In the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, finance committee members are already crunching the numbers and it doesn't look good. The cost of providing municipal services keeps going up, especially the cost of health care and energy. Revenue growth has slowed along with the real estate market.

In the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, finance committee members are already crunching the numbers and it doesn't look good. The cost of providing municipal services keeps going up, especially the cost of health care and energy. Revenue growth has slowed along with the real estate market.


Here in MetroWest, officials are already talking about closing schools, laying off municipal workers and property tax overrides. Yes, it's early in the process of drafting budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and, yes, we always hear dire predictions from local officials this time of year, yet somehow they muddle through. But muddling through usually involves either higher taxes or a significant infusion of cash from the state.


That help may be hard to come by. State officials are looking at budget problems of their own. The Patrick administration has been talking about a gap in the state budget of $1.5 billion. Closing that gap may force decisions on two Patrick initiatives the Legislature declined to tackle last year: closing corporate tax loopholes and legalizing casino gambling.


Municipal budgets are also facing a hit from declining Lottery sales. Democrats in the Legislature say they are committed to an additional $220 million to local aid to make up for that shortfall, but that money will have to come from somewhere.


House Republicans have proposed taking $450 million from the state's rainy day account to immediately boost local aid. Democrats say that would be imprudent, since it's not really raining and a one-time grant would only set up cities and towns for problems further down the road.


With just 19 Republicans in the House vs. 141 Democrats, the proposal is unlikely to go anywhere, and that's too bad. For all the lip service legislators pay to local aid, they always take care of state government first. While municipal officials struggle to write budgets without knowing how much state aid will be forthcoming, the Beacon Hill gang fusses with its budget well into the summer, cowers from the hard decisions on taxes and spending at the state level, then passes the shortfall down to cities and towns.


While lawmakers say they care about property tax increases hurting their constituents, the Legislature's Democratic leadership has refused to do anything about it. Gov. Deval Patrick's modest municipal assistance legislation stalled last year, and lawmakers offered up nothing in its place.


Since 2002, local aid from the biggest state accounts has fallen by $621 million, the Massachusetts Municipal Association says. Committing $450 million to increase local aid - especially if the Legislature did it soon, while local budgets are being drafted - would be a huge help. If that forces the Legislature to find new revenue to replenish the rainy day funds, at least they won't be putting it on the property tax.


In the last two years more than half of the 138 property tax overrides put on ballots by cities and towns have failed. With the economy teetering on the brink of recession, we expect that record will only get worse in the year ahead. Without new state aid, this trend will force budget cuts that hurt critical services and make Massachusetts less attractive as a place to live and do business.


It's early in the year, and early in the budget cycle, but not too early to tell the governor and legislative leaders that they need to step up to the plate. Municipalities in Massachusetts are hurting, and only the state can make them whole.