From the Beacon, January 2024

The MMA will always serve as the leading advocate fighting for municipal and school aid, and thus it is a given that our agenda for 2024 will prioritize a state revenue-sharing policy to increase Unrestricted General Government Aid by at least the same percentage growth rate as state tax revenues, and secure full funding of the Student Opportunity Act.

Beyond these “staple” issues, the MMA’s Board of Directors met in October — as it does each fall — to discuss, reaffirm and establish organizational priorities for the year ahead.

The following are three key, large-scale priorities highlighted by the board:
Municipal Infrastructure: The needs are extraordinary, and meeting them is more challenging than ever, given the resource limitations imposed by Proposition 2½, the crumbling state of our roads and bridges, environmental systems, and public safety and municipal buildings, and the 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 funding for local roads (aiming beyond our current $330 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 Massachusetts School Building Authority program, which would support local priorities such as public safety buildings, senior centers, community centers, and 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 police officers and teachers. An additional dimension is the imperative for cities and towns to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) 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 will continue to 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 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, but the state’s failure to adequately fund a broad range of school reimbursement commitments, exacerbated by the far-too-low $30-per-student minimum aid, and rapid inflation in transportation, supply and personnel costs, is sliding a majority of communities backwards, making it exceedingly difficult for most localities to maintain existing education services over the long term. Major challenges are created by underfunded state commitments including regional and vocational school transportation and special education, 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. This “basket of school funding issues” has been a top priority in past years, too.

Housing and incivility
The MMA Board this year also elevated two troubling issues that are gripping our region and the nation as a whole: the severe shortage of affordable housing and the challenge of incivility in community discourse.

Housing: It is indisputable that the affordability of housing remains 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.

Board members continued to support a number of tools and resources that are needed to help municipalities 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 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 improved public transportation.

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.

Overall, communities and the state 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.

MMA Board members remained in general agreement that the MMA should continue to advocate for local decision-making on zoning, rather than state-imposed mandates. Board members also recognize, however, that zoning changes to spur housing affordability will be hard to achieve in many communities, especially if the state does not step up with the incentives, resources and education outlined above. This is why the state needs to take a more balanced and flexible approach, and why municipal leaders will continue to face difficult challenges addressing this issue at home.

Incivility: Every municipal leader has a story to tell about rising incivility at the local level, including outbursts by the public and disputes between officials on the same municipal board or across the organization.

MMA Board members discussed ways the MMA can help foster civility and reduce incivility, with recommendations centering on education and support for local officials and employees to understand the root causes of incivility. Training could include best practices for responding effectively, residents’ rights and what they are allowed to do and request, listening skills and strategies for handling difficult conversations, best practices for engaging with the public using remote technology, and successful local initiatives, such as citizen academies and effective communication strategies. Fully aware of the challenges, the MMA has held a number of webinars and member group meetings on these topics, and will continue to do so in 2024!

Other issues
MMA Board members also discussed several issues that certainly warrant further analysis and consideration, though the path forward is less clear at the moment.

Impact of Funding Formulas on Different Types of Communities: It’s clear that there is persistent inequity in the way that many state funding formulas treat small communities vs. larger ones and urban communities vs. rural ones. Solving this is no easy feat, but certainly a worthy endeavor. The MMA has had some success in this area, most recently with fiscal 2024 road funding, which allocates some new funding specifically focused on meeting the needs of rural communities.

Regionalization: Though regionalization is mentioned within the MMA’s four long-range policy goals (below), there was significant discussion of the need for a fresh look at the impediments to regionalization in order to better inform advocacy efforts by the MMA. As revenues tighten and costs increase, the need to consider the cost-saving potential of regionalization will become more important, and the MMA is well-suited to be a leader in that discussion.

Proposition 2½: There was a great deal of concern expressed about the anachronistic nature of Proposition 2½ and the need for a serious and intentional analysis and discussion about its efficacy and value. Determining whether this should be an effort that the MMA pursues certainly needs further discussion, and this discussion can be pursued at both the Fiscal Policy Committee and at the Board level.

Migrant Shelter Crisis: The overwhelming demand on the Emergency Assistance shelter program has become a pressing issue for those communities that are serving as hosts to migrant families. The MMA has been serving as an information conduit between the Healey-Driscoll administration and municipalities, and has also been advocating for adequate funding and resources to be provided by the state. As this crisis evolves, the MMA will need to work with members to refine and deliver a clear advocacy message that aims to provide impacted municipalities with the assistance they need on a go-forward basis.

Longstanding priorities
It’s important to note that the MMA has not, and will not, neglect the following longstanding, long-range priorities, which were reaffirmed by the Board during its October session:
• Establishing an effective and sufficient framework for local aid that is equitable for all communities, focusing on core municipal aid programs, including unrestricted municipal aid and education funding
• Modernizing, reforming and addressing unsustainable legacy costs in local personnel systems and employee and retiree benefit structures, including underlying cost drivers, and supporting municipal efforts to attract and retain a skilled and diverse workforce
• Providing local governments with the tools to reduce the cost of government through effective innovation, eliminating unfunded mandates, and promoting regionalization, reforms and cost controls
• Addressing the long-term economic development, housing and infrastructure needs of cities and towns, especially in local, regional and statewide transportation systems, aging local and regional environmental systems, planning for and managing the impacts of climate change, facilitating local initiatives to increase housing affordability, and ensuring that communities have the modern and fully functioning facilities they need to deliver services to residents and businesses

Written by Adam Chapdelaine, MMA Executive Director & CEO