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Top-level state officials on Tuesday answered a number of urgent questions from local officials across the state during a conference call convened by the MMA to address issues raised by the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency.
• Baker-Polito Administration Answers to Questions from March 24 COVID-19 call
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito discussed the previous day’s executive order closing brick-and-mortar operations that are considered “non-essential.” She said the administration used federal definitions as a guide and tailored them to the specific needs of Massachusetts.
“There are some areas that might need further clarity, which will come from conversations like these,” she said.
Polito added that most construction work was considered “necessary to meet the essential needs” of the state during the ongoing emergency, but that worksites must follow strict public health standards with regards to distancing and hygiene.
The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development has published FAQs about what functions are allowed to continue and which are deemed non-essential. In the municipal arena, for example, libraries and councils on aging are considered non-essential. The office has also created a form that can be used for questions that aren’t answered by the guidance.
Enforcement of the non-essential activities ban falls to local boards of health and law enforcement, state officials said.
Polito outlined the main points of a wide-ranging “municipal relief” bill filed by the administration the same day – the second such bill sent to the Legislature. Provisions in the latest bill would address emergency-related challenges in the areas of education, municipal finance, construction and permitting, municipal workforces (particularly first responders), law enforcement and the restaurant industry.
• Link to text of H. 4586: An Act to Further Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities, School Districts and State Authorities Resulting from COVID-19
“We’re trying to figure out everything we can do to cut red tape and support you,” Polito told hundreds of mayors, town managers, select board members, city councillors, and other local officials. “We’re going to need your help with the Legislature, letting them know that these are critical issues that are urgent for you.”
Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, answered a range of questions related to municipal finance, including details of the two bills filed by the administration.
The bill filed on March 15 would allow town moderators to extend a town meeting beyond June 30, the last day of the fiscal year, and would allow towns to continue to fund core services through the use of so-called one-twelfth budgets, as needed.
• Link to text of H. 4572: An Act to Address Challenges in Town Governance Resulting from COVID-19
The bill would also allow select boards to temporarily lower town meeting quorum requirements, allow towns to use free cash beyond June 30 and before free cash is certified for fiscal 2021, and allow three-year amortization of emergency-related deficit spending, among other provisions.
Highlighting key provisions of the bill filed by the administration on March 24, he said it would allow cities and towns, at local option, to extend the deadline for fourth quarter property tax bills from April 1 to June 1, and waive all penalties and interest on late payments.
He told local officials that the “vast majority” of the provisions in the two bills “have come from the conversations we’ve had with you over the past couple of weeks.”
Addressing municipal concerns about cash flow, he said the state will electronically transmit local aid payments to cities and towns as scheduled at the end of each month.
Cities and towns can also tap options such as tax anticipation notes to get through short-term revenue drop-offs caused by the COVID emergency. He said local treasurers and collectors are generally aware of the mechanisms, but local officials can also direct questions to him via email.
Recognizing that towns are grappling with many urgent concerns and tight deadlines, Cronin said, “The DLS is open for business. … We have our team [working remotely] ready to respond.”
In one key area of concern, local officials were assured that COVID testing is being prioritized at the state lab for first responders, according to Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health.
Madoff encouraged local officials and health care providers with questions about COVID-19 to call the DPH’s Division of Epidemiology and Immunization at 617-983-6800, where epidemiologists are available at all hours.
Samantha Phillips, Director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, reminded local officials that they can reach out to MEMA’s three regional offices, where staffing has been increased. She said the offices can handle requests for personal protective equipment, shelter capacity, and surge planning. She also suggested that requests related to health care facilities and emergency medical services go to regional Health and Medical Coordinating Coalitions (www.mass.gov/service-details/learn-about-the-health-and-medical-coordinating-coalitions).
Phillips said her agency is working on strategic planning to address hospital and health care system capacity to withstand a potential surge in COVID cases, as well as a surge in sheltering needs.
[Following the call, Phillips provided answers to a number of questions from local officials, on topics such as COVID testing for first responders and access to PPE resources.]
In response to a question about how long the state of emergency might last, Polito said the current executive order would run for another two weeks, “and we’ll determine, on all fronts, where we are as we come up to that date [April 7], and see whether further action is needed. The order does allow for extensions.”
The MMA will be convening these weekly conference calls with key state officials every Tuesday afternoon for the duration of the COVID emergency.