Harvard, Mass.: What's a little town to do with $2.2 million?
Soon the apple orchards, for which Harvard is best known, will be draped with fragrant blossoms. Of course, this calls for a celebration, so there will be a festival with tours of the orchards for visitors and a crafts show on the town common.Skip to next paragraph
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This year, these events will be especially welcome. They will help divert attention from a controversy that has thrust the rural New England community unwillingly into the national spotlight.
For a quiet town of barely 4,400 people, Harvard has had more than its share of attention lately.
In early March reporters and scientists converged on the town for an event most townspeople didn't even realize was happening here. It was the kickoff of a 24-hour-a-day, year-round effort to listen in on outer space in case alien life is trying to communicate with Earth. Harvard is the home of an observatory operated by the well-known university of the same name, 30 odd miles to the east.
Now some of those reporters have returned, drawn by an entirely different issue. And this time the local people realize only too well what is happening.
It is a dispute over a lot of money.
In an age when most cities and towns across the United States bemoan having too little government aid, Harvard is getting more than it needs - or at least more than many here think it is entitled to.
The town drew $505,983 in state assistance for fiscal 1981 on the basis of its population. But in 1982, the state began including the population of Fort Devens, a US Army base that cuts across one edge of town, in Harvard's total when the time came to allocate local aid. That raised the population count to more than 12,000. It also quadrupled the aid - to $2.2 million. For fiscal 1983, the amount dropped, but only slightly, to $2.1 million.
Other towns might be thrilled with the windfall. Harvard isn't.
''It's not a nice problem at all,'' says the Rev. Malcolm Sutherland Jr., pastor of the Harvard Unitarian Church. ''It has been embarrassing.''
The town is already affluent. Other than the orchards, it has a tiny commercial base. But some residents hold prominent jobs in the high-tech firms for which Massachusetts is famous. Others are professors at that other Harvard.
Homes here sell for anywhere from $100,000 to more than $400,000. They tend to be gracious, many with attached greenhouses, tennis courts, swimming pools, studios over the garage, or corrals for horses.
Meanwhile, other towns in the state - including some of Harvard's immediate neighbors - are strapped for money and could use much more state aid than they are receiving now. Under a 1980 Massachusetts law, communities may not spend more than 21/2 times the assessed value of all their real property. As a result, many have had to cut back on such municipal services as police and fire protection, and the like.
Finally, Fort Devens is really not part of the fabric of Harvard - socially, economically, or in any other sense. Its troops do not live, shop, seek entertainment, attend church, or send their children to school here. For these, they turn to neighboring Ayer, Mass., within which most of the fort lies. (Ayer does not qualify for extra state aid, as Harvard does, but it does receive federal ''impact aid'' for the educational services it provides.)
About all Harvard does for the base is serve as the recorder of deaths that occur there. Well, not quite all: Some residents allow Army spotters to use their land as an observation post during mortar-firing exercises on the base.
The Harvard Post, a 10-year-old weekly that prides itself on ''100 percent coverage'' of the town, editorialized against the aid windfall in its Jan. 28 issue.