“Given the fact that the governor has cut local aid, at the very least we have to give communities the tools to balance their budget.” — State Senator Jamie Eldridge
by Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
April 16, 2009
It’s that time of year when local officials start leaning on lawmakers for more state funding.
But not this year.
As the Legislature starts drafting and debating next year’s budget, a group of local officials is taking a different approach. Instead of asking for more money, the Suburban Coalition is asking for legislative help in cutting healthcare and special-education costs and give communities the option of raising local hotel and meal taxes.
“One of the things the coalition really worked hard on was coming up with positions that would not cost the state any money,” said Harvard resident Stu Sklar, treasurer of the Concord-based organization and chairman of his town’s School Committee.
The Suburban Coalition, formed 25 years ago to serve as the voice of elected officials from towns across the state, hosted a State House breakfast Tuesday to deliver a direct appeal to lawmakers, with their audience expected to include state Senator Jamie Eldridge of Acton and state Representative Will Brownsberger of Belmont.
“By coming together as a group, it makes a bigger impression than hearing from just Wayland,” said Lee Anderson, a former Wayland School Committee member.
The coalition has developed a list of priorities that its members – including officials from Ashland, Belmont, Carlisle, Concord-Carlisle, Dover, Dover-Sherborn, Framingham, Harvard, Holliston, Hopkinton, Lexington, Medfield, Natick, Needham, Sudbury, Wayland, Wellesley, and Weston – say could help ease the financial crunch faced by so many communities this year.
Among the proposals are changes to give officials more flexibility to change health-insurance coverage for municipal employees outside of collective bargaining; limit tuition increases for special education provided by out-of-district facilities and stop midyear tuition increases; create more local revenue-raising options; repeal a telecommunications tax loophole; change how charter-school tuition charges are calculated for sending districts; and establish a threshold of $25,000 for projects requiring prevailing-wage payments.
“These are things that would really, really help,” Anderson said. “Towns make up the Commonwealth, so if towns are thriving in education, public safety and have good infrastructure, then the Commonwealth is going to thrive.”
Eldridge and Brownsberger both said they support the local-option taxes for restaurants and hotels, but acknowledged that they are controversial.
“Everyone’s focused on savings and efficiencies before we broach the revenue question,” Brownsberger said.
Eldridge said he had hoped the Legislature would have passed a local-options package by now, so communities could have included the potential revenues in drafting their operating budgets for next fiscal year.
But many communities have already held Town Meetings or will do so before the Legislature passes any proposals. “That’s very frustrating,” he said. “Given the fact that the governor has cut local aid, at the very least we have to give communities the tools to balance their budget.”
Brownsberger said he has taken a personal interest in finding ways to reduce health insurance expenses for communities. “It’s an area we need to make progress on,” he said. “Healthcare costs are a rapidly rising cost of their budgets.”
Eldridge said he is also focused on healthcare changes and closing the telecommunications loophole, which allows some utilities sharing a pole to avoid paying taxes on the installation. Local officials say by charging taxes to all users, towns could raise a significant amount of money.
“They are all little pieces that could help,” Anderson said. “There is no one magic solution for all of this.”
Sklar said a lower threshold for prevailing-wage projects, linked to union pay scales, would help local businesses. “We have a lot of small construction companies in town that would do small jobs for us,” he said. “But when we do bids for small jobs, they are cut out because they don’t offer the prevailing wage.”