MMA letter to state budget conference committee outlines municipal priorities in FY19 budget

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The Honorable Jeffrey S. Sanchez, House Chair
The Honorable Karen E. Spilka, Senate Chair
The Honorable Stephen Kulik, House Vice Chair
The Honorable Joan B. Lovely, Senate Vice Chair
The Honorable Todd M. Smola, Ranking House Member
The Honorable Viriato M. deMacedo, Ranking Senate Member
Joint Committee on Ways and Means
State House, Boston
 
Dear Representative Sanchez, Senator Spilka, Representative Kulik, Senator Lovely, Representative Smola, and Senator deMacedo:
 
On behalf of cities and towns across the state, we are writing to express our appreciation for the many provisions in the fiscal 2019 budget bills approved by the House (H. 4401) and Senate (S. 2530) that benefit and support the communities of the Commonwealth. Both bills reflect a commitment to a fiscal partnership with municipalities.
 
We thank the House and Senate for advancing a state budget framework that increases Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) by $37.2 million, a key priority for communities, funds the basic parts of Chapter 70 education aid, including increasing per-student minimum aid to $30 per student, and increases funding for the Special Education Circuit Breaker program.
 
While there are a number of areas where the House and Senate are in agreement on funding levels for municipal and school aid accounts, there are many budget provisions where the two branches will have to resolve important differences. In this letter, we offer municipal government’s position on important funding and policy proposals that would impact communities and local taxpayers, and we urgently and respectfully ask you to take action on all of these matters to support the interests of the cities and towns of the Commonwealth.
 
We ask you to please invest in essential municipal and school programs, and we also ask that you 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 budget issues that impact cities and towns, and respectfully ask you to support those provisions and funding levels that most benefit the communities of the Commonwealth.
 
Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA)
The House and Senate both appropriated $1.099 billion for the Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) account (1233-2350 and section 3), an increase of $37.2 million over the fiscal 2018 level of funding. The 3.5 percent increase reflects the policy of increasing general municipal aid at the rate of growth in state tax collections reflected in the consensus tax forecast. This policy has been adopted by the Governor and the House and Senate since fiscal 2016, and is supported by the MMA.
 
Recent increases in UGGA have been very important locally to support municipal and school programs in cities and towns across the Commonwealth. It is important to note that the increase has already been factored into how the state calculates required local contribution and school aid amounts next year under Chapter 70.
 
Funding for this vital municipal aid program reflects the commitment of Lottery and other gaming revenue to support local government services and avoid overreliance on the property tax. Nearly all of the Cherry Sheet UGGA distribution next year would be covered by gaming revenue, with very little funded from state tax collections. Even at $1.099 billion, the UGGA account will still be $216 million lower than it was 10 years ago.
 
We respectfully ask the Conference Committee to include the full UGGA amount voted by the House and Senate in the Committee report. This is a high priority for cities and towns.
 
Chapter 70 School Aid and Local Contributions
The House and Senate both fund the basic requirements of Chapter 70 education aid (7061-0008 and section 3) and adopt provisions to continue to implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, but take different approaches.
 
We strongly support a funding increase for Chapter 70 school aid that is sufficient to allow all municipal and regional school districts to reach the “foundation” level of spending, implement the target share equity provisions adopted in 2006, and provide an adequate amount of minimum aid that ensures that all schools receive a suitable and appropriate increase in fiscal 2019. A significant majority of school districts only receive minimum aid, which is why the minimum aid aspect of Chapter 70 is so important.
 
We support the $30 per student minimum new aid amount included in the House and Senate bills.
 
We support the Senate proposal to close 100 percent of the target share gap for those cities and towns where the local contribution requirement exceeds the target share amount.
 
We support the plan in the House and Senate bills to continue the implementation of the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission for the Employee Benefits and Fixed Charges (mainly health insurance for school employees) factor.
 
We support the Senate plan to establish an enhanced English Language Learner (ELL) foundation budget factor.
 
We support $12.5 million in both the House (7061-0011) and Senate (7061-0008) bills that would provide transitional assistance to cities and towns as discussions continue on how to properly count low-income students.
 
Following these policies, we respectfully request and strongly support a Chapter 70 distribution of $4,907,573,321 plus the $12.5 million funding for low-income students.
 
Special Education Circuit Breaker
We strongly support the Senate appropriation for full funding of the Special Education Circuit Breaker Program (7061-0012) at $319.3 million, through which the state provides a measure of support for services provided to high-cost special education students.
 
Under Chapter 71B of the General Laws, the state’s share is 75 percent of costs that exceed four times the state average per pupil foundation budget. This is an essential program that provides critical funding to assist all school districts with the increasingly burdensome and volatile cost of complex and expensive special education services.
 
Charter School Impact Mitigation Payments
We strongly support the Senate appropriation of $100 million for Charter School Impact Mitigation Payments (7061-9010). This funding level reflects an increase of $19.5 million above the current fiscal 2018 level of funding. While this is an impressive and welcome increase, we recognize that this statutory reimbursement program would still fall far short of full funding.
 
The 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 2019, it is estimated that cities and towns will be assessed $661 million in local school revenues to fund charter schools, an increase of $72 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 state law.
 
Full funding of the statutory formula would require $172 million, based on the most recent data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). These school aid deductions are impacting a large number of communities, including some the state’s poorest and most financially distressed cities and towns.
 
Charter School Impact Analysis and Accountability
We support sections 61 and 62 in the Senate bill, which would bring a much-needed level of accountability related to state decisions to approve new and expanded charter schools that would include an assessment of the impact on local public schools. Section 61 would require that a fiscal impact report be provided before any charter school application is approved. Section 62 would require that the charter school impact payment statute be fully funded in a year before any new or expanded charter schools are approved for the next year.
 
Regional School District Student Transportation
We urge support for the Senate appropriation of $68.9 million to reimburse regional school districts for a portion of the cost of transporting students. This account (7035-0006) is vital to all regional districts and their member cities and towns, particularly in sparsely populated parts of the state. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) estimates that full funding of the state’s obligation next year would require $86.1 million. Underfunding this account has presented serious budget challenges for these districts, taking valuable dollars from the classroom.
 
Out-of-District Vocational Student Transportation
We urge support for full funding for reimbursements due under statute for part of the cost of transporting students to out-of-district vocational education placements. 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 (7035-0007). 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. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) estimates that full funding of the state’s obligation next year would require $3.9 million. The House and the Senate would both provide $250,000 in funding for this account.
 
McKinney-Vento Homeless Student Transportation
We urge support for the House appropriation of $9.1 million for this account (7035-0008) to reimburse municipalities and school districts for a portion of the cost of transporting homeless students as required under state and federal rules. The State Auditor has determined that the requirement is an unfunded mandate that the state is obligated to pay. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has estimated that full funding of the mandate would require $22.3 million next year.
 
Payments in Lieu of Taxes on State-Owned Land
We urge support for the Senate appropriation of $28.5 million to pay a portion of the payment-in-lieu-of taxes amount due to cities and towns to offset the property tax exemption for state-owned land (1233-2400). We support the additional $1.7 million set aside in the Senate appropriation language to ensure that Cherry Sheet PILOT payments next year are not reduced below the fiscal 2018 level due to the revaluation of state-owned land that takes effect next year.
 
There are nearly 450,000 acres of state-owned land in cities and towns with a total valuation of $2.9 billion. Full funding of the PILOT statute would require an estimated $42.4 million next year. Funding for the PILOT program is particularly important for cities and towns across the Commonwealth that host and provide services to state property and facilities.
 
Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program
We ask support for the Senate level of funding of $8 million for the highly effective and valuable Shannon Anti-Gang Grant Program (8100-0111), which has helped cities and towns respond to and suppress gang-related activities.
 
Reserve Fund for Municipal Improvements
We urge support for the House appropriation in item 1599-0026 that would provide $2.8 million for the District Local Technical Assistance Fund (DLTA) that helps support local efforts to regionalize local government services. We also support the Senate appropriation that includes $2 million to support the Community Compact Cabinet program to facilitate the adoption of municipal best practices in cities and towns.
 
Department of Labor Relations
We urge support for the Senate appropriation of $2.6 million (7003-0900) for the Department of Labor Relations (DLR), which would increase funding 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.
 
Joint Labor-Management Committee
We support the Senate appropriation of $250,000 (7003-0902) for the Joint Labor-Management Committee (JLMC). 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 item 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.
 
Bulk Extractor Program
We support that part of section 38 and item 1595-8324 in the Senate bill, which would create and fund an Extractor Bulk Purchase Trust Fund to finance a bulk purchase program. The purpose this section 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 well-being of municipal firefighters as well as preserve the integrity and increase the longevity of firefighters’ clothing.
 
Community Preservation Act
We support sections 45, 46, 47, 142, 143 and 196 of the Senate bill, 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.
 
Conservation Tax Credit
We support sections 59-70 in the House bill, which would expand the conservation land tax credit. These sections would raise the annual cap on the Conservation Land Tax Credit (CLTC) Program from $2 million annually to $5 million. 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.
 
Culvert and Small Bridge Working Group
We support section 160 of the Senate bill, which would create a working group to identify and evaluate the costs and benefits of existing environmental rules and regulations, engineering standards and permitting processes and their impact on the replacement or repair of deteriorated or substandard culverts and small bridges that measure less than 20 feet wide. Many communities have struggled with the costs of repairing and replacing culverts and bridges and this working group would make recommendations about how to implement cost-effective policies, while also considering storm resiliency and environmental factors.
 
Oppose Tax increment Value Capture Initiative
The MMA supports additional sources of revenue to fund transportation projects and providing tools to municipalities to build their infrastructure. However, we have concerns about section 50 in the House bill related to tax increment value capture initiatives. We feel that this provision needs additional study and ask that it not be included in the Conference Committee report.
 
Municipal Impact Statements
We support section 41 in the Senate bill, which 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.
 
Municipal Police Training Fund
We support sections 13, 14, and 70 in the Senate bill relating to the Municipal Police Training Fund created pursuant to Chapter 69 of the acts of 2018 in order to support training for the men and women who serve as police officers in the Commonwealth. These sections would appropriate money to the training fund, require the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to file an annual report with the House and Senate Ways and Means committees detailing the funds collected and full cost of operating the municipal police training committee, and create a $2 surcharge on each rental car transaction in the Commonwealth. The MMA supports these sections because they would facilitate training for municipal police, contributing to the safety and security of the citizens of the Commonwealth.
 
SUMMARY
Again, we would like to express our deep appreciation to you, the House and Senate leadership, and the members of the House and Senate for the thoughtful consideration of municipal needs and concerns throughout the development of the budget bills before the Conference Committee. 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 do not hesitate to 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
MMA Executive Director & CEO