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Town Receives $1.4M In State Funding Windfall

School committee reps now hopeful bridging $2M deficit to reach level service budget target.

Rain wasn't the only thing falling on Belmont Wednesday. So was new local aid from the state and it resembled a downpour.

In an announcement that took many town and school officials by surprise, Belmont learned yesterday, April 13, it will receive an additional $1.4 million in revenue from state coffers.

While just how the money is distributed will be determined at next Wednesday's Warrant Committee meeting at the Chenery Middle School, Belmont  members in attendance at yesterday's meeting expressed growing confidence the state revenue windfall in addition with recent actions by the on line item changes to the town budget could largely fill a looming $2 million level service budget shortfall.

"I can't say that we will get all the way to the level service budget but I am so much happier than I was yesterday," said Laurie Slap, who was recently appointed the school committee's representative to the Warrant Committee chaired by Elizabeth Allison.

By fully funding the school department's level service budget, nearly all of the 40 full-time teaching staff who received pink slips this week will be retained next year.

"We were standing in the right place when the state came through," said Allison.

While town and school officials knew news on the House of Representatives' budget proposal would be coming from Beacon Hill Wednesday, it was universally considered that the House's budget writing Ways & Means Committee would produce a document cutting local aid far more severely than Gov. Deval Patrick's budget proposal earlier this year that many viewed as an outlier. 

But by the start of Wednesday's meeting, those assumptions provided thankfully wrong for Belmont's town officials.

"I bring good news," State Rep. Will Brownsberger said, announcing that the Ways & Means Committee yesterday did adopted Patrick's budget that reduces local aid to cities and towns by 2.6 percent from the previous 2011 fiscal year.

As a result, Belmont will receive $5.57 million in Chapter 70 education aid and $1.77 million in unrestricted government receipts totaling $7.34 million in local aid.

Nearly $1 million in added state aid

Due to the town's conservative calculations made last year predicting local aid would fall by 15 percent, the Ways & Means budget will pump in an extra $638,800 to the town's revenue steam.

Added with an earlier $300,000 adjustment when the town recalculated its local aid amount in February, the town's local aid line item increases by $938,000 from January's initial budget.

Brownsberger also revealed that the state had upped the percentage of the "circuit breaker" which reimburses municipalities for special education costs, from 40 t0 70 percent, saving Belmont "in the ballpark of $400,000."

Finally, Belmont will see an increase of $130,000 in Chapter 90 funding that goes to paying for capital programs including roads.

The result of yesterday's action on Beacon Hill was approximately $1,468,000 in much needed infusion from the state.

Supplementing the new state numbers were adjustments to line items in the town's budget.

According to Board of Selectmen Chairman Ralph Jones, in addition to $394,ooo in previously announced increases in revenue are reductions of $170,000 in the cost of the new solid waste contract and an extra $180,000 in town expense savings producing $574,000 to go into the town's revenue side of the budget.

"And that also is certainly good news," said Jones.

What to do with it

With both the new state revenue and town's line item adjustments before the committee, Allison said she would "do my Cassandra thing" in advising the town and schools on "where we spend it."

Allison initially cautioned all sides to determine whether this year's revenue increases are sustainable over time or "is one-time money."

She advised representatives for the schools and town to come back in a week with a schedule of spending requests – or tiers – and what differences they will make and what programs will be saved in the specific budgets.

Tom Younger, the town's administrator, said he has already met with department heads and they will be spending any additional revenue on one-time, not recurring costs.

"We will have a list of one-time expenses and how they are ranked but no personnel will be hired," said Younger.

Slap said the school committee's requests will be more complicated since the department must keep teachers to save programs. Nearly 95 cents of every dollar spent by the schools is directed to teachers and staff, according to school committee figures. 

"We'll have a very compelling case to make for the school to receive the money we'll need," said Slap after the meeting.

"We'll get to as close to the level-service budget as possible. I'm confident of that," said Slap.

A month ago at a joint meeting with the school committee, Jones said he would advocate that the schools – then facing a $2 million shortfall in meeting its level service budget and an additional $1 million in 'critical need' spending – receive the majority of any extra state funding.

"We will be looking to avoid cuts and we'd be moving in that direction," Jones said Wednesday.

"We will certainly listen to the Selectmen for advise on allocating" the money, said Allison after the meeting.

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