Youth violence, jobs programs see boost in $30.6b state budget

Closing a $1.9 billion budget gap and increasing funding for a popular anti-youth violence program, state lawmakers sent a $30.6 billion fiscal year 2012 budget to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk last week. Dorchester’s state Senate and House delegations voted for the budget, which level-funds state aid to public libraries at $6.8 million and increases by $1 million funding for the $5.5 million Shannon Grant anti-gang violence grant.

The budget also increases state aid for K-12 education by $50 million, to $3.9 billion, and sets aside $3 million for youth jobs. Adult basic education services received $27.7 million, the same level as fiscal 2011.

“As a freshman, an idealistic freshman, of course I wanted more money for a lot more things,” said state Rep. Carlos Henriquez, a Democrat who represents parts of Dorchester and Roxbury.

“You’re trying to protect whatever you can and not lose anywhere, but in some places it’s inevitable and it’s tough.”

“Not surprisingly, given the difficult economic times and the absence of revenue, the Legislature was faced with the impossible decision of making cuts to effective programs doing good work,” state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said in a statement. “In addition, I was disappointed to see the final language regarding municipal health care, which I believe does not go far enough to protect vulnerable populations—such as our sickest workers and low-income retirees—or to give workers a fair voice in the process.”

The state budget’s advancement on Beacon Hill came days after the City Council voted 12-1 to support of Mayor Thomas Menino’s $2.4 billion fiscal 2012 budget. Councillor Charles Yancey, a frequent Menino administration critic, was the lone vote against the package, which was up 2.9 percent over the fiscal 2011 spending plan.

Councillors expressed frustration with the lack of federal funding and the weak economy’s effect on the budget, forcing city officials to cut back on programs and eliminate 14 full-time custodial positions in the school department. “We have tightened our own belt,” said Councillor Maureen Feeney.

The budget includes funding for 9,000 summer jobs for youth, down from 10,000 jobs last year, but up from the 7,400 positions that were included in the original budget proposal Menino submitted earlier this year. Councillor Felix Arroyo blamed Republicans in control of Congress for the decrease and urged the forty supporters who gathered in the council chamber to lobby their state lawmakers, who were still weighing how much to spend.

“We are suffering from an obscene amount of federal and state cuts,” Arroyo said, giving credit to Menino for pushing for more youth jobs funding. “We’re overwhelmed.”

State aid to the city has declined for four consecutive years, with Boston expected to take a $24.4 million hit in fiscal 2012, as the cost of providing health benefits to city employees and retirees has ballooned to $320 million.

“In 2011, in this fiscal climate, there is really no such thing as a good budget,” Councillor Ayanna Pressley said.

“But this budget is as good as a bad budget can be,” she added.
Pressley also thanked her colleagues for their support when her mother, “the fourteenth member of this council” who died last Friday, was in the hospital in “a fight for her life.”

The budget closes nine schools and merges eight others into four in a bid to eliminate a quarter of the 5,600 vacant seats in the school system and a $60 million budget gap. Dorchester schools slated for closure include Fifield Elementary School, East Zone Early Learning Center, and Middle School Academy. The Lee Academy Pilot School is merging with the elementary school it shares a building with, while Clap Elementary, originally on the closing list, is reopening in the fall as an “innovation school” with greater flexibility in staff and curriculum granted to parents and teachers.

City Councillor Tito Jackson, voting on his first budget, praised it for the $65 million in the capital plan for the Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square and upgrades to the Strand Theatre.

The Mason Pool, originally scheduled to close, will stay open, Jackson said, Monday through Saturday, “which we’ve never had before.”

Rep. Henriquez said that before the deal to save the pool was set up, lawmakers were receiving conflicting information from the administration about whether the proposed closing of the pool was about funding or reorganization.

“It’s just a little jewel in the neighborhood,” he said.

On the council chamber floor, Jackson added that he had concerns about the school closings. “But when it comes down to it, I think in my eyes, I know in my eyes that this a budget that I will be supporting and will continue to work with the administration to get more resources that are sorely needed in District 7,” he said.

Citing the shooting of a four-year-old in the Franklin Field area last week, Yancey pressed for a “significant” increase in street workers and youth workers to work with young people before they can commit a crime. “I think we have to move in a different direction” and invest in more youth workers and community centers, he said.

Taking aim at Menino, Yancey said, “He’s taking the city in the wrong direction.”