AMHERST, MASS., FEB. 25, 2014……Local officials on Tuesday called for the tap of funding flowing from state government into city and town coffers to be opened wider, arguing current funding levels do not cover myriad needs, with officials from small towns saying they face unique challenges.
“We’ve availed ourselves of all of those mechanisms that you’ve given us,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said at a budgetary hearing held across the Connecticut River at UMass Amherst. He said, “We need to have aid levels that reflect the increases that we’re seeing at the local level.”
Narkewicz said Northampton, a small but bustling city along the river, had made use of local option meals taxes, taxes on hotel rooms, savings through regionalization and participation with the Community Preservation Act, that allows spending outside the Proposition 2 ½ restriction on property tax increases.
Rep. Matt Beaton, a Shrewsbury Republican, said Shrewsbury schools are succeeding on tight budgets, but they are near the breaking point with little recourse. Beaton said there are about 33 students per classroom and the only financial assistance available is overriding a state law to increase property taxes beyond the 2.5 percent levy limit.
“We’re about to snap and the only way we can address that is through a Prop 2.1/2 override,” Beaton said.
Smaller towns have fewer resources to draw upon, said Buckland Town Administrator Andrea Llamas, who is also chairwoman of the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts.
“We don’t have a lot of restaurants if any. We don’t have a lot of hotels, if any,” said Llamas whose town is along the Deerfield River and includes Sherburne Falls. She said, “Yet we have to provide all the same core essential services as these larger communities.”
Llamas said payments-in-lieu-of-taxes from non-profit or government-owned parklands that draw on small town’s emergency services are also a critical budget item in many areas. With 75 member towns, STAM membership is open to municipalities with a population under 10,000 in rural areas that often include regional school districts.
Rep. Cleon Turner, a Dennis Democrat, said transportation costs in regional school districts are major, and said the state has never provided towns with a 100 percent reimbursement required by law. Towns are currently reimbursed for regional transportation about 60 percent of the cost, according to Turner, who said bringing the reimbursement up to 70 percent would cost $6 million. Turner said many regional school officials would be satisfied if the reimbursement was set at 80 percent.
The Cape Cod Democrat also critiqued the state’s funding formula for local schools, known as Chapter 70, which he said doesn’t give regional school district towns the same freedom as other municipalities that can take into account the level of school funding versus the amount of unrestricted aid from the state when crafting local budgets.
“Local aid does not help regional schools,” said Turner, who found an ally across the aisle when he said exempting school districts from the state’s gas tax would provide some relief.
“I would love that,” responded Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican whose caucus has made multiple attempts to exempt local government from the gas tax.
Local officials and their advocates made the case for more funding at a hearing of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees, a body whose members include former selectboard members and other local officials.
Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to provide $920.2 million in unrestricted local aid – the same amount as in fiscal year 2014 – was inadequate. Beckwith said State Lottery revenues, which fund unrestricted local aid, are coming in over budget. Beckwith suggested a $45.1 million increase, putting unrestricted local aid at $965.3 million.
The MMA also supports a $143 million increase in Chapter 70 money, above Patrick’s proposed $100 million increase.
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson said Patrick’s budget includes a provision to establish a new Foundation Budget Review Commission, which would look into the Chapter 70 funding formula.
Copyright 2014 State House News Service