​One strong ‘municipal modernization’ bill would benefit all communities

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From The Beacon, March 2016

Last month, the Legislature completed all of its public hearings on the sweeping “municipal modernization” bill that Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito filed in December. Five different committees heard testimony from scores of local officials and stakeholders in January and February, and the next step will be for the legislation to be reassembled into one strong package for votes in the House and Senate early this spring.
 
The Municipal Modernization Act is history-making in its depth and breadth. The bill would benefit nearly every aspect of local government and reflects the kind of local-state partnership that would make Massachusetts a model for the rest of the nation.
 
The bill features dozens of welcome reforms related to procurement, municipal finance, human resources, economic development and the general administration of local government. The measure was based on a wide range of input from hundreds of local leaders, and is built around four major actions: 1) updating and repealing obsolete state laws; 2) promoting independence at the local level; 3) streamlining state oversight; and 4) providing municipalities with greater flexibility and day-to-day decision-making powers.
 
Because several of the important reform measures in the Municipal Modernization Act are opposed by narrow special interest groups, it will be important for legislators and local officials to talk directly about the urgent need to include meaningful reforms in the ultimate bill, in addition to the nearly 250 good housekeeping changes that would smooth municipal administration.
 
Key reforms in the bill include the following significant provisions:
 
• Giving cities and towns control over the number of liquor licenses that can be issued to restaurants and bars in a community – a key provision that will return decision-making over downtown and neighborhood development to residents and officials at the local level.
 
• Enacting unemployment insurance reforms to prevent school crossing guards, school bus drivers, and others from collecting unemployment payments during school vacations, and to close the loophole that allows some municipal retirees to collect their pensions and unemployment if they hit the 960-hour cap on allowable post-retirement work.
 
• Allowing cities and towns to decide whether to exempt positions from Civil Service, instead of having to pass special home-rule legislation. The Civil Service system is outdated and interferes with local recruitment decision-making, and local officials should be able to effectively manage their human resources policies to use modern multi-faceted approaches to hiring and promotions.
 
• Increasing procurement thresholds to eliminate unnecessary red tape and delays for simple purchases – this is a no-brainer.
 
• Certifying the full and fair value of properties every five years, instead of every three years. Modern software has made the mid-term valuation process much more accurate, and a full review every five years is all that is necessary.
 
• Replacing many of the mandatory paid classified ads for zoning and other notices with electronic posting as used in the open meeting law. We know statewide and local newspapers are dependent on the revenue they receive from these ads, but electronic posting is the way to go, and this reform will save local taxpayers millions of dollars statewide.
 
• Giving municipalities the ability to levy fines to enforce the requirement that utilities remove double poles within 90 days. Right now telephone and electric utilities pay little or no attention to local requests to remove dangerous and unsightly double poles, and they engage in a circular game of finger pointing to dodge responsibility because there is no mechanism to force accountability. The prospect of modest local fines would surely change their tune.
 
In addition to the above reforms, the bill includes scores of provisions that would update and fine-tune a wide swath of state laws governing everything from basic municipal finance and administration, to allowing cities and towns a first option to purchase tax-exempt property, to streamlining the collection of overdue excise taxes, to allowing more than one city to join a regional veterans’ services coalition, and much more.
 
The legislation was written based on suggestions made by local government practitioners on ways to make municipal government more efficient and less costly and to return “home rule” authority to cities and towns, where it makes sense, including a number of proposals from the MMA’s legislative package.
 
More information about the bill can be found on the MMA website at www.mma.org/munimodernization.
 
No organization, public or private, can hit its stride unless all the parts are fully aligned and functioning smoothly. Last year, Gov. Baker said he would be a “weed whacker” who would take a fresh look at state government and clear away what no longer works so that taxpayers can have full confidence that they are getting value for their money.
 
In hundreds of ways, this bill removes obstacles and impediments to efficiency, and gives local leaders the tools they need to do their jobs more quickly and more effectively. The bill is bigger than a weed whacker – it’s more like a power mower that will clear a smoother path for cities and towns and produce better results and effective service delivery at the local level.
 
We have a chance to pass the most far-reaching and detailed municipal assistance legislation in state history, yet the end of formal legislative sessions is only five months away, so there is no time to waste.
 
We need our legislators to reassemble the Municipal Modernization Act into one powerful bill and make a commitment to move now to enact all of its provisions, not just the routine and easy proposals. The meaningful reforms highlighted above must be included in order to make it the “Municipal Modernization Act” instead of a lesser “Municipal Updating Act.”
 
The reason why is clear: A bill that truly modernizes, reforms and empowers our communities will strengthen all of Massachusetts.