MMA letter to senators outlines municipal priorities in FY19 state budget bill

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Dear Senator,
 
We are writing to express our deep appreciation for the many provisions in the Senate Ways and Means Committee budget proposal (S. 4) that would benefit and support cities and towns in every corner of the Commonwealth.
 
We thank Senate President Chandler, Chair Spilka, the members of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, and all members of the Senate for advancing a state budget framework to increase Unrestricted General Government Aid by $37.2 million, fund the essential requirements of Chapter 70 education aid, continue to implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, and increase funding for charter school impact mitigation payments and the special education circuit breaker program. We recognize that making these important investments is a challenging task in tight fiscal circumstances, and S. 4 underscores the Senate’s commitment to a strong fiscal partnership with cities and towns.
 
We need an enduring partnership between cities and towns and state government if we want to strengthen our economy and make sure that citizens receive world-class municipal and education services, with safe streets, thriving neighborhoods and economic opportunity. Cities and towns rely heavily on municipal and education aid to provide the essential local and school services that the residents of Massachusetts deserve and expect, and adequate aid levels help to mitigate today’s overreliance on the most regressive of the major revenue sources in the state, the property tax. That is why the budget decisions you make each year are so important to our state’s prosperity and competitiveness.
 
With 1,196 amendments before you next week, there are dozens of important funding and policy proposals that would 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 proposals that would restrict or interfere with their 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 SCHOOL AND EDUCATION FUNDING
 
• Please Support Funding for Charter School Impact Mitigation Payments
The rapidly growing deduction of Chapter 70 school aid from local public schools to fund 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 section 89 of Chapter 71 of the General Laws to reimburse school districts for a portion of their Chapter 70 aid that is taken to pay tuition to fund charter schools.
 
For fiscal 2019, it is estimated that cities and towns will be assessed $660.7 million in local school revenues to fund charter schools, an increase of $72 million (12 percent) over the estimated level this year. With assessments well 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 2019 budget would increase charter school impact mitigation payments by a welcome $19.5 million to $100 million. However, full funding of the statutory formula would require $171.6 million in total, according to preliminary estimates released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
 
Please support Amendment 311 filed by Senator O’Connor to increase funding for charter school reimbursements to cities, towns and regional school districts to $125.4 million and move closer to the amount needed to meet the state’s full obligation.
 
We also ask that you support Amendments 205 and 262 filed by Senator Jehlen and others that would bring a much-needed level of accountability related to state decisions to approve new and expanded charter schools and the impact on local public schools.
 
• Special Education Circuit Breaker Reimbursements – Thank You!
The SW&M budget increases Circuit Breaker funding by $37.7 million over the current fiscal 2018 appropriation to $318.9 million, the estimated full funding mark for next year. Thank you.
 
Municipal officials also appreciate the $12.5 million in supplemental funding for the Special Education Circuit Breaker account that the Senate approved earlier this month to help cities and towns pay for a portion of the costs of high-cost special education services in the current year. This action brings the state closer to full funding of this account for fiscal 2018.
 
• 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 H. 2. 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. 4. 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 Amendments 157, 158 and 159 filed by Senator Tarr, which would increase the minimum aid amount.
 
We support Amendment 299 filed by Senator Boncore that would add a second municipal member to the Commission on the Chapter 70 Local Contribution (section 43) to ensure that the perspective of a diversity of cities and towns is adequately represented. There are very different and complex issues that arise related to how the required local contribution is calculated that require the participation of large municipalities and small towns, including members of regional school districts. Please support this important amendment.
 
• Please Support Funding for Regional School District Student Transportation
We very much appreciate the SW&M recommendation to increase the appropriation by $1 million next year to $62.5 million. 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. Decades ago, the state promised 100 percent reimbursement as an incentive for towns and cities to regionalize, and the consistent underfunding of this account has presented serious budget challenges for these districts, taking valuable dollars from the classroom. Full funding next year would require $86.1 million, according to DESE. Please support Amendment 242 filed by Senator Gobi and others and Amendments 161, 162 and 163 filed by Senator Tarr and others, that would further increase funding for this account, and bring fiscal 2019 funding closer to the full funding mark.
 
• Please Support Funding Summer Learning Opportunities
Please support Amendment 183, filed by Senator Crighton, to fund a competitive grant program for summer learning opportunities for students in districts with high concentrations of low-income families.
 
• Please Support Funding for Summer Jobs for At-Risk Youth
Please support Amendment 675 filed by Senator DiDomenico and others to increase funding for youth summer jobs. This funding is critical to providing employment opportunities for at-risk teenagers in our cities and towns, especially with chronically high youth unemployment rates.
 
PLEASE PROTECT CITIES AND TOWNS BY OPPOSING TWO BUDGET AMENDMENTS RESTRICTING LOCAL AUTHORITY IN MANAGING HEALTH INSURANCE
 
• Please Protect Municipal Decision-Making Authority on Retiree Health Insurance Payments
On behalf of cities and towns across the state, we strongly oppose Amendment 134, which would undermine an important option that cities and towns now have to manage health insurance costs. This amendment would permanently grandfather all retirees at the contribution ratio in effect at the date of their retirement (10 percent if the community is 90- 10, for example). If a community votes to change the contribution ratio (to 85-15, for example), that change would only be effective for future retirees.
 
With cities and towns facing a $30 billion unfunded OPEB liability, this fiscally irresponsible amendment would dramatically weaken one of the few tools that cities and towns now have to address retiree health insurance costs. Communities are committed to preserving retiree health insurance as an important benefit. However, this benefit must be affordable for taxpayers, and communities need to have a say in the cost – especially since the vast majority of taxpayers have no retiree health coverage from their previous employer. Cities and towns must have the ability to manage health insurance costs so they can protect the jobs of current employees, and maintain the services that citizens require locally.
 
• Please Protect Municipal Decision-Making Authority on Health Insurance Contribution Rates
We strongly oppose Amendment 566, which would interfere with local officials’ decision- making authority to act on behalf of their taxpayers on the basic issue of contribution levels for retiree health insurance. Amendment 566 would penalize all cities and towns that have used the 2011 municipal health insurance reform law to reduce the cost and financial burden of health insurance for employees, retirees and taxpayers.
 
Under existing law, any city or town that used sections 22 or 23 of Chapter 32B (the 2011 municipal health insurance reform law) to implement plan design changes or join the GIC was prohibited from changing retiree health insurance contribution percentages until July 1, 2014. In 2014, the temporary freeze was extended for two more years, until July 1, 2016, and extended again in 2016 for two more years, until July 1, 2018, for any municipality that adopted or was planning on adopting provisions of the 2011 municipal health insurance reform law.
 
Specifically, Amendment 566 would strip these cities and towns of their legal authority to decide whether to adjust contribution percentages for retiree health insurance by unilaterally extending a freeze in contribution ratios. There was a 3-year freeze in the original consensus reform law, but, unfortunately, four years ago the freeze was extended to 5 years. Two years ago, the freeze was further extended to 7 years. Now, Amendment 566 would seek to extend the freeze to 9 years until July 1, 2020 – an unacceptable imposition on local authority that would have the state interfere with responsible health insurance policy decisions in each community.
 
Amendment 566 could reverse planned contribution changes in some cities and towns, and would delay the ability to take action on retiree contribution percentages in many others. Simply put, Amendment 566 would impose significant budget problems in many communities and interfere with sound fiscal planning. The original short-term temporary freeze was part of the compromise brokered by Legislative leaders in 2011 that led to the enactment of the landmark municipal health insurance reform bill. Repeated extensions of the freeze run counter to that agreement and would clearly undermine the ability of cities and towns to control health insurance costs and save municipal jobs. Please vote NO on Amendment 566.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON MUNICIPAL AID ACCOUNTS, MUNICIPAL MANAGEMENT POLICY, AND RESOLUTION OF MUNICIPAL COLLECTIVE BARGAINING DISPUTES
 
• Please Support Funding for the Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program
Please support Amendment 1066 filed by Senator Boncore and others to increase funding for the highly effective and valuable Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program that has helped cities and towns respond to and suppress gang-related activities. Amendment 1066 would add $4.0 million and bring total funding up to $10 million.
 
• Please Support Funding for Labor Relations
Please support Amendment 343 filed by Senator Feeney, which would increase funding for the Department of Labor Relations (DLR) in order to maintain a current level of service. This funding would support DLR staff representatives, including management representatives, who are making great strides in engaging cities and towns in order to resolve bargaining disputes. This amendment would also add $96,581 for a full-time mediator in order to meet the demands of a rising caseload and to resolve disputes in a timely manner. Currently, a single mediator handles all of the cases west of Worcester to the New York border.
 
We also support Amendment 344 filed by Senator Feeney and others, which would increase the line item for the Joint Labor Management Committee (JLMC) by $120,733. The JLMC provides important support, assistance and intervention in collective bargaining disputes involving municipal police officers and firefighters in order to facilitate good faith negotiations and constructive long-term relationships with municipal employers. This budget amendment would restore the JLMC to the House and Senate budget amounts that were originally set for fiscal 2018 ($250,000), and would support the part-time Chairman, four part-time Senior Staff Representatives, and the direct expenses of the Committee in order to carry out its mandate under state law while facing the demands of a rising caseload.
 
• Please Support Funds for Municipal Best Practices
Please support Amendment 380 filed by Senator Gobi and others and Amendment 375 filed by Senator Tarr and others that would add funding to the Municipal Regionalization and Efficiencies Incentive Reserve, including very important funding to facilitate the implementation of municipal best practices being pursued in cities and towns across the Commonwealth through the Community Compact Cabinet (CCC) program, grants to support regionalization efforts, and $2.8 million for the District Local Technical Assistance (DLTA) program. The several programs funded through this account provide meaningful contributions to municipal initiatives to modernize local government.
 
• Please Support Municipal Police Training Fund
Please support Amendment 1114 filed by Senator Cyr and others, which would establish a Municipal Police Training Fund to support training for the men and women who serve as police officers in the Commonwealth. The amendment would provide for funds to be drawn from a $2 fee on each rental car transaction in the Commonwealth. The MMA supports these amendments as they facilitate training for municipal police, contributing to the safety and security of citizens in our state.
 
UPDATING AND MODERNIZING STATUTES
 
• Please Support the Creation of Community Benefit Districts
Please support Amendment 698 filed by Senator Crighton, which would grant municipalities the local option to create Community Benefit Districts (CBDs). With this CBD proposal, local property owners would have the option to assess themselves a small fee to implement a management plan for the district. This would not replace or privatize public services, but would instead provide the opportunity for new services not ordinarily provided by the municipality. The property owners, municipality, and the community at-large would oversee implementation through a nonprofit management organization, and would have the option to dissolve the entity.
 
• Please Support Municipal Impact Statements
Please support Amendment 366 filed by Senator O'Connor Ives that would require state agencies to notify the Local Government Advisory Commission (LGAC) and other state agencies that work with cities and towns of the impact on local government of any proposed changes to state regulations or other actions. This would facilitate early detection of unaffordable or impractical state mandates.
 
KEY BUDGET AMENDMENTS ON CAPITAL SPENDING PRIORITIES
 
• Please Support the Housing Choice Initiative Program
Please support Amendment 774 filed by Senator Boncore, and Amendment 802 filed by Senator Cyr, that would fund a local capital projects grant program to facilitate housing production at the local level. This important capital program would be funded by gaming revenues that have been set aside.
 
• Please Support Community Preservation Act Revenue
Please support Amendment 3 filed by Senator Creem and others, which would strengthen the Community Preservation Act (CPA) by updating the Registry of Deeds fee schedule to provide adequate revenue to restore the state match to an estimated 30 percent. The ability of cities and towns to fund important CPA projects has been threatened by the steep decline in matching funds from the statewide CPA Trust Fund and this amendment would help to sustain the program.
 
• Please Support the Conservation Tax Credit
Please support Amendments 2 and 4 filed by Senator Tarr and others, 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 4 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 conservation purposes pursuant to Chapter 203 of the General Laws. Amendment 2 would increase the maximum individual taxpayer credit for the donation of conservation land from $75,000 to $100,000. We believe that taking these steps to expand the tax credit would increase private land donations with widespread public benefits.
 
• Please Support Municipal Naloxone Bulk Purchasing Trust Fund and Fire Department Extractor Bulk Purchasing Program
We ask that you support Amendment 651 and Amendment 644 filed by Senator Lesser and others, which would create and fund a Naloxone Bulk Purchasing Trust Fund in order to ensure that municipalities and other entities can afford life-saving overdose reversal medications.
 
We also ask that you support Amendment 1018, filed by Senator Feeney and others, which would create and fund an Extractor Bulk Purchase Trust Fund to finance an Extractor Bulk Purchase Program. The purpose of Amendment 1018 is to reduce risks to firefighters associated with wearing contaminated protective clothing through the acquisition of recommended washing equipment for regular cleanings. The program would allow municipalities and fire districts to join the trust fund in order to purchase extractors, extractor installation equipment, and detergent dispensers. We believe that the adoption of this amendment would positively contribute to the wellbeing of municipal firefighters as well as preserve the integrity and increase the longevity of firefighters’ clothing.
 
SUMMARY
 
Again, we would like to express our deep appreciation to Senate President Chandler, Chair Spilka and the Senate Ways & Means Committee, and we respectfully ask you to build on the many favorable local aid investments in S. 4 by supporting the key budget amendments detailed above, and opposing Amendments 134 and 566.
 
This is a critical time for our economy, and for cities, towns and local taxpayers, yet we can only reach our full potential for statewide growth and job creation if all 351 cities and towns have the resources to adequately serve the residents and businesses of the Commonwealth.
 
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