Friday, March 23, 2007
Money, land and housing challenge community leaders
Money, both money from the town to the Commonwealth and from the Commonwealth to local communities, was the most pressing concern of Selectmen and planners who attended the Minuteman Advisory Group on Interlocal Coordination (MAGIC) semiannual legislative breakfast in Bedford earlier this week.
Referring to the state and region's difficult financial situation, Bedford Selectman Gordon Feltman said, "The main issue is improving the finances of the Commonwealth." Feltman believes new legislation will focus on revenue generation. Beneath the surface of the new revenue issue lies an historic and firmly embedded tension between central hub-oriented and local town-oriented constituencies; between legislative authority versus town control; between development pressures which involve land use and community demands for control of their own land. Participants acknowledged that these existing tensions have been fed by budget decisions which in recent years have shifted more of the tax burden to towns. When state aid to communities has been reduced, towns have of necessity picked up the tab by increasing local real estate taxes. Lack of funds is an issue that has affected communities across Massachusetts.
Carlisle's State Representative Cory Atkins states that Concord is proposing a local income tax to add to revenue available for local programs, but, "this is not a power the legislature wants to give up."
Discussion at the breakfast centered on the nature of taxation more than specific tax proposals. State Representative Jay Kaufman felt that the "sole basis of income for the Commonwealth is growth, and that is not a stable basis of income." Sarah Mattes from Lincoln felt that "putting taxation on the back of economic development is not sustainable. She asked, "What can our resources tolerate? How do we pay for the system we want?" If the Commonwealth is unwilling to raise taxes directly, "they need to be willing to give localities an option" according to one participant.
State Senator Pam Resor, chairman of the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, wants state environmental funding returned to the pre-Romney budget levels. The new governor's priorities in this area are not clear, primarily because the new administration's initial efforts have been directed to economic development and energy.
Housing concerns flourish
Additional units of new housing continue to go up in the MAGIC area. Boxborough has 225 units on the way. Although Bedford claims a comfortable 18% of its housing stock is affordable, which ensures safety from developers who would build high-density 40Bs (Carlisle has 1.2% affordable housing), it is still seeking to increase the number of affordable units by implementing a master plan initiative to increase smaller developments. However, a Bedford request for approval of a ten-unit housing development has been reportedly rejected at the state level because it is "too small." A Hudson Planning Board member said a smaller-sized Hudson application was rejected because "it was not dense enough for downtown."
Planners and Selectmen at the MAGIC breakfast wanted to add more choices to the housing menu and give towns more say in what happens on their soil. As one person said, "The 40B and D tools we are being given just don't fit."
Census estimates may affect representation
Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) Executive Director Marc Draisen spoke about how Massachusetts may face reduced representation as well as cuts in federal aid based on the U.S. census figures. He said that after the 2009 decennial census count, the region might lose up to two congressional seats due to lower population figures. Draisen explained that the numbers are depressed by the estimating process used, especially in undercounting three particular groups: students, immigrants and low income housing populations. The Boston area is hard hit by undercounting these groups, but Draisen said other states are undercounted for the same reasons. After the last census Boston challenged the estimates in an appeal and won.
Governor Patrick has included $800,000 in his budget to address this issue. The money would fund a study by the Population Estimate Program at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.
Legislators check out the new governor
It was inevitable that the four legislators attending the MAGIC breakfast would be asked to comment on their new governor. Those who spoke were enthusiastic. Kaufman said, "He seems to be committed to open government with the public at large and legislators can even walk into the governor's office."
© 2007 The