(BOSTON) – The Massachusetts Legislature yesterday evening passed a municipal relief package that establishes a statewide mutual aid agreement to allow cities and towns to share resources, permits municipalities to extend funding schedules for pension systems and allows for regionalization efforts among municipalities. The measure will give cities and towns across Massachusetts new tools and encourage innovation in managing their budgets and in these challenging fiscal times.
“In these tough fiscal times, this bill will give municipal officials more tools to trim costs, to deliver services more efficiently through cooperation among communities, and to tackle administrative problems in innovative ways in order to govern as effectively as possible in this time of lean resources,” said Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government and co-author of the bill.
The Municipal Relief bill was a combination of the best ideas suggested by the Municipal Relief Commission (co-chaired last year by Chairman Paul Donato and Senator Stanley Rosenberg), Governor Deval Patrick, local officials throughout the state, legislators, municipal advocacy groups, and private citizens. It was the culmination of an 18 month process, led by Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representative Paul Donato, chairs of the Joint Committee on Municipalities & Regional Government.
In an effort to save municipalities money, the bill establishes a statewide mutual aid agreement to allow municipalities to share fire services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, public works and other local services in the case of a public safety or public works incident.
In addition to mutual aid, the bill would allow regional school districts to join with municipal districts to share a superintendent that would represent the partnering districts. The bill also creates a commission to study efficient and effective strategies for regionalization to bring further cost savings to municipalities across the Commonwealth.
The bill also provides pension funding relief for cities and towns by extending their funding schedules to 2040. In addition, the legislation creates an optional early retirement program for municipalities. Participating employees would need at least 20 years of service to participate and municipalities would be required to limit the total number of employees who can take part in the program.
The legislation includes a renewable energy revolving fund and betterment program, which would allow municipalities to offer a loan program to property owners for renewable energy improvements. This would give towns interested in promoting energy conservation and green energy the legal mechanism to set up a revolving fund for this purpose, and encourage the use of solar panels and other renewable energy sources.
The legislation allows municipalities to lease public buildings for up to 30 years. Currently, cities and towns may only lease public buildings for up to 10 years. To relieve the tax burden on veterans and members of the National Guard, the bill expands property tax abatement to all veterans and establishes a 100 percent property tax abatement for active National Guard members and reservists on duty in a foreign country.
The bill also allows cities and towns to establish temporary tax amnesty programs under which municipalities may waive portions of the penalties and interest due on unpaid taxes as long as the taxpayer pays the principal amount owed and was not the subject of a criminal investigation for failure to pay taxes.
To help save costs, the bill allows school committees to offer a program to reimburse parents who voluntarily choose to transport their disabled child to an approved out of district placement. In order to offer such a program, though, the community must demonstrate that the program will result in cost savings.
The bill now goes to Governor Patrick’s desk for his signature.