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For Melrose, The Next Round Of Cuts Will Be Visible

House leaders’ efforts to deal with next year’s budget deficit are largely focused on local aid cuts. The House plan slashes a quarter of the state money that cities and towns currently get for services other than schools.

Melrose has a lively Main Street, with an old brick YMCA amid bustling restaurants. On Wednesday night, residents walking there, including John Donovan, didn’t seem to think that the economy has hurt town services.

“I think Melrose has done a great job,” Donovan says. “I don’t think there’s been any budget cuts from the standpoint of the schools, police, fire — so no, no complaints.”

That’s because Melrose was able to weather this year’s $1.6 million in budget cuts by putting city employees on the state’s health insurance plan and by cutting all departments’ budgets by just 5 percent. Now, the mayor of Melrose, Rob Dolan, faces another $1.6 million budget cut.

“When you talk about another $1.6 million,” Mayor Dolan explains, “that’s where I have to sit down with my CFO and I have to be the ultimate arbiter of what’s more important: A school nurse in every school — where’s there’s diabetics and children with health conditions that were really unthought of when we were children — or keeping a library, which has the greatest use during a bad economy, open in the evenings.”

Or crossing guards or the drug-prevention program in the schools.

“Those are the choices that I’m making,” Dolan says. “I’m making a choice between a community policing or a domestic violence officer or fire prevention, fire inspection.”

Dolan doesn’t believe residents would vote for higher property taxes because, he says, people can’t afford it. He would like to see the legislature grant him the power to design a health care plan for town employees, and the power to raise meals taxes.

He gives Gov. Deval Patrick credit for proposing taxes on meals and a property tax on land owned by telecommunications companies, who pay no such tax. The legislature hasn’t moved on any of Gov. Patrick’s proposed taxes.

House leaders are recommending the elimination of pay raises for police officers with college degrees. Melrose Police Chief Mike Lyle says if the cuts are implemented, three-fourths of his force will lose 25 percent of their salaries.

“And a lot of these guys,” says Lyle, “have molded their families’ lifestyles around their salaries and now. They have to revisit everything at home.”

The mayor is contemplating cutting the school police officer, who works to keep teenagers out of trouble. In recent years, the city was devastated by the deaths of three teenagers, including the former captain of the high-school hockey and baseball teams, from oxycontin and heroin overdoses.

Melrose implemented a program in the schools to reduce drug use. Ruth Clay oversees it as the city’s health director.

“We have a couple of high-school students that we give a stipend to, and they are working on programs with the high-school kids and the middle-school kids on social marketing,” Clay says. “Changing their social norms, showing that the majority aren’t doing the drinking and the drugging.”

The high-school students are starting a program called Melrose Draws the Line, in which teenagers talk about experiences that prompted them to rethink drug use, and they organize activities to keep teenagers busy after school.

The program has cut teen drug use. The mayor says it’s saved lives. Now House leaders are proposing to cut it.

This program aired on April 16, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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