With new budgets due, Massachusetts towns and cities are making tough choices

With new budgets due, Massachusetts towns and cities are making tough choices

CHELMSFORD, Mass. — Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen looked at the spreadsheets and couldn’t sugar-coat the numbers.

“This is going to be a real crisis going forward,” Cohen said from his office.

Chelmsford residents will feel the effects of COVID-19 in different ways: the possibility of slower emergency response times, reduced snow and ice removal this winter, and then increased property taxes further down the road, Cohen said.  

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“We’re not looking at this as a six month or 12 month crisis. This is something that is probably going to impact cities and towns and the state for two or three years,” Cohen said.

Chelmsford is grappling with $1.5 million less in local revenue for the 2020-21 fiscal year, coupled with $3.4 million reduction in state aid.  

But Chelmsford’s situation isn’t as bad as other communities that rely more on help from the state, according to Cohen.

“When you go to a city like Lawrence…or go to other gateway cities and half their budgets are funded by state aid, they’re much more vulnerable than rural or suburban communities that aren’t as dependent on the outside sources of funding, so instead they lean on the property tax,” Cohen said.

The City of Lowell is anticipating a $16 to $17.2 million loss in revenue, according to Lowell’s Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin.

“The most severe impact will be in the schools,” Baldwin said. “The city will need to significantly reduce the summer recreation program offerings, park maintenance…will also prevent the city from planned expansions of health and human service programs, especially those around substance abuse prevention and community health and wellness.”

Salem is preparing for furloughs and wage freezes. The city is also going to expand parking enforcement on Sunday afternoons, for an additional $270,000-$330,000 in revenue, Salem Mayor Kimberly Driscoll wrote June 11.

“We are in discussions with municipal employees and expect to institute unpaid furloughs for many staff in FY2021,” Driscoll wrote in her budget proposal to the Salem City Council.

Brockton City Councilor Winthrop Farwell, Jr. said two dozen school positions were cut in the art, music, and business departments.

“It’s tough,” Farwell said hours before another budget hearing Wednesday night. “The big hit frankly, was the schools.”

Brockton’s general fund is down 3.3% ($13.4 million) and state aid is down 6.6% ($14.1 million), Farwell, Jr. said.

Cohen said people always ask him why emergency responders and schools seem to be the first victim of cutbacks.

“You make the cuts where the money is. In cities and towns the money is in your schools, and they’re in public safety and public works,” Cohen said.