Island Escapes Deep Cuts In Aid to Towns, Schools

By MANDY LOCKE

On the last day of the session, state legislators finally approved a five-month overdue budget slated to trim $650 million from the commonwealth's spending. But the sweeping cuts in the $22.25 billion state budget did not dip drastically into local Vineyard aid for towns and schools.

"It could have been worse," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington Wednesday morning, after having studied the budget proposal for less than a day.

House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate President Thomas Birmingham, along with House and Senate ways and means chairmen, have battled through budget line-items behind closed doors for the last 144 days. Wednesday's legislative approval resolves a budget for a fiscal year that officially began July 1.

With a $1.4 billion deficit to close, the public - along with state legislators - could only speculate what areas would be hit the hardest before the budget was finally agreed upon Tuesday at midnight.

Chapter 70 money - education money designated to local towns - remained untouched. Vineyard towns will receive the same amounts estimated in the preliminary budget in the spring. While full allocation of Chapter 70 money for the current school year is certainly good news for the school committee, it does not fill in any blanks for the 2002-2003 school budget they are currently preparing.

"That's about as good as it gets in the budget world," Mr. Turkington said.

State aid to towns did not decrease from the previous year, Representative Turkington said, but Vineyard towns may not receive as much money as they planned for this fiscal year. The state Department of Revenue gives Massachusetts municipalities estimates of state money to include in their budget process in the spring of each year. But the Department of Revenue released those figures before state revenues dropped in July and plummeted in September, forcing the state legislature to account for the mounting deficit.

Funds each town receives from the state lottery fell this year. But this drop means about $33 less for Aquinnah, $74 less for Chilmark and $962 less for Edgartown, hardly affecting their multi-million-dollar budgets.

The new budget also slashes Chapter 90 money - cash given to town highway departments for local projects - by $32 million. The impact of that cut on Vineyard towns is still uncertain.

Plans for an additional probation officer in the Edgartown District Court were pulled from the revised budget - evidence of the $30 million worth of cuts in the state court system.

Language which would require state human service divisions to give special attention to the Island's high cost of living when making allocations remained in the budget.

A request for funds for shellfish propagation on the Vineyard and Nantucket stayed in the budget, but was slashed from $100,000 to $50,000.

One hundred thousand dollars for a Lyme disease program at the Barnstable County Health Department - which also aids patients of the two Islands - stayed in the budget as well.

While reductions in any measure bear bad news, Island towns escaped any devastating pinches this year.

The fact that state aid accounts for such small portions of local town budgets - around 5 per cent - also minimizes the effect.

"For our towns, state aid is not a big piece of the pie," Mr. Turkington said.

While Island municipal and school budgets remain relatively intact, the Island community will not be immune to state budget cuts.

"There are clearly some areas in which Island people, not necessarily municipalities, will be affected in negative ways," Representative Turkington said, noting that Martha's Vineyard Hospital, Martha's Vineyard Community Services and Family Planning will inevitably have to cut budgets.

Ned Robinson-Lynch, executive director of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, said his family of agencies will not know until the beginning of next year exactly how hard the human service budget cuts will hit their programming. Their allocations come through state divisions such as the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Education. So far, Community Services is preparing for a loss of about $100,000.

"Health care and social services are bracing for a real cut," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said.

The legislature will meet again Dec. 5 to vote on overrides of any line-item vetoes from acting governor Jane Swift.