People worried

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Officials for the Town and the Belmont Public Schools on Thursday warned of deep cuts in services should a $6.4 million Proposition 2 ½ override fail at the ballot box in April.

The warnings came during a presentation on the budget by Town and School officials at a meeting hosted by the Warrant Committee Thursday. A PDF copy of the presentation by town and school officials is available on the town’s website here.

More Than 20 Positions Cut in K-12

The cuts will be particularly deep in Belmont’s public schools, which account for around 60% of Belmont’s spending each year. Forced to trim more than $2 million in the event an override fails, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said that 11 existing teachers and support staff would need to be laid off to bring spending in line with available revenue should the override not pass. That list includes 3 elementary school teachers, 2 middle school teachers, 2 high school instructors, as well as support staff. 

On top of that, 10 teachers and support staff that the district hopes to hire to address Belmont’s growing school population will not be hired. That list includes 4 middle school teachers intended for grades 7 and 8; 2 high school instructors; and two special education staff at the elementary school level. The net impact: 21 teachers and staff who would be working in Belmont’s schools with a successful override will not be. School cuts will also dig deeply into budgets for supplies. The already very lean district budget for books and materials would be slashed even further than it already has been. The impact on athletics and extracurriculars would be even more stark. Superintendent Phelan indicated cuts of around $400,000 – roughly 40% of the budget – from athletics, music and theater. School officials resisted commenting on whether athletics or extracurriculars would be have to be eliminated to meet that budget, but they did not rule it out and suggested that, even in the best case, that the district would have to rely far more heavily on student fees in order to maintain athletic, drama and other extracurricular offerings.

“We simply can’t afford to delay this override. Passing it now is the fiscally responsible choice,” said Nicole Dorn, a Belmont resident and chair of the YES for Belmont campaign.

Layoffs at DPW, Less Help For Struggling Seniors

Town services will also be cut deeply, as officials are forced to cut $1.38 million from their budget in the event the override does not pass. $617,000 of that will come from existing services, according to information presented by Town Administrator Patrice Garvin. Two positions will be eliminated at the DPW. Overtime pay will be slashed in that department, as well. One police officer and one firefighter position will be cut as part of more than $200,000 in budget cuts to public safety. Other positions cut from the Town’s existing payroll include a building inspector. That will mean added delays in reviewing and approving building permits for projects ranging from home renovations to big developments, according to the presentation. The result will likely be a “bottleneck and costly delays for homeowners and commercial property owners.”

A planned full time social worker position for the Belmont Beech Street Center will not be filled, saving the town $81,000. Belmont currently shares a full time social worker with the Town health department. There is a desperate need for a dedicated social worker to serve a growing population of Belmont seniors. Problems like social isolation, dementia, hoarding and neglect are on the rise in Belmont, but the town lacks a dedicated professional to help seniors and families with these issues. 

The biggest chunk of decreased town spending will be $500,000 in “discretionary capital” – money that would be spent to address a backlog of capital repairs and replacement. This is money that might go to preventative maintenance (replacing a roof, say) or major repairs that become necessary when preventative maintenance is delayed or deferred. 

Library on the brink

Belmont’s most used public building – The Belmont Public Library- will be asked to find $65,000 in cuts to its budget. Library Director Peter Struzziero said that cuts to the budget would likely take the form of reduced operating hours, particularly on Sunday, and less money to acquire books, movies and subscriptions for digital content (like online databases and media) that patrons can use. 

The cuts would also bring Belmont dangerously close to the minimum spending limit that the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners requires of its members. Belmont’s budget will be less than 1% above the lower Municipal Appropriation Requirement (MAR). Towns that fall below that threshold can lose their right to access the multi-town Minuteman Library Network, which gives Belmont residents access to books and other resources at other area libraries. While Belmont seems likely to skate by with the $65,000 cut, any further cuts in years ahead would bring us below that threshold, Struzziero said. 

Grants and New Taxes Reduce Deficit

Town and school leaders noted that significant gains have been made reducing costs and finding new sources of revenue. The Town benefits from close to $4 million in added revenue from developments like Cushing Square, Acorn Park, Mclean and the addition of retail marijuana dispensaries.  

Also: Belmont, under the leadership of Town Administrator Patrice Garvin, has aggressively pursued municipal grants to provide a new source of revenue. The Town has been awarded more than $1 million in grants in recent years that have paid for a wide range of projects in financial modeling of the Town’s budget, the Alexander Avenue underpass (part of the Community Path project), economic development and the addition of a lighted intersection at Lexington and Sycamore streets – the site of a deadly accident. 

Growth in School Population Drives Costs 

However, the Town has a structural budget deficit – meaning that its sources of revenue – mainly property taxes- are not adequate to meet its increasing expenses including health care, the cost of materials and labor. That is by design. State laws like Proposition 2 ½ limit how much revenue from residential property taxes can increase in a given year. However, Proposition 2 ½ does not take into consideration growths in cost, like the need to educate an added 927 students who have enrolled in Belmont’s public schools in the last 12 years. While student enrollment has dropped by about 6% in the last year as a result of the pandemic, we should expect most of those students to return when the pandemic has subsided. Educating these hundreds of new students demands more teachers, more support staff, more equipment and classroom space. However, tax revenues are capped at 2 ½ percent growth, forcing the community to raise additional revenue to meet those expenses. 

“We face real consequences for our schools and town starting this summer if we fail to pass this override,” said Dorn of YES for Belmont. “It also means we would have to pass a more expensive override next year or face devastating cuts that would change life as we know it in Belmont. Let’s come together as a community to preserve the town resources we all depend on and support – not punish – our students and seniors coming out of what has been for many of them the toughest year of their lives.”  

If you would like to help to get the word out to your friends and neighbors, use this form to sign up for a yard sign, to host an information session or volunteer for the campaign.

If you would like to learn more about the override, YES for Belmont is hosting regular online information sessions. You can sign up to attend one here.

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