By Bill Kirk
---- — If all goes according to plan, cities and towns in the Merrimack Valley may end up with some extra cash thanks to the state Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick.
Yesterday, the Legislature announced it had given final approval to a $34 billion state budget that included increases in government and education funding for cities and towns across the Commonwealth. The governor has 10 days to sign the budget, which was put on his desk Monday.
Under the spending plan, Andover got an additional $550,000 over last year’s tally, while North Andover picked up an additional $300,000.
Lawrence was the biggest winner locally, picking up $6 million more in education aid and another $400,000 in so-called ‘unrestricted general government aid.’ Haverhill would get an additional $3.8 million while Methuen would pick up an extra $1.2 million.
“It was a decent increase and I think we feel good about the numbers we see for the communities,” said Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover.
Sen. Kathleen O’Connor-Ives, D-Newburyport, called local aid a “key priority. We hear it from our local elected municipal leaders that this is key. I wanted to relay that message. I think it’s going in the right direction.”
Rep. Jim Lyons, R-Andover, agreed, adding, “This marks a remarkable turnaround for the taxpayers and communities of our state. Up until the year 2011, the Patrick administration continually cut local aid to our cities and towns. Today, we are making real progress toward correcting the damage inflicted by those unwise local aid cuts.”
Ray Santilli, assistant town manager of North Andover, said the town level-funded local aid in this year’s budget, meaning there will be a surplus.
“If this ends up being the final number, we’ll have an extra $300,000 in the budget,” he said. “This is good news. Whenever you get money, it’s good news.”
Santilli said there are several options for how to use the money that have been put forward by Town Manager Andrew Maylor, including setting the money aside, putting it into the school department for special education, or using it for snow and ice removal.
In Andover, if last year is any indication, the additional money could spark an internal battle between the schools and the town.
If the budget as proposed is signed by the governor, Andover would get about $8.5 million in education money, known as Chapter 70, an increase of more than $500,000 over last year’s $8 million. The budget calls for an extra $35,000 in general government aid.
Last year, when extra education funding came through, town and school officials wrangled over what to do with it. In the end, the town took $600,000 from its free cash account and gave it to the schools instead of having to wait for a special Town Meeting to vote on how to spend the state aid.
But it wasn’t without some acrimony.
School Committee chairman Dennis Forgue called the battle over local aid “one of our annual adventures.”
Sen. Finegold said he was “very blunt” during a recent meeting with the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee about how the Chapter 70 money should be spent.
“If we bring an increase in education aid, we want it to go to education,” he said. “I’ll be very disappointed if it doesn’t go to education.”
He added that he doesn’t want the town, in its next budget cycle, to “pull back on education” knowing that the state will fill in the rest.
“It’s a partnership,” he said. “A lot of communities are still playing catch-up on education, which is why there’s more funding for Chapter 70.”
He added, “Andover had this issue last year. There was a significant increase in education dollars, and a disagreement whether that should be used for education. I made it clear this year — that money should be going to education.”
Forgue said the School Committee would be having a discussion in the next few weeks over how to spend the additional $515,289 in Chapter 70 funding.
“It’s good news, not bad news,” Forgue said.
Town Manager Reginald Buzz Stapczyinski agreed.
“I was pleased to learn the Legislature has allocated $515,000 for Chapter 70 and $35,000 for general government aid,” he said, adding that he’s still waiting to see what assessments go up, which could offset increases in local aid.
The state annually assesses cities and towns for such budget items as retired teachers’ health insurance, mosquito control, regional transit, the MBTA and the regional technical school, among others.
“Those assessments can be upwards of $2.8 million,” he said.