Friday, October 24, 2008
House Ways and Means Chair affirms local aid safe, for now
On Thursday October 16, the same day Governor Patrick announced $1 billion in cuts to the state budget, House Ways and Means Chair Robert DeLeo and Fourteenth Middlesex District Representative Cory Atkins met with officials from district towns at the Concord Town House to answer questions, take input, and calm the waters. Over the course of two hours, town representatives shared their frustrations and suggested that, whatever happens to the state budget, knowing sooner rather than later would aid planning and save them much wasted effort.
Atkins described her district, which includes Carlisle, Concord, and parts of Acton and Chelmsford, observing, “I represent exceptionally well-managed communities” where “schools are the temples.” Many of her constituents are owners and managers of industry, she said, adding, “We drive a lot of the economic development of the region.” She then introduced DeLeo as acChair “who listens [to constituents] in a way no one really has before.”
DeLeo said “I want to hear from folks,” not just in major cities, but in smaller towns as well. He pointed to $1 billion in state revenue shortfalls, and predicted hard decisions will have to be made. He had discussed the budget with the governor, who had indicated no cuts will be made to local aid or Chapter 70 aid to schools. However, DeLeo cautioned that the extent of cuts “remains to be seen” and predicted “not before next fall will we see a change in the economic situation,” with a possibility the state economy will not recover for two or three years.
“Massachusetts has fared better than most other states,” said DeLeo, because investments in emerging technologies, clean energy, and travel and tourism have supported an economy that is “not good, but less bad.”
Rainy Day Fund
The state’s Rainy Day Fund currently sits at $2.1 billion dollars, “one of the highest in the country.” However, DeLeo cautioned against eyeing those funds too greedily, as the extent and longevity of the economic crisis is unknown.
Concord Selectman Virginia McIntyre argued for help with property taxes, and noted that 40% of the residents of that town make less than $60,000 per year. “People think we’re all rich. We’re not, but we will be” if lower-income residents are forced out by property taxes. A representative of Chelmsford advocated for dipping into the Rainy Day Fund to maintain local aid. That town closed an elementary school last year and faces further cuts this year. DeLeo said the Ways and Means Committee will be cautious about recommending use of the fund, stating, “The concern could be getting through three or four years [of downturn], not just one.” Atkins noted that state aid is allotted according to a formula and a particular representative has no influence. “We all live by the same rules.”
DeLeo said that a $2 million study is currently underway to look at cost-cutting through regionalization and group purchasing. Emergency 911 and police car purchases are two areas where he believes communities could save money. Atkins later added the state is looking at bulk purchasing and negotiation of tuition for out-placed special education students.
Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen said that towns are hampered by rules that don’t apply to state agencies. He gave as an example the requirement that any town wishing to take part in the state’s GIC group health benefit cannot change contributions without the consent of a local board comprised of union employees. The unions lobbied for and won this concession, said DeLeo. “This was very disappointing to me. I had hoped this would be a major item to help cities and towns.” The low enrollment in the state plan may force the legislature to take another look at this program.
Transportation was also a topic, as an Acton official asked for greater regional planning. No one town is now willing to invest in additional parking around commuter rail stations without regional coordination, she observed.
Carlisle speaks up
Carlisle Selectman Doug Stevenson requested that if there is bad news on the local aid front, Carlisle would like to know now, particularly where school building funds are concerned. DeLeo responded, “Our hope and desire is that this will be it. What the economy says may be different.” Sales tax collections are down, and this is the source of funding for the Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA). “Obviously, that will have an effect,” said DeLeo.
Stevenson also asked that the requirement for a property reassessment be temporarily waived until real estate values have settled. Under state law, an interim assessment must be done if property values fall by more than 10% between those planned every third year. Atkins appeared to support this, agreeing that real estate values are currently very volatile and “we don’t need more procedures that cost towns money.”
Bill Ryan of the Acton-Boxborough Schools echoed the need for information, “As soon as you can give us direction, the better we can do our planning.” Another Acton representative said that last year’s joint statement by the House and Senate regarding budget plans had been very helpful, and encouraged further House/Senate cooperation.
What if Question 1 passes?
Concord FinCom Chair Walter Birge asked what plans were being made in case Question 1 eliminating the state income tax passes. DeLeo said his committee has not made any decisions on what to do about the resulting shortfall. “It’s scary,” he added. “I just hope voters look at $1 billion in cuts and ask themselves, ‘What would happen with $17 billion?’” DeLeo noted that social and environmental services which are being cut to achieve the $1 billion level could be gutted if Question 1 passes. “There’s not a lot we [representatives]can do,” he said. “This would devastate some families in our communities.”
On the question of casinos, Atkins said residents of her district are “very much against it.” She opposes casinos without regulation, and notes that casino revenues nationwide are down. But it’s been estimated that 3,000 jobs could be created, said Atkins, and “that sounds like good news” and a reason to possibly reconsider. DeLeo said casinos may be back on the docket in January, especially if state revenues continue to slide. However he cautioned against an attitude that “everything’s going to be taken care of” if casinos are approved.
DeLeo thanked everyone for their input, and Atkins concluded with a word of encouragement. District communities “have the brainpower and heart power to reach out and take care of all the citizens,” she said. “I have a lot of faith we’ll pull through this well.” ∆
© 2008 The