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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
Local budgets, the steady increase in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and across the country, and the urgent need for housing for individuals and families affected by the current recession were the key topics of today’s MMA-convened conference call with nearly 200 municipal CEOs and high-level state officials.
Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, outlined the broad strokes of the governor’s proposed revisions submitted last week to his original state budget recommendation for fiscal 2021, which he had filed in January (H. 2). The recommendation would uphold a July agreement by legislative leaders and the administration to at least level-fund the two primary local aid accounts: Unrestricted General Government Aid and Chapter 70 education aid.
The amended budget proposal would hold UGGA at $1.13 billion and allocate to individual cities and towns the same amount paid in fiscal 2020. In total, Chapter 70 would increase by $107 million, to $5.28 billion, and ensure that all school districts receive at least the same amount paid last year.
The budget process now moves to the Legislature, where House and Senate leaders are working to set a schedule for approval next month.
Cronin noted that the revised budget would change some charter school amounts because it is based on updated enrollment numbers, rather than the preliminary numbers the governor used in the budget bill he filed in January, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DLS last week released new municipal Cherry Sheets based on the governor’s recommendations, identifying all local aid components and assessments by type. Cronin said cities and towns can use these numbers to make any necessary adjustments to their budgets, finalize those budgets if necessary (by town meeting or city/town council), and submit their property tax rates to DLS for approval.
“We feel strongly that you should be able to move forward and set a tax rate almost as you normally would,” he said.
He said the DLS typically processes about half the local tax rates in December – and could do so again this year – but does not have the capacity to significantly increase the number that gets processed so late in the year.
Asked if it’s OK for communities to use previously released local aid numbers, in order to avoid the process of making relatively small budget adjustments, Cronin said doing so is fine so long as the local aid amounts are no higher than those in the updated Cherry Sheets.
Jennifer Maddox, undersecretary at the Department of Housing and Community Development, reviewed the administration’s Eviction Diversion Initiative, a new program announced last week intended to support tenants and landlords during the financial challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic following the Oct. 17 expiration of the Commonwealth’s pause on evictions and foreclosures.
“We had a housing crisis before the pandemic,” she said. “The pandemic exacerbated the issue.”
The administration is committing $171 million during the current fiscal year to the Eviction Diversion Initiative to help keep tenants in their homes and to support the ongoing expenses of landlords, she said.
Program funding will expand the capacity of the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program as well as HomeBASE, which can offer financial assistance, and other rapid rehousing programs. It will also provide tenants and landlords with access to legal representation and related services, fund Housing Consumer Education Centers, and provide case management support.
The administration has kicked off a public information campaign to make tenants and landlords aware of available resources, including a new option to call the Massachusetts 2-1-1 information hotline. Information is available online at www.mass.gov/CovidHousingHelp.
Maddox urged local officials to help spread the word about the Eviction Diversion Initiative, particularly through social media. She said the DHCD is working on an online dashboard to provide data about the extent of the eviction and foreclosure problem.
One local official said as many as half of evictions trigger a board of health response, at a time when local health departments are already overwhelmed, and asked if emergency funding is available to bring on additional housing inspectors. Cronin said such COVID-related costs would be reimbursable through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, through Dec. 30 (unless extended), and that the state has lifted the cap on hours that can be worked by retirees (960) for the duration of 2020.
Asked about the steady rise in COVID cases over the past month, Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Department of Public Health, said state officials are keeping a close eye on a range of COVID metrics, but “there’s no single factor” to be cited as the cause of the increase. He said part of it may be attributable to spikes seen in other parts of the country.
“Massachusetts is not an island,” he said.
He added that it’s important to remember the progress that has been made in Massachusetts, and that the state is now much better positioned than it was in the spring to address a potential surge.
Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health, discussed changes last week to the state’s travel order, which requires all visitors entering Massachusetts, including returning residents, who do not meet an exemption to complete the Massachusetts Travel Form prior to arrival and to quarantine unless or until they can produce a negative test result – unless they are visiting from a lower-risk state as designated by the DPH. The threshold of daily cases per 100,000 residents for a state to be considered lower-risk was increased from six to 10, to bring the Massachusetts standard more in line with other states. For this purpose, she said, the DPH is using data for all 50 states reported at www.covidexitstrategy.org.
Dr. Madoff said the state has not seen any significant COVID outbreaks in K-12 public schools, and Ferguson said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education posts data about COVID cases in schools each Thursday.
Moments after visiting a new drive-through testing site at Suffolk Downs in Revere, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said Massachusetts currently has the lab capacity to process 100,000 COVID tests per day. As winter approaches and people begin spending more time indoors, she said the state is well-prepared with stockpiles of ventilators, masks, gowns and other essential health care equipment. She added that Massachusetts hospitals have adequate capacity to withstand an influx of cases.
Polito said “it’s really good news to be talking about a Vaccine Advisory Group,” which was announced on Oct. 7 to advance efforts to prepare to distribute a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available. She said the formation of the 17-member committee, which includes Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, represents a “light at the end of the tunnel.”
The next regular administration briefing being convened by the MMA for municipal CEOs will be held on Thursday, Nov. 5. Today’s call was the 23rd such briefing since the beginning of the pandemic.
• Audio of Oct. 20 call with administration (34M MP3)