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.

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.

''There must be some way to get the formula corrected - or the population justified - so as to more equitably reflect Harvard's 'need,' '' it said in part. ''At the very least, we must seriously look for a way of using the town's state aid money to benefit fellow Massachusetts residents who are truly in need.''

Some residents agree, as their letters to the Post make plain. Many others do not. By one account, the town is split into as many as six factions over the issue.

''I think a lot of townspeople are doing a super job of trying to think the thing through,'' Mr. Sutherland says. But he adds, ''Some are discussing it at a level that is not useful.''

Dairy farmer Buzzy Watt isn't necessarily one of those the minister refers to. But he, for one, wants to cut off the flow of extra money now before the town begins depending on it.

Mr. Watt, who has lived here for more than 40 years, says Harvard ''used to be a nickel-and-dime town. Every line in the budget was questioned. People were involved more; they tried harder. I'm afraid we might lose that.''

It wasn't long ago, Watt says, that $2.2 million would just about cover the entire town budget for one fiscal year.

Such sentiments have led the news media to portray the town as an outpost of rugged Yankee independence and thrift. Instead of enjoying such characterizations, however, many here resent them. Says town clerk Cynthia Sweet , ''We'd be better off if everybody would just go away and leave us alone.''

Meanwhile, there are those who are all for keeping the money. Various town government boards have tussled over how it should be spent. That makes for colorful news stories. But the Board of Selectmen has grown so uncomfortable over the issue that it released a statement to be read to all inquiring reporters.

The statement calls the recent distributions of state aid ''unusually high'' and says, ''Local officials are working with their legislators to explore possible solutions to this situation.'' It concludes, ''no further comment is appropriate at this time.''

The selectmen are also discouraging town employees from commenting on the issue. However, Mary Welch, newly reelected to the Board of Selectmen, relented long enough to tell the Monitor: ''I'm not trying to obfuscate this whole thing. But it takes a lot to get a town to work together.''

In fact, much of the aid money is already being spent. The Harvard Public Library is undergoing extensive renovation. Some school facilities have been refurbished. A new patrol car was bought for the police department. New curbing has been installed around the common. There is to be a new highway department garage. A private parcel of land will be bought and converted into a playground with ball fields.

In September a town meeting will be held to decide what to do with the latest state allocation. And there do remain some important needs: more housing for senior citizens; a sewer system for the center of town; and renovation of the aged Town Hall, to name a few. A beefed-up police department may also be needed to guard against potential trouble attracted by new commercial development along I-495, which skirts Harvard's eastern edge.

Pat Groeninger, a member of the town finance committee, thinks the uses to which the money has been put are wise. ''It's not like the money is being wasted; it has gone into projects that would have been done anyway,'' she says. ''The only difference is, we're doing them without borrowing.''

Still, the issue weighs heavily on residents. At a town meeting in late March there was unanimous approval of an article directing the Planning Board to ''study the impact on the town of inclusion of the population of Fort Devens, and to recommend to the town an overall course of action.''

Peter Warren knows what he'd do about it. A Harvard real estate agent and former town assessor, he says: ''We're innocent bystanders. We didn't create the formula, the legislature did. Let them settle it.''

That attitude is too simplistic, the Rev. Mr. Sutherland contends. ''If this were a matter of assessing Harvard, we wouldn't have let them solve it,'' he says. ''It wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes. You know that and I know that.''

Adds Mrs. Groeninger, ''If I thought by giving it back to the State of Massachusetts it would be accomplishing some good, then I'd be all for it.''

However, she notes, the distribution formula probably cannot be changed just for Harvard. Other Massachusetts towns also benefit from having large institutions within their boundaries and are receiving extra state aid as a result. They need the money more than Harvard does and would not want the formula altered, she says.

Moreover, the Massachusetts constitution forbids the writing of any law that affects only one town, unless that town successfully petitions the legislature on its own behalf.

There may be a reasonably easy way out of the problem.

State Sen. Chester Atkins is chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. A Democrat from nearby Concord, he represents both Harvard and Ayer.

The ''most rational and logical'' solution, he says, would be for the two towns to agree to change their borders so that none of the fort lies within Harvard any longer. There are even legal precedents for this in Massachusetts.

Would Ayer go for the idea? ''Absolutely,'' says Ann Hackenson, administrative assistant to the Ayer Board of Selectmen. ''It wouldn't increase the impact on the town any. Speaking for myself, I'm enthused for what it could do for the town.'' The idea, she says, is ''so beautifully simple you wonder why it has taken so long to come up with it.''

But Harvard probably wouldn't agree, one town official says, citing the prevailing mood here a few years ago when the federal government proposed closing Fort Devens. Harvard residents didn't like the idea that all that prime land might revert to Ayer.

All the controversy tends to obscure the fact that Harvard has a long history of social concern. In 1843 the philosopher Bronson Alcott, father of novelist Louisa May Alcott, founded his utopian cooperative, Fruitlands, here. It failed after six months but paved the way for later experiments.

More recently, the town participated in the state-supported Metco busing program, under which inner-city Boston children attend suburban schools. Because of the distance involved, Metco students are no longer bused to Harvard. But town residents still keep in contact with some of those who once came, the Rev. Mr. Sutherland says.

And he points to Harvard's bringing 20 Kampuchean refugees to town since last fall. Not only have they been taken in by local families, but they also are being tutored in English, helped to find jobs, given driving lessons, and the like.

Townspeople also have contributed food and other goods to needy people in nearby cities and in the rural South.

This kind of commitment makes Buzzy Watt proud of Harvard - and optimistic that the state aid controversy will blow over.

It doesn't take much to stir up a fuss in a small town, he says, but ''it's too bad when people can't talk it out.''

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