As State Budget Keeps Shrinking, Melrose Braces For The Worst

Turner Fisheries, on Melrose's Main Street
Turner Fisheries on Melrose's Main Street. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

This year, the economy has been so bad that every time someone proposes a state budget, it gets smaller. Tax revenues are plummeting. So when the Senate passed its version of the budget last week, it proposed cuts bigger than anything Gov. Deval Patrick or the House suggested earlier this year.

Cities and towns were particularly hard hit. Now, the House and Senate are hashing out the differences in their budgets. Local officials, still in shock at how little the Senate is proposing for basic services, are hoping that the House negotiators can put some money for local aid back in the budget.

The Senate budget cuts came as a huge shock for Rob Dolan, the mayor of Melrose.

"We went from budget cuts of $1.2 million in the House to $2.7 million," Dolan said. "Which is as much as my entire police department's budget or my entire fire department's budget, so it's like losing an entire department in one week."

If the Senate cuts go through, Melrose would lose an amount equal to three years of its tax revenues.

Dolan says the cuts his city would have to make in education, public safety and other essential services would erode quality of life and property values, and he offers a warning to legislators:

"They have chosen special interests over local government," he said. "And that is a choice that they have made, and now they are going to have to accept the consequences in terms of the public's anger, for those choices."

So far, Melrose has been able to manage the past year's budget cuts without cutting basic services. The city's state representative, Katherine Clark, predicts all that would change if the cuts proposed by the Senate are adopted.

"My response to the Senate budget is where did the local aid go? " Clark said. "Really, the priority has to remain in funding the local services. That's what the taxpayers are looking for. That is what really is going to be the key to getting Massachusetts back on an economic ground level: our schools, public safety, the public library."

At lunch hour on the city's thriving main street, with its bustling restaurants and shops, Pat Connolly, who is a salesman, says he hasn't felt the impact of any cuts.

"Quite honestly, I haven't seen any dramatic change, and honestly, I would attribute it to the mayor," he said. "I don't hear any of the crises that you hear all over the rest of the state in Melrose. I'm sure that they're dealing with it and we don't see it, but I think they're doing a very good job."

Connolly says he'd be willing to pay a higher property tax provided he knew what services the increase would fund.

"I would be willing to pay more as long as I knew that that money was earmarked for whatever it was that they said it was going to be earmarked for," he said. "What I don't want to see is my taxes to go up, to stay up and to have this money vanish into some deep dark hole and not know where it went."

The legislature is proposing to let cities and towns charge a tax on hotel rooms and restaurant meals. Melrose doesn't have any hotels, nor does it have many restaurants. The tax would raise about $200,000 a year for the city. Connolly and his daughter, Dawn Correale, a stay-at-home mom, say they would support the tax.

"I think that spreads it around to everyone," Correale said. "And I would be in favor of that option."

"Pay as you go," Connolly added.

After drastic cuts to local aid in 2003, Melrose closed two elementary schools. In recent years, the school population has grown. The city built a new middle school. The school superintendent, Joe Casey, points out that it was on time and under budget.

"Where else do you see that going across the state?" Casey asked. "So when people talk about mismanagement and what's happening with funds, that's not the case here in Melrose."

After the city recovered from the last recession, it started a pre-kindergarten center for 3- and 4-year olds. Now, if the Senate's proposed budget cuts go through, the Melrose schools would have to cut $600,000 from their $27-million budget. Casey says as a result, he may have to eliminate the early childhood education center or raise athletics fees.

This program aired on May 27, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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