communities to cut back on librarians, police, teachers, and other workers to balance the books.

As tough as the cuts are to individuals losing their jobs, more drastic layoffs were averted largely by union concessions that included pay cuts, deferred raises, unpaid furlough days, and changes in health care plans, officials said.

An informal survey of town governments and school departments in about 25 Greater Boston communities found that because of the leaner state budget signed last week, communities are reducing the time libraries are open, cutting hours for some employees, leaving staff positions unfilled, taking advantage of new tax options such as the meals tax, and even switching to more energy-efficient bulbs in street lights.

“This was one of the toughest years for many, many communities,’’ said Beverly Mayor William F. Scanlon Jr., president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. He said communities that adopted the local option meals tax were able to offset some of the cuts.

He said more cuts will likely come next year, unless communities change how they operate. He pointed out that the Legislature’s decision not to give communities the chance to design municipal health plans without bargaining has strained many budgets.

“I do think government needs to shrink going forward,’’ he said. “State revenues are going to be down. School revenues are going to be down. . . . I’m not pessimistic, but it’s certainly a sobering time.’’

Massachusetts communities received $160 million less from the state in local aid than last year. Most municipal officials had expected the 4 percent drop in local aid for the new fiscal year, so they were not surprised when Governor Deval Patrick signed the leaner state budget on Wednesday.

Many communities — Danvers, Milton, Braintree, Lexington, and Norwell, for example — found ways to avoid losing employees. The communities that laid off workers ranged from large urban centers to small rural towns.

Somerville laid off 24 people in recreation, planning, public works, and custodial positions, but saved three jobs in the library with a one-week wage cut for nonunionized employees.

The tiny town of Hanson south of Boston cut two clerical workers, a highway worker, and one custodian. A 3 percent increase for union workers was deferred.

Beverly schools laid off about 30 positions, including 16 teaching positions. Crossing guards in Arlington received 31 pink slips, saving the district more than $200,000. Dozens of teacher positions and maintenance workers also face the ax.

“Keeping the school children safe was and should be a [number one] priority,’’ said Roseann Casazza, president of the Arlington Traffic Supervisors union. “It is not now.’’

Quincy laid off about 35 people on the city’s payroll, and about 118 in the School Department. Brockton schools are laying off about 200 employees, which is roughly half the original projection. The teachers union agreed to postpone raises, which helped keep the number down.

Actual layoffs often turn out to be less harsh than original predictions by local politicians and union officials. Because of union contracts, officials are often required to tell employees in the spring that they might be laid off, so notices for teachers might go out in May, for instance.

As such notices went out this year, unions in a number of communities agreed to defer raises or have expired contracts and have not received raises.

Rockland has avoided layoffs through belt-tightening and the unions’ agreement to take three straight years without raises, said Town Administrator Allan R. Chiocca.

“We have managed because of those zeroes and the cooperation of personnel from top to bottom,’’ said Chiocca. “We have not had layoffs, not shut down programs, and not closed buildings.’’

Union and nonunion employees in Westwood are entering the second year without a raise, and the union workers are working without a contract. That’s hard on employees, but has helped keep costs down, said Town Administrator Michael Jaillet.

Westwood has worked to squeeze costs on other fronts, too. New software in the financial department is more cost-effective and street lights have been retrofitted to be more energy-efficient.

Michael Widmer, executive director of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said school budgets appear to be harder hit this year than the overall city and town budgets because school funding was cut for the first time in three fiscal years.

“The municipal side did more layoffs and squeezing in fiscal ’09 and ’10, and now the schools are going through it for ’11,’’ he said. “In one sense, the cuts to the schools have been delayed.’’

But Widmer predicted major cuts to both municipal and school spending loom for fiscal 2012, after one-time revenue sources, such as federal stimulus dollars, run out.

Other communities are still negotiating with unions in an effort to minimize layoffs. Malden, for example, wants the police unions to accept a proposed health insurance plan that calls for increased premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. The patrolmen’s union will vote on Friday while the superior officers union has not scheduled a vote.

In Lawrence, the Fire Department lost 31 positions. The Police Department went down 41 positions, said Chief John Romero, 25 of those through layoffs.

Romero said that forced him to shut down all special units, including gangs, drugs, auto theft, and insurance fraud, and return police officers to the street.

“We had no choice. We need the coverage out in the street,’’ he said.

The loss of special units, which addressed key crime areas, will change the way policing is done. Said Romero: “We’re going from preventing crimes to reacting to it.’’

Matt Carroll can be reached at; McCabe at Globe correspondents Molly A.K. Connors, Danielle Dreilinger, Megan McKee, Sara Brown, Brock Parker, Michele Morgan Bolton, Caitlin Rung, Bella Travaglini, and Johanna Seltz contributed to this report.

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