MMA letter to governor outlining municipal priorities in FY14 budget bill before him

Print Email

His Excellency Deval Patrick
Governor of the Commonwealth
State House, Boston
 
Dear Governor Patrick,
 
On behalf of the cities and towns of the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Municipal Association is writing regarding H. 3538, the fiscal 2014 general appropriations bill approved by the Legislature on July 1, 2013, and before you for review.
 
City and town officials across the state appreciate the commitment made to local government in the fiscal 2014 budget recommendation that you filed in January, which served as the starting point for the Legislature during another very challenging fiscal year for both state and local government. Investing in strong cities and towns is an essential strategy to build the Massachusetts economy and improve our state’s growth and competitiveness, and the final budget adopted by the House and Senate makes important investments in key municipal and education programs. We respectfully ask for your favorable consideration of the priorities outlined below.
 
Municipal Aid
The Legislature would fund the Cherry Sheet Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) account at $920 million, a $21 million increase. The MMA strongly supports this higher level of support for local government to help pay for municipal services and avoid over-reliance on the property tax. Cities and towns rely on UGGA distributions to fund police and fire services, public education, public works and other vital municipal and school programs. This account (line item 1233-2000 and Section 3) has been cut by $416 million since fiscal 2008, a 32 percent reduction that has fostered fiscal distress locally and left communities with fewer resources to fund the basic services that people depend on for everyday living.
 
The Legislature’s fiscal 2014 UGGA appropriation would guarantee that cities and towns receive all of their Lottery revenues – funds that are intended by law and history to go directly to municipalities as a discretionary local revenue source to fund municipal services and reduce the property tax burden. The $21 million growth in UGGA represents a very modest 2.3 percent increase in the most critical municipal aid account in the state budget. We deeply appreciate your anticipated support for this priority.
 
In addition to the main municipal aid account, there are several other important general municipal aid and public safety grant programs that are funded in the budget that local officials strongly support, including:
 
Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes for State-Owned Land (PILOT) – We support the appropriation that would provide $26.8 million in reimbursements due under the law to cities and towns that host and provide municipal services to state facilities (1233-2400). PILOT payments are vitally important for those cities and towns that host state facilities, and the program has been underfunded for many years. The Legislature’s appropriation includes a modest $500,000 increase; and
 
Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program – We support the appropriation that would fund the Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program (8100-0111) at $7 million, a $750,000 increase. This program is crucial to assist those communities dealing with very challenging public safety and gang-related issues.
 
School Aid
 
Chapter 70 School Aid
The MMA supports the appropriation for Chapter 70 school aid (7061-0008) that would increase the fiscal 2014 level of funding to $4.3 billion, an increase of $130 million. This appropriation would ensure that all districts are able to reach the foundation level of spending, continue the scheduled “target share” reforms to set a fair framework for state and local contributions, and provide all districts with at least $25 per student in new aid next year. These three items (foundation funding, minimum aid and target aid) are vital elements of a strong investment in every student and district in Massachusetts.
 
Special Education “Circuit Breaker”
We strongly support the $253 million appropriation for the special education “circuit breaker” account (7061-0012) to fund the state’s statutory 75 percent share of certain special education costs over four-times the state average foundation budget per-student level. This an essential program that helps all school districts with the increasingly burdensome cost of complex and expensive special education services. Full funding of this account is extremely important, because otherwise communities are forced to divert essential resources away from other school and education programs to make up for any shortfall in the state’s obligation. Further, with federal cuts in IDEA funding, the state’s commitment to special education services becomes an even higher priority. At $253 million, the Legislature’s budget provides a $10 million increase, which is absolutely necessary to keep the state at or near the full funding level. Full funding was a signature achievement in the fiscal 2013 state budget, and the $253 million appropriation is needed to maintain the same level of commitment to the program. These funds benefit citizens in every city, town and school district in the state.
 
Reimbursements for School Aid Deductions for Charter School Tuition
The diversion of Chapter 70 school aid away from public schools to charter schools is imposing a growing financial burden on cities and towns, as more charters are granted and existing charter schools expand. In fiscal 2014, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) estimates that full funding of the state’s obligation to reimburse a portion of the loss of Chapter 70 school aid, as called for in the 2010 education reform law, would require $103 million. As a start to fiscal 2014, we support the Legislature’s appropriation to fund the charter school reimbursement account at $75 million. Unfortunately, this is $28 million below full funding, which means that this issue will require further attention during the year ahead.
 
During the upcoming year, DESE expects that cities and towns will be forced to divert $407 million of their Chapter 70 aid to fund charter schools, $53 million more than in fiscal 2013, which illustrates the importance of funding this account to ease the impact on local districts that educate the vast majority of students.
 
Currently, the appropriation (7061-9010) for fiscal 2013 totals $70 million. We very much appreciate your $8 million request to fully fund this account for 2013 as part of your supplemental budget recommendation filed in May (H. 3451), and we appreciate the Legislature including it in the recently enacted supplemental budget bill (H. 3539), which is now on your desk. We request that you sign the $8 million supplemental appropriation and the $75 million allocation for fiscal 2014, and subsequently submit a recommendation for full funding of this important account again during the course of the year.
 
McKinney-Vento Unfunded Mandate
We support the Legislature’s appropriation that would provide $7.4 million to pay for the state mandate to provide transportation services to homeless students to schools outside the local school district (7035-0005). This is a very important account to the cities and towns across the state obligated to provide costly transportation services through the state’s acceptance of the federal McKinney-Vento grant.
 
We appreciate your decision earlier this year to reverse the 9C reduction to this account and restore fiscal 2013 funding to the estimated full funding level of $11.3 million. We request that you recommend full funding for this mandated program during the year.
 
Student Transportation Reimbursements
We support the $51.5 million appropriation (7035-0006) to reimburse regional school districts for a share of the cost of transporting students to and from school. This is a very important account for regional school districts and member cities and towns in less-populated parts of the state where travel time is unavoidably long. Regional districts and member cities and towns appreciate the $6 million increase in funding over the fiscal 2013 level, recognizing that this is still far below the 100-percent funding level originally promised in state law.
 
We also support the $3 million appropriation (7035-0007) to reimburse cities and towns for the cost of transporting students to out-of-district vocational education programs. The cost of meeting state mandated obligations under the law poses an increasing financial burden for many cities and towns. We also support the work of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Chapter 74 Task Force, which we hope will release recommendations over the next few months to reform the law, including the issues raised in section 74A of the budget bill.
 
Outside Sections
 
Public Safety Employee Residency Law
We strongly oppose sections 50 and 110 that would eliminate the statutory 10-mile residency requirement for police officers and firefighters and provide that residency is a subject of collective bargaining. We ask that you veto these sections or return them with a proposed amendment that we have drafted as a reasonable compromise on this issue (that amendment has been forwarded to the Executive Office for Administration and Finance).
 
Currently, the law requires that police officers and firefighters reside no more than 10 miles from the communities in which they work. We understand that the proposed law change in its current form may be viewed as a local option, but in reality it is not a local-option law, and it contains fatal flaws. The first problem is that the provision would undermine the management rights of cities and towns by making the statutory 10-mile residency limit a matter to be decided by collective bargaining. This may seem like a subtle change, but it is not. The law now sets the limit at 10 miles. Management may decide to seek a shorter limit, or may be willing to provide some flexibility, but that decision is entirely up to the municipal chief executive, who is held accountable by the voters on matters of public safety and security. By statutorily stating that the residency limit would be a subject of collective bargaining, these sections would strip the executive of this prerogative, and the residency law would be determined by the outcome of a bargaining agreement, exposing communities to serious management and logistical issues.
 
By making the residency limit an explicit subject of collective bargaining, these sections would, for the first time in the history of Massachusetts, make the residency requirement subject to binding decisions by either the Joint Labor Management Committee or other entities, whereby an unaccountable arbitrator unfamiliar with the needs in a given municipality could unilaterally extend the residency limit beyond 10 miles, over the objections of the mayor, board of selectmen, manager or police chief. This would be a major infringement on management rights, and would raise serious public safety concerns in affected municipalities.
 
We strongly urge you to veto Sections 50 and 110, or return them to the Legislature with amendments to ensure that cities and towns retain appropriate management authority on public safety issues.
 
Emergency Medical Services
We were very pleased that Section 92 of the Senate budget bill related to payments for emergency medical services was not included in the Conference Committee report.  While there appears to be strong agreement across state and local government that the increasingly common insurance company “pay the patient” practice is wrong, inefficient and wasteful, the proposal to allow the Commissioner of Insurance to set local fees and charges through regulation is not an appropriate course of action. Removing local authority and discretion would undermine a local process that is fair and working well across the Commonwealth, and could seriously disrupt municipal finances if the state bureaucracy sets rates that are inadequate.
 
We strongly support Section 23 in the supplemental budget bill that is before you (H. 3539), and ask that you approve this much-needed provision, which would ban “pay the patient” and clarify the fundamental authority of local government to set fees for emergency medical services.
 
Cities and towns establish fees and charges for a wide variety of municipal services, and are strictly limited by state law to match their fees with the cost of providing that service. This is the rule that applies to local charges for emergency medical services, ensuring that the fees are reasonable. Cities and towns must retain their local fee-setting authority in order to prevent insurance companies, or even state officials, from shifting costs to local property taxpayers through artificially low reimbursements.
 
Summary
Local leaders deeply appreciate your dedication to a strong state-local partnership that benefits all of the citizens of the Commonwealth.  Working together, your Administration and local officials in every corner of the state have forged a powerful alliance to move Massachusetts out of the recession, and back onto a path of growth and prosperity.  The Legislature’s fiscal 2014 state budget includes essential investments in municipal and school services to continue this progress, and we ask you to support the municipal priorities we have highlighted.
 
If you have any questions or desire any additional information regarding the issues and requests that we have presented regarding the fiscal 2014 state budget, please do not hesitate to have your office contact me or MMA Legislative Director John Robertson (at 617-426-7272 ext. 122 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) at any time.
 
Thank you again for your leadership and strong support for cities and towns.
 
Sincerely,
 
Geoffrey C. Beckwith
Executive Director, MMA