Friday, February 16, 2001
State legislators forecast "lean and mean" year
The single optimistic financial note at MAGIC's (Minuteman Area Group on Interlocal Coordination) biannual legislative breakfast this month was Senator Pat Wolrath's announcement that "I think this year is going to be better than next year." With the economy slowing down, the Big Dig continuing, and a tax cut kicking in, the state expects a $250 million deficit even if revenues do not decline this year. "The starting point is just say no," Wolrath quipped.
Indeed, there are enough woes to go around and then some, including the fact that cherry sheets (the estimated revenues the town can expect from the state, printed on pink paper) may not be available in time for towns with early town meetings. This will complicate an already sorry picture. One town official said, "Even with override votes for the next five years, the town can just pay the bills." Towns that were looking forward to state and federal assistance in coping with rapid growth, including the major issues of housing, transportation and education, may be disappointed.
Housing pressures continue
All communities in the MAGIC area are experiencing a change in the housing picture. The themes are the same. On one hand there is a growing need for affordable housing, for land to put it on and for money to build it. On the other hand there is a significant shift in the kind of housing available within towns. Most towns report they are losing middle income housing stock, partially due to "mansionization"as small houses are being replaced with homes in the million- dollar range. The escalating cost of land also makes it impossible to build new homes at an affordable price. Many towns are losing the resident work force that keeps community functions going. One town representative said, "We've lost almost every town employee; they had to leave town because of living and housing costs." Another said, "All our firefighters now live in New Hampshire." Legislators at the breakfast meeting felt there needs to be a broader definition of "affordable" as in affordable housing at the same time as there is a greater recognition of the need for a range of housing within a community.
Senator Pam Resor stated that the governor is making state lands available for housing. There is a governor's task force to look at local and regional housing issues and Resor felt it important that local people have seats at that table.
Transportation still "robbing Peter to pay Paul"
Even as the 2000-2025 regional transportation plan is being updated, MAGIC communities are being told that "the next five years are essentially mitigation for the Big Dig." There will be no money for urgently needed transportation projects, such as enlargement of the Concord Rotary. In addition, there is little in the works to expand public transit for the reverse commute. For example, the earliest westbound train arrives in Acton at 8:15 a.m. A Littleton representative said that, "until the train problem is solved you are going to see more people on the roads. Carlisle residents can attest to the overcrowding of Route 225 and Lincoln and Maynard residents report that Route 117 is backlogged both ways most mornings." The commercial development of Fort Devens may put some pressure on MBTA to increase transportation capacity in the area. But "it ain't pretty" and there is consensus that getting MBTA to recognize this need continues to be a sticky problem.
Cost of education burdens communities
School building costs are threatening towns but, "the SPED (special education) is killing them," according to one legislator. "I'm hearing that in every one of my communities," said Senator Pam Resor. There was consensus that this situation will get worse. Representative Corey Atkins of Concord pointed out that school enrollments are increasing but there is little equity in apportionment of some state reimbursements to towns, particularly for student transportation and special education. The state needs to take on more education funding.
Lexington representative Jay Kaufman reminded the group that Massachusetts is 45th out of 50 states in funding education and "in special ed we are 50 out of 50." He added, "We have not stepped up to the plate to take our responsibility."
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito