From the Beacon, December 2022

Local leaders are moving their communities forward in a very complicated environment.

COVID is still disrupting normal planning and impeding recovery in many sectors. Although unprecedented one-time resources from the federal government and the state surplus are available to assist in the short-term, deep long-term economic concerns are looming, particularly the double threat of a potential recession combined with unaffordable inflation that is driving up costs faster than revenue growth.

Massachusetts is in a time of transition, waiting for the pandemic to fully recede, while we are still unsure of the scope of the financial and operational impacts that cities, towns, and the state will face going forward. At the same time, there is growing urgency for progress on key priorities that will get harder to solve with longer delays.

The MMA is fortunate to be guided by a talented and dedicated Board of Directors, led by President Ruthanne Fuller and Vice President Jill Hai, and 32 top-shelf local officials who are intimately involved with the challenges that cities and towns are facing, and with the solutions that will be most effective. In that context, I want to share with you the results of the board’s recent long-range planning session, as our leadership identified major priorities for us to advance on behalf of all municipalities.

Revenue sharing and Chapter 70: The MMA will always serve as the lead advocate fighting for full funding for municipal and school aid, and our agenda for next year will prioritize a state revenue-sharing policy to increase Unrestricted General Government Aid by at least the same percentage as the actual growth in state tax revenues and secure full funding of the Student Opportunity Act. True revenue sharing and equitable funding for Chapter 70 are twin pillars that hold up municipal finances across the state.

Beyond these essential local government aid programs, the board has highlighted a number of key priorities to address critical challenges facing cities and towns.

Municipal infrastructure: Municipal infrastructure needs are extraordinary, and meeting those needs is more challenging than ever, given the resource limits imposed by Proposition 2½, the crumbling state of (dis)repair of our roads, bridges, environmental systems, public safety and municipal buildings, and rampant inflation in construction materials and labor. Municipal infrastructure is more broadly defined than in the past, moving beyond “horizontal” — roads, bridges and pipes — to include “vertical” — buildings and facilities.

The MMA’s goals include winning permanent increases in Chapter 90 for local roads, aiming beyond our current $300 million-a-year target, securing sustained increases in funding for environmental systems, including drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and climate resiliency, and launching a new state-funded program to address municipal building needs, modeled after the School Building Assistance program, with communities receiving support for local priorities, such as public safety buildings, senior centers, libraries, community centers, or city and town halls.

Municipal workforce recruitment and training: The tight labor market, combined with an aging workforce and a too-small talent pipeline, is creating significant problems for every community. Specialty positions that require expertise and training are extremely difficult to fill, including municipal finance roles, procurement officers, civil engineers, management positions, and even roles that have been historically easier to fill, such as qualified police officers and teachers. Members were in full agreement that this has quickly emerged as a priority, made more difficult by growing salary expectations and the “musical chairs” concern that communities are increasingly recruiting from each other, disrupting local succession planning. An additional dimension is the imperative for cities and towns to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in their workforces, to better represent their neighborhoods and attract the broadest range of talent, as DEI is an increasingly important priority for the rising generation of workers.

Building on our successful MMA-Suffolk leadership certificate and finance seminar programs, and our MassTown Careers initiative, the MMA’s goals include collaborating with the state to stand up new state-funded workforce development and training programs to close the skills gap and expand the municipal employment pipeline; changing state law to allow communities an easier path to withdraw from the Civil Service system; and engaging with our members to deliver DEI programming for internal operations and workforce needs.

Full funding for the state’s school funding programs (beyond the SOA): Many communities and school districts are benefiting from the state’s impressive commitment to funding the Student Opportunity Act. However, the lack of funding for a broad range of state school reimbursement commitments, exacerbated by too-low $30-per-student minimum aid, and rapid inflation in transportation, supply and personnel costs, is sliding most communities back, making it exceedingly difficult for many localities to maintain existing education services over the long term. In a recent report, State Auditor Suzanne Bump highlighted the challenges stemming from underfunded state programs, such as school transportation reimbursements and others, deepened by the problems of charter school finance, declining enrollment in rural school districts, and vocational school administration and cost allocations. This is creating inequities between communities due to geography and demography, undermining municipal finances and creating harder-to-solve gaps over time.

The MMA’s goals include increasing minimum aid to $100 per student, winning full funding of the state’s existing commitment to regional and out-of-district vocational transportation, full funding of the special education circuit breaker program, increasing rural school assistance, full funding of the SOA’s charter school mitigation payments and fixing the charter finance system to avoid net aid losses, re-introducing state funding for regular (non-regional) school transportation, which was eliminated 20-plus years ago, continued full funding of transportation for homeless students, and helping municipalities address vocational school district issues, from admissions to cost allocations.

Addressing the housing and zoning challenge: It is indisputable that housing affordability has become one of the major political and policy issues confronting much of Massachusetts, in both the homebuyer and rental markets. While all parts of the state have been touched, the most acute impact has been in the Greater Boston region. Private developers, housing advocates, and non-neutral interest groups have coalesced to point the blame at local zoning restrictions. (This is a national trend in states as diverse as California and Utah.)

The MMA took a leadership position and successfully advocated for reducing the vote threshold needed to relax zoning and allow denser housing (Housing Choice), yet the state went farther, enacting a multi-family zoning mandate for 175 MBTA communities, with growing pressure to expand it statewide and increase the penalty for noncompliance. Further, there is pressure to mandate unrestricted as-of-right accessory dwelling units in all residential zoning districts. The reality is that new housing construction will take many years to develop, so municipal zoning will be under pressure for years to come.

Communities are just one element of a highly complicated marketplace that is driven by the economy, interest rates, the availability of private capital, the supply of labor and materials, overall demand, and the projected return on investment. As Chapter 40B has demonstrated, providing pathways to override local zoning for larger multifamily developments has not been enough to compel the marketplace to invest in affordability, and it is unclear whether additional pathways to as-of-right development would even change or scale the behavior of developers.

Housing affordability is an issue in communities across the state, as home prices and rents have increased dramatically, and housing production has not kept pace with demand. This is creating division in many localities, primarily due to residents’ natural resistance to change. And let’s be clear, in the significant majority of communities, it’s the residents who control zoning, not municipal officials.

The housing issue is divisive in many communities, with neighborhoods rallying against large-scale developments. Proposals to change zoning, even in moderate ways, spark significant debate. In towns, where local voters control the outcomes, it can take years to pass zoning changes. Local leaders who work to find a way forward, even with incremental change, face resistance, and not all municipal officials are aligned. In this context, the Housing Choice law will make it easier to enact changes, with a majority vote instead of two-thirds. State law, such as the multifamily zoning requirement for 175 MBTA communities, may fit some localities but will create significant issues for others.

While some have latched onto zoning as the sole solution to housing affordability, the reality is that this is a multifaceted challenge. Cities and towns need tools and resources to address housing affordability. First, the state needs to take a more flexible approach to policy and provide positive incentives to support and encourage communities to increase housing, such as fully funding and expanding Chapter 40S to provide supplemental education aid to offset the costs resulting from student enrollment growth, providing funding and programs to develop distressed properties, working with communities to advance mixed housing projects that provide multiple benefits to neighborhoods, and delivering vastly improved public transportation that truly incentivizes developers to create transit-related housing.

The state should increase funding for affordable housing and homeownership, expanding on programs to provide financial support to renters and first-time homebuyers, which will incentivize developers to create housing stock that matches these purchasers. And in the long term, we all can do a better job of educating residents on what affordable and market rate housing looks like, and who would be served through access to affordable apartments and homes, so that residents can have a clearer understanding of the issue, rather than acting out of fear and resisting change.

Addressing incivility at the community level: Every municipal leader has a story to tell about rising incivility at the local level, including tension and outbursts by the public, and even disputes between municipal officials.

Incivility has grown in recent years, spurred by the pandemic and economic worries that have enhanced stress and put more people on edge, political and social polarization on the national stage that is spilling over to local issues and groups, and remote technology that facilitates interactions that otherwise would not occur when people are together on a more regular basis — all accelerated by social media platforms that can be used to attack or spread misinformation. Unabated, incivility will drive volunteers from local government, making it difficult to attract positive consensus-builders, leading to greater turnover and uncertainty.

Many local leaders have been addressing this head-on with an impressive set of suggestions and best practices. Some have prioritized enhanced communication with the public, proactively providing an unprecedented amount of information to demonstrate transparency, explaining issues without spin, with the goal of enhancing trust and having the community see the full picture of what government is doing and why. Others have established a code of civility that they post and read at public meetings, to model shared expectations of constructive engagement. Others have worked to have their boards and committees lead by example, modeling respectful interactions. Some conduct citizen academies to educate residents on what local government does and how it operates, creating a pool of potential volunteers and increasing the number of people who engage constructively. Others have conducted bystander training, to assist employees in handling difficult situations. Others suggest using a mental health professional to provide insight on what drives incivility and ways to respond or engage that deescalates. A common thread in all this work is a recognition that the people who are serving and engaging are trying to move their hometowns forward in ways that matter to them, and that the vast majority of people have positive intent.

For the MMA, this means it is our job to help foster more civility and less incivility, through training for local officials and employees to understand the causes of incivility and best practices for responding effectively, on residents’ rights and what they are allowed to do and request, on listening and how to handle difficult conversations, on best practices when engaging with the public using remote technology, and sharing information on successful local initiatives, such as citizen academies and effective communication strategies.

We will do all of this and more. One great example of the MMA’s commitment to this work is the webinar on conflict management strategies that our staff produced just weeks ago, with hundreds of local officials and employees participating.

On all these issues — advocating for municipal revenue sharing and the Student Opportunity Act, investing in essential municipal infrastructure, addressing local workforce development needs, winning funding for key school programs, creating positive movement on housing and zoning, and fostering civility in municipal governance — the MMA Board has a vision to advance real solutions that will make a true difference. This is an agenda that will build strong communities in every corner of Massachusetts, and we look forward to working with you and your colleagues in local government to turn these aspirations into reality.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO