MMA letter to senators highlights municipal priorities in budget bill, urges support of key amendments

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Dear Senator,
 
On behalf cities and towns, we are writing to express our appreciation for the many provisions in the Senate Ways & Means Committee budget proposal (S. 3) that benefit and support communities across the Commonwealth.
 
We thank Senate President Stan Rosenberg, Chair Karen Spilka, the members of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, and all members of the Senate for advancing a state budget framework that funds the full $39.9 million increase in Unrestricted General Government Aid that is matched by the Governor and House. Funding for this vital municipal aid program reflects the state’s commitment to provide 100% of Lottery and gaming revenue to support local government services and avoid overreliance on the property tax. This is a high priority for city and town officials.
 
We appreciate the proposal to fund the essential requirements of Chapter 70 school aid, including the plan to assist cities and towns affected by the change in how low-income students are counted, as well as the Senate leadership’s excellent proposals to begin implementing the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission. Further, the Senate budget takes the important and impressive step of fully funding the Special Education Circuit Breaker program that helps pay for a portion of state-mandated high-cost special education services. Later in this letter we highlight the need to fix the broken charter school funding system, and ask you to address that issue as a companion priority so that all school districts have the resources they need to provide quality education services for their students.
 
We recognize that making these crucial investments is a challenging task in tight fiscal circumstances. In this context, it is crystal clear that S. 3 underscores the Senate’s commitment to a strong fiscal partnership with cities and towns.
 
In addition, we applaud the Senate Ways & Means Committee’s proposal (in Section 35) to modernize and close loopholes in the room occupancy excise and provide cities and towns with the authority they need to set local rules for the short-term rental market. New technologies and business practices have changed how people book and pay for vacations, business trips and other short-term stays away from home. Section 35 would apply the same rules across all types of occupancy, and is a complete package in that it also closes the internet reseller loophole. We note that industry leader Airbnb has also endorsed Section 35, which demonstrates that this provision offers a strong foundation to solve this issue from both the municipal and business perspective.
 
With 1,031 amendments before you this week, there are many important funding and policy proposals that impact cities and towns, and we urgently and respectfully ask you to take action  on all of these matters to support the interests of the communities you represent. Please invest in essential municipal and school programs, and please protect local government from amendments that would restrict or interfere with local management authority and decision-making powers. In this letter, we have highlighted the most important and visible amendments that impact cities and towns.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON FUNDING FOR EDUCATION
 
Please Support Funding for Reimbursements for Charter Schools Losses 
The rapidly growing deduction of Chapter 70 school aid from local public schools to support charter schools has become a major financial drain on cities and towns, a problem made more acute as the state grants more charters and existing charter schools expand. Local officials strongly support full funding of the Commonwealth’s statutory commitment under the law to reimburse school districts for a portion of their school aid lost when used to fund charter schools.
 
For fiscal 2018, it is estimated that cities and towns will be assessed $598 million in local school revenues to fund charter schools, an increase of $65 million (12 percent) over the estimated level this year. With assessments at over half a billion dollars and growing, it is critical for the state to fund its financial commitment under the state statute. The SW&M fiscal 2018 budget would level-fund charter school reimbursements at $80.5 million. Full funding of the statutory formula would require $157 million, based on the most recent data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Without these funds, cities and towns will face another round of lost school aid next year, resulting in fewer programs for the vast majority of students who remain in the local public school setting.
 
These school aid deductions are harming the state’s poorest and most financially distressed cities and towns. Underfunding the charter school reimbursement formula impacts the most vulnerable and challenged school districts, as well as dozens of communities across the state.
 
Please support Amendment 163 filed by Senator Chang-Diaz, Senator Lewis and Senator Eldridge and Amendment 213 filed by Senator O’Connor and Senator Humason to fully fund charter school reimbursements to cities, towns and regional school districts by providing the full $156.9 million appropriation needed to meet the state’s full obligation.
 
In this very challenging fiscal environment for state and local government, we believe it is important to update the charter school finance law to add an element of accountability and shared purpose. We strongly support Amendment 165 filed by Senator Moore and Amendment 9 filed by Senator Boncore. These proposals would provide for a modest measure of relief to local public schools when the transition reimbursement account is underfunded and ensure a much needed level of financial accountability for charter schools.
 
Please Support Additional Chapter 70 School Aid
We again thank Senate leaders for increasing Chapter 70 minimum aid to $30 per student, which is a welcome improvement over the $20 per student amount in House One. A significant majority of school districts only receive minimum aid, which is why the minimum aid aspect of Chapter 70 is so important. More than 200 school districts (almost three-quarters of all operating districts) would receive an increase of $30 per student under S. 3. For many districts, this would represent another year of receiving only minimum aid, which has forced a growing reliance on the property tax to fund schools that is not sustainable.
 
Please support Amendment 88 filed by Senator Tarr, which would increase the minimum aid amount to $50 per student, almost matching the increase you provided for fiscal 2017.
 
We would also support the direction of Amendment 75 filed by Senator Chang-Diaz and others to enhance the language of Section 19. One of the key benefits of the Section 19 process for cities, towns and regional school districts would be early notice of local contribution and school aid amounts, and we ask that this be ensured in the final Senate budget.
 
Please Support Funding for Regional School District Student Transportation
Funding for transportation reimbursements to regional school districts is vital to all regional districts and their member cities and towns, particularly in sparsely populated parts of the state. Underfunding this account has presented serious budget challenges for these districts, taking valuable dollars from the classroom. Full funding next year would require $86 million, according to DESE. Please support Amendment 102 filed by Senator Gobi and others and Amendment 86 filed by Senator Tarr and others to increase funding for this account, and bring fiscal 2018 funding closer to the full funding mark.
 
Please Support Funding for Out-of-District Vocational Student Transportation
Chapter 74 of the General Laws requires the state to reimburse cities and towns for the cost of transporting students to out-of-district vocational education programs. This reimbursement program recognizes the significant expense of providing transportation services for out-of district placements, as these students must travel long distances to participate in vocational programs that may not be available locally. DESE estimates that full funding of the state’s obligation next year would require $3.6 million. The SW&M recommendation would provide $250,000 in funding for this account. Please support Amendment 105 filed by Senator Gobi and others to increase funding to cover a portion of the cost of transporting students to out-of district placements in vocational schools.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENT ON MUNICIPAL AID ACCOUNTS AND MUNICIPAL MANAGEMENT POLICY
 
Please Support Funding for the Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program
Please support Amendment 914 filed by Senator Donoghue and others to increase funding for the highly effective and valuable Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program, which has helped cities and towns respond to and suppress gang-related activities. Amendment 914 would add $3.0 million and bring total funding up to $8 million.
 
Please OPPOSE the Unfunded Mandates in Amendment 868 (“Recycling Standards”)
 
We strongly OPPOSE Amendment 868 because it would impose a new unfunded mandate on cities and towns, primarily by dictating a set of solid waste "performance standards" and instituting new annual reporting requirements.
 
Municipalities have made enormous progress in reducing solid waste and increasing recycling programs throughout the state. Most cities and towns have built recycling and reuse facilities in an effort to increase recycling rates. Communities have also implemented automated curbside pickup and instituted unit-based pricing for waste collection, commonly known as "pay-as-you-throw," to incentivize recycling.
 
This Amendment would direct the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection to establish performance standards for the reduction of municipal solid waste, and lays out specific standards of not more than 600 pounds per capita by July 1, 2019 and not more than 450 pounds per capita by July 1, 2023. The Amendment would require municipalities to report information on solid waste disposal annually. If a city or town is not able to meet the performance standards by July 1, 2019, the municipality must explain why it did not meet the standard and detail a plan to achieve the standards by July 1, 2023.
 
While the MMA strongly backs increased resources and support for municipal recycling programs to assist municipal leaders’ efforts to reduce the generation of solid waste, we cannot support the imposition of mandated per-capita solid waste caps, because these mandates could impose a very costly burden on cities and towns and undermine other critical municipal services. Modest changes in the economic market for recycled goods have a dramatic impact on the feasibility and ultimate cost of the mandated performance standards in Amendment 868. Much more work and analysis is necessary before basic affordability questions can be answered regarding the feasibility and burden of this language.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON CAPITAL SPENDING PRIORITIES
 
Please Support Brownfields Redevelopment Funds
Please support Amendment 588 filed by Senator Donoghue and Senator Lewis to increase available funding for brownfields redevelopment projects. This funding is critical to the successful redevelopment of former industrial sites and will enhance local economic development efforts across the state, and improve the environment. Amendment 588 would appropriate $15 million for the Brownfield Redevelopment Fund.
 
Please Support Water Infrastructure Funding
Please support Amendment 254 filed by Senator Eldridge, which would make an important technical change to the appropriation language for contract assistance to the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust. This amendment would bring the budget language into conformity with the 2014 water infrastructure act and more recent regulations, and allow use of funds beyond only debt service, including principal forgiveness, interest rate reduction and other means of financial assistance.
 
Cities and towns understand the importance of investing in our Commonwealth’s water infrastructure, and the Clean Water Trust aids cities and towns by providing financial support for municipal projects. Upgrading our water infrastructure system not only benefits our environment – these investments protect public health and promote economic development as well.
 
Please Support Water Quality Funding and NPDES Delegated Authority
Please support Amendment 876 filed by Senator Rodrigues and Senator Ross to provide $1.4 million in funding for water quality programs, which would support the establishment, administration and implementation of the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program. This funding would begin the process of having the Department of Environmental Protection assume "delegated authority" from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the federal water quality program, which covers MS4 stormwater permits. Governor Baker has filed separate legislation, supported by the MMA, to allow MassDEP to petition the EPA for this authority. Full funding would take approximately $4.7 million.
 
Please Support the Community Preservation Act
Please support Amendment 286 filed by Senator Creem, which would strengthen the Community Preservation Act by updating the fee schedule to provide adequate revenue to restore the state match to recent average levels. The ability of our cities and towns to fund important CPA projects is in jeopardy due to the decline in matching funds from the statewide CPA Trust Fund and the larger need generated by new cities and towns joining the program. This amendment would help to update and sustain the program.
 
Conservation Tax Credit
Please support Amendment 854 filed by Senator O’Connor Ives, Amendment 567 filed by Senator Tarr and Amendment 568 filed by Senator Tarr, which would expand the conservation land tax credit. These amendments would raise the annual cap on the Conservation Land Tax Credit (CLTC) Program from $2 million annually to $5 million. Amendment 567 would also amend the definition of "public or private conservation agency" which may receive donations of land subject to a conservation tax credit to include realty trusts organized for conservations purposes pursuant to Chapter 203 of the General Laws. We believe that the increase in the annual cap and expanding the definition of eligible agencies would increase private land donations with widespread public benefits.
 
UPDATING AND MODERNIZING STATUTES
 
Municipal Modernization Updates
Please support Amendment 74 filed by Senator Moore that would update two important sections from the Municipal Modernization Act that became law last August. Amendment 74 would change the rules governing the municipal overlay account that is used to cover property tax abatements. The change would allow interest amounts that are due to a taxpayer to be paid from the overlay account. Amendment 74 would also provide a temporary delay in the requirement that municipal revolving funds be established through local bylaw or ordinance rather than by the legislative body, as is the rule in effect through fiscal 2017.
 
Procurement of Goods and Services
Please support Amendment 291 filed by Senator Hinds, which would remove burdensome procurement advertising requirements for cities and towns for public works and building contracts under $50,000. Changes made to procurement law in the Municipal Modernization Act last year were intended to reduce the burden on cities and towns. However, the final legislation added new mandated posting requirements that this amendment would remove and allow as a local option.
 
Please support Amendment 243 filed by Senator Flanagan, which would amend procurement law to allow cities and towns to use the Request for Proposal (RFP) process for minor procurements of supplies and services of less than $50,000. The use of the RFP process provides cities and towns with better quality vendors participating in local procurements.
 
LOCAL OPTION TAXES
 
Please Support the Local Option Sales Tax on Meals
Please support Amendment 77 filed by Senator Lewis that would allow cities and towns, by local vote, to increase the local-option sales tax on meals from 0.75 percent to 1.5 percent. Approval would be by vote of the local legislative body. The revenue would continue to be for the municipal General Fund.
 
Please Address Drafting Issues with Amendment 1025 Regarding Local Option Taxes for Transportation Purposes
While we support the purpose of Amendment 1025 to provide cities and towns, and groups of cities and towns working together, to adopt new local taxes for local transportation capital programs and services, we cannot support the specific implementation language in the proposed new Chapter 64N of the General Laws. In order to ensure that this new tax concept is legislated to ensure adequate provisions for accountability, transparency and governance, we believe that substantial changes are needed to strengthen the decision-making and financial control provisions Amendment 1025.
 
SUMMARY
 
Again, we would like to express our deep appreciation to Senate President Rosenberg, Senator Spilka and the members of the Senate Ways & Means Committee for advancing a strong budget proposal that invests in cities and towns across the state. We respectfully ask you to build on the many favorable local aid and policy investments in S. 3, by supporting the key budget amendments detailed above. We also ask you to oppose the unfunded mandate proposed in Amendment 868, and to amend Amendment 1025 to ensure adequate accountability and local governance.
 
Please contact us at any time if you have any questions or need additional information by having your office reach out to me or MMA Legislative Director John Robertson at 617-426-7272 ext. 122 or jrobertson@mma.org.
 
Thank you very much for your support, dedication and commitment to the cities and towns of Massachusetts.
 
Sincerely,
 
Geoffrey C. Beckwith
Executive Director & CEO