From the Beacon, October 2022

Municipal leaders have forged a remarkable and resilient partnership with the Baker-Polito administration over the past eight years, and our cities and towns have benefited in countless ways.

This was possible because developing a powerful state-local relationship was an intentional priority for Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito from the start, and has been a top-of-mind consideration throughout their years as the state’s top executives. An excellent report issued by the Rappaport Institute at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government does a terrific job of explaining their partnership playbook and provides clear examples of how their approach yielded excellent results. Local officials certainly hope that the next administration takes that framework and runs with it, because it is a playbook for success.

If any of the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor ask you for advice during the month before the election, I recommend that you urge them to read the report.

In addition, you can help explain the on-the-ground impact of key issues that will be fundamental policy and funding choices facing the next administration. There are so many, but here are 10 categories that are consequential for a huge number of municipalities.

1. We need the next administration to maintain revenue sharing to ensure an enduring state-local fiscal partnership that shares future state tax revenue growth with cities and towns to fund essential local government services and reduce overreliance on the property tax. We are asking state leaders to commit to increasing Unrestricted General Government Aid each year by the same rate of growth as state revenues (calculated by comparing the revenue estimate used to fund the July 1 enacted budget in the current year with the December consensus revenue estimate for the next fiscal year). This has been state policy for nearly a decade and is essential for fiscal stability at the local level, providing predictable increases in unrestricted municipal aid.

2. Continue to fund the Student Opportunity Act and increase minimum aid to $100 per student instead of the below-inflation $30 per student amount in the statutory formula. With 42% of school districts set as minimum-aid-only at $30 per student in the updated Chapter 70 formula (135 out of 318 operating districts), these communities were set to receive a meager 0.77% average school aid increase in fiscal 2023. Fortunately, the Legislature doubled minimum aid to $60 per student, providing a welcome boost. Going forward, minimum aid of $100 per student would result in an average increase much closer to historical inflation (although below the current inflation rate).

In addition, rural districts, especially those with declining populations and enrollments, need additional aid because they must fund the fixed costs of running a school district and cannot consolidate or merge with other regions, as students and staff cannot travel longer distances. We also need to advance ways to prevent the further diversion of Chapter 70 aid away from traditional school districts caused by the deeply flawed charter school funding system.

3. We need the governor to fund key programs and obligations so that the state keeps its commitment to support essential aid accounts for targeted municipal and school programs, including full funding of all existing programs to pay for state mandates.

This includes the special education circuit breaker, regional school transportation reimbursements, charter school mitigation payments, and Payments In Lieu of Taxes for State-Owned Land (PILOT). In recent years, the current administration has mostly level-funded these accounts in its original budget submissions, leaving it to the Legislature to find the money to keep the programs funded.

The MMA also strongly supports continuation of the Baker-Polito administration’s Community Compact program, a wildly popular initiative that delivers great results at the local level, providing small but critical grants to cities and towns to implement best practices in government finance and operations, advance efficiency improvements and regionalization efforts, leverage key IT improvements, and help modernize municipal fiber. The program also provides a clearinghouse to connect municipalities with dozens of state grant programs. (Here’s an MMA story about the recently launched fiscal 2023 programs.)

4. Oppose new unfunded mandates and commit to a process that reviews and identifies the cost of all proposed mandates and regulatory changes prior to their enactment. Unfunded mandates, even for popular programs, are unaffordable because local budgets are zero-sum under Proposition 2½. New requirements force communities to take funding away from other departments, eroding the quality of other essential services that taxpayers expect and deserve.

Examples of well-intentioned measures that would create major fiscal and operational problems for cities and towns include mandating foundational public health service levels (which would impose a new $140 million annual cost) and the requirement for fully hybrid meetings under the open meeting law (which would impact more than 10,000 mostly volunteer municipal boards and committees, with no staffing, meeting space, or technology to support the requirement). Here are links to MMA documents explaining the impact of these unfunded mandates: MMA Letter Regarding Public Health Mandate; and MMA Letter Regarding Hybrid Meeting Mandate versus Remote Meeting Option. New programs must receive guaranteed full funding on a permanent basis.

5. Provide cities and towns with local-option revenue options and local decision-making authority to address major community challenges.

Examples of potential new local-option revenues could include a locally determined excise on liquor sales to fund local substance-use-disorder programs and services to combat the opioid crisis, or a locally decided real estate transfer tax to provide funding for housing and climate mitigation programs.

Examples of new decision-making authority would be to allow communities to address local needs by creating local rent stabilization measures, or setting local fossil-fuel-free building codes.

6. Invest in essential public infrastructure by increasing the state’s support for the “bricks and mortar” underpinnings of roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, and municipal buildings to ensure that we can sustain and expand a modern economy and vibrant communities.

Chapter 90 funding for local roads and bridges has been level-funded at $200 million a year, the same amount set in fiscal 2012 — 11 years ago. Communities maintain 30,000 miles of local roads, and the purchasing power of Chapter 90 has declined by about 50% during this time. (Here’s more background on Chapter 90.)

Fortunately, American Rescue Plan Act funds are allowing communities to make some increased investments in water and sewer, but new problems have emerged, such as the growth in water systems with PFAS levels that exceed state and federal standards.

Municipal buildings are crumbling across the state, including police and fire stations, city and town halls, senior centers, libraries, and other facilities. A new state program, modeled on the School Building Assistance Program, should be considered. This is directly related to the passage of Proposition 2½ 40 years ago, which deeply impairs the ability of local governments to invest in capital projects. Municipal officials would like to work with state leaders to identify a sustainable revenue source to support this new state initiative.

7. Invest in public technology and cybersecurity at the local and state level to ensure that Massachusetts will be competitive in the modern global economy. This includes supporting the MassCyberCenter and all the training and resources the agency provides to cities and towns.

The state will also need to increase grants for technology upgrades and training to enhance the capacity to serve the public and improve cyber resilience and help move communities closer to a baseline level of cyber preparedness.

8. Empower community-driven planning and zoning and avoid one-size-fits-all mandates in the state’s Zoning Act and related laws, so that cities and towns can address critical issues such as housing affordability and sustainable growth without disrupting long-term planning and neighborhood stability.

Examples of well-intentioned but infeasible mandates include requiring “as-of-right” accessory dwelling unit (ADU) approvals in all residential neighborhoods, or expanding the multi-family zoning mandate to communities without public transportation assets or access to adequate intrastate roadways. In addition, the state should be very flexible in implementing the multifamily zoning mandate in MBTA communities, as many localities will struggle to meet the timelines or win approval of changes at town meetings or municipal council meetings.

9. Allow cities and towns to effectively manage by recognizing that the archaic personnel management laws in Massachusetts impose burdens on municipal budgets, make it difficult to attract and retain qualified employees, and need “stem to stern” modernization.

This includes:
• Allowing communities to remove their public safety departments from the state Civil Service system
• Supporting adequate resources for the Joint Labor-Management Committee so that more negotiation impasses are solved via mediation instead of arbitration
• Engaging in a review of Chapter 150E and how the collective bargaining law impedes the implementation of accountability in police departments by making it impossible to update or remove decades-old arbitration requirements that inevitably weaken the discipline of inappropriate behavior
• Opposing the imposition of “presumption” laws that would create unaffordable increases in our disability retirement systems

10. Commit to constant communication and direct dialogue by having the governor, lieutenant governor, and key agency officials attend and actively participate in the Local Government Advisory Commission. All administrations have actively participated in the LGAC for nearly five decades, maintaining public communication on key issues of interest to municipalities and the state.

Municipal leaders know that many of these issues are complex and not easy to fund or achieve, which is why cities and towns and the officials who lead them are looking for constant communication, close collaboration, and a strong partnership with the next administration. We look forward to the coming year with enthusiasm. Working together, local and state leaders can move Massachusetts forward in exciting and meaningful ways, based on a strategy that allows all communities to thrive.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO