Gov. Maura Healey announces the Municipal Empowerment Act during the MMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show in Boston on Jan. 19.

Yesterday afternoon, Gov. Maura Healey filed her Municipal Empowerment Act, a wide-ranging bill intended to help increase municipal flexibility, strengthen municipal finances, address municipal workforce challenges, and improve the efficiency of local operations.

The governor, along with Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, first announced the legislation during the MMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show in Boston on Jan. 19, and received a strongly enthusiastic response from the 1,000 or so local leaders in the room.

Among its many provisions, the Municipal Empowerment Act would reform procurement rules and update borrowing rules for school projects; make permanent a number of popular pandemic-era allowances for remote or hybrid public meetings, outdoor dining permits, and to-go cocktail sales; and establish enforcement mechanisms for prohibitions on doubled-up utility poles. It would also allow cities and towns, which face state-imposed caps on local revenue raising, to increase local-option meals and lodging taxes and create a new local-option motor vehicle excise surcharge.

A new commission would be established to take a fresh look at opportunities to address unfunded liabilities from non-pension employee benefits (known as OPEB). And the state would centralize the valuation of telecommunications and utility property, removing a headache for local assessors.

Driscoll said the package is “a direct result“ of input from local officials during a listening tour she conducted around the state this past fall, when she heard from more than 130 managers and administrators representing 112 different municipalities, as well as professional associations representing local leaders and employees.

“This package reduces red tape that municipal leaders far too often encounter, and gives them more options to utilize tools that will make their communities stronger,” Driscoll said.

Local leaders were quick to express their support.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell thanked the administration for a “common-sense effort to help me serve the residents of my city better.” Amesbury Mayor Kassandra Gove said the legislation “addresses the needs of local government while providing flexibility to do what’s best for each of our communities.” Gardner Mayor Michael Nicholson said the administration “has proposed ways to build a stronger Commonwealth from the street level on up.”

Williamstown Select Board Member Andy Hogeland, president of the Massachusetts Select Board Association called the package “very strong and thoughtful.”

“I particularly appreciate the provisions that demonstrate the administration’s ongoing support for rural towns,” he said, “and for giving all municipalities greater latitude in local control over topics such as a means-tested senior property tax exemption and local-option taxes.”

MMA Executive Director Adam Chapdelaine said local leaders appreciate “that the administration made the concerted effort to listen to municipal officials across the state about the challenges they face, and then acted on that input with a robust package of very meaningful reforms.”

“The Municipal Empowerment Act will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of local government and the delivery of essential services in each one of our communities,” he said. “For a number of years, municipalities have been facing cost increases in key areas that are far outpacing the growth in their revenues, so the opportunity to boost locally generated revenue and remove barriers to efficiency is welcome news.”

Local revenues and procurement
The bill would enable communities, at local option, to increase the local meals tax from 0.75% to 1%, and increase the local lodging tax from 6% to 7% (6.5% to 7.5% in Boston). Currently, 251 municipalities have adopted a local meals tax, and 216 have a local lodging tax. The rate ceilings haven’t changed since the original legislation in 2009.

A new local-option vehicle excise tax surcharge of 5% would be available to all 351 municipalities.

In the area of procurement reforms, the bill would:
• Raise thresholds for competitive bids and remove onerous publishing requirements
• Clarify that Chapter 30B enables groups of cities and towns to award multiple contracts through the request for proposals process and purchase both supplies and services from collectively bid contracts
• Equalize 30B thresholds for advertised procurements to $100,000 for all municipal purchasing, not just schools
• Eliminate the requirement to publish notice of invitations for competitive bids on COMMBUYS
• Streamline procurement for electric school buses and charging infrastructure by allowing single procurements for both under Chapter 30B

Additional provisions
Additional provisions of the Municipal Empowerment Act would do the following:
• Create a new local-option means-tested property tax exemption for seniors
• Allow cities and towns to amortize emergency deficit spending over three years
• Modernize annual town report printing requirements
• Expand the process for seeking exemptions to post-retirement employment rules
• Allow regional boards of assessors
• Enable cities to form Veterans’ Districts
• Equalize the rules for property tax appeals (among residents and commercial taxpayers)
• Permit more efficient setting of revolving fund spending caps
• Close unemployment insurance loopholes
• Simplify election cost reimbursements from the state
• Make it easier to accept and expends gifts and grants
• Improve notification and response of cybersecurity incidents
• Provide an option for municipalities to adopt a one-year override for non-capital expenditures
• Have the Massachusetts Department of Transportation provide grant application assistance
• Establish a working group to examine the administration of the Chapter 90 local road and bridge repair program

To help address local workforce challenges, the administration announced its intent to recapitalize the Local Finance Commonwealth Fellowship at $500,000, and to provide $500,000 to create a new program with the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston focused on generating a pipeline of qualified individuals for high-demand municipal positions.

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