From the Beacon, June 2024

During my time working in local government, one of the challenges that I thought about most was maintaining and renovating municipal buildings. Across the Commonwealth, city and town halls, police and fire stations, DPW facilities and more serve as the base of operations for providing critical local government services, and yet many of these facilities are beyond their expected lifespans and are becoming more and more costly to operate. Many have antiquated heating and cooling systems, some have accessibility deficiencies, and many remain vulnerable to the effects of climate change — ironically at a time when the ability to respond to severe storms is becoming more critical. Many communities need to make costly accommodations just to keep using the facilities they have, which is inefficient.

Interestingly, the vast majority of these buildings were built before the strictures of Proposition 2½ were put into place. This means that local governments are in the position of needing to maintain, renovate or rebuild many of these facilities in a different and certainly more restrictive fiscal paradigm.

This is why the MMA is advocating so strongly for legislation that would create a new, independent municipal and public safety building authority, and would establish a separate municipal and public safety building fund to assist municipalities with the construction of or improvements to public safety or municipal office buildings. We support this framework as a way to help cities and towns address critical, unmet infrastructure needs. Such an authority could resemble the Massachusetts School Building Authority, a state-local partnership that has resulted in new and renovated schools across the Commonwealth over the past 20 years.

Let’s look at Charlemont, for example. With a little over 1,100 residents, approximately a third of whom are on fixed incomes, the rural Franklin County town does not have the means to build new buildings, despite one of the highest tax rates in Massachusetts. Its buildings have issues with space, improvement needs, and location (some are in a flood plain, which meant that emergency services had to be evacuated during Hurricane Irene in 2011). The town must order custom fire vehicles in order to fit them into an outdated fire station. Town Hall is in need of an elevator to allow for use of the top two floors — a project that would cost over a million dollars.

West Boylston, for another example, has an 80-year-old public works building that requires either a major renovation or a new structure. Offices are all located on the second floor, with no elevator, so the building is not ADA compliant. The garage bays were built at a time when vehicles were smaller and there were fewer vehicles in the fleet, which means some vehicles need to be kept outside in the elements. The brick facade has significant cracks, and there is evidence of water damage throughout the building.

West Boylston’s 54-year-old fire station dates to a time when it had a volunteer Fire Department, and fails to meet the needs of its current full-time Advanced Life Support department. Again, the bays were designed for vehicles that were much smaller. As a result, the best practice of using a spotter to guide the trucks while backing in must be abandoned, as it could result in personal injury. The structure’s many deficiencies include significant exterior cracking and asbestos throughout the building. With the cost of public construction projects skyrocketing, the town (with a $29 million budget) simply doesn’t have the resources to retrofit these structures or build new ones.

With the property tax and other local revenues strictly limited by state law, municipal officials are seeking alternative ways to help offset the costs of municipal and public safety buildings. Municipal employees working in these buildings are delivering essential services every day, from public safety to holding elections. The ability to deliver these services efficiently is often hindered by the lack of updates, and even safety concerns, in dated infrastructure.

The building authority concept will be essential to setting forth a sustainable state-local partnership to modernize our municipal infrastructure and support local public servants. This is why we’re pleased that bills related to this subject have gained significant traction so far this legislative session, including favorable reports in the House and Senate.

As the Legislature heads into the final eight weeks of a busy session and deliberates a range of important bills, including the Municipal Empowerment Act, we strongly urge our legislative partners to prioritize this effort.

Written by Adam Chapdelaine, MMA Executive Director & CEO