By Senator Jamie Eldridge
A month ago, I went before the Shirley Board of Selectman for my annual budget update. It’s an opportunity to talk about likely local aid numbers for the town, including for the town’s schools, and answer any questions that selectmen and the general public in attendance have about the state budget and any bills pending before the Legislature on Beacon Hill.
The discussion that night was particularly focused on the state’s budget, and how that would impact Shirley’s bottom line. The selectmen asked about different budget line items – the Chapter 70 education formula, regional bonus aid, special education circuit breaker, prison mitigation funding, lottery aid – that sometimes go up and down in the state budget, mostly due to the amount of revenue flowing to the state that year.
I remember that night well, because it was just two weeks after the State Senate had passed the transportation finance bill. In a perfect example of the political complexity (fear?) of raising taxes in Massachusetts, the final outcome of the debate was going to impact how much additional revenue the Senate would have to increase key areas of the FY14 budget.
That night in Shirley, I could feel the pressure that most municipal officials in the fourteen communities that I represent surround them each year, trying to meet the challenge of “How do I provide the necessary services to my fellow residents, while balancing the budget?” The discussion about what was likely to happen in the state budget, while productive, left a good degree of uncertainty. Immediately after the formal discussion, just outside the board conference room, a handful of Shirley residents pleaded for relief a little more urgently, outside of the glare of the local cable TV camera.
When I first ran for the Legislature in 2002, I knew virtually no one in Shirley. It was the first town where I began campaigning in the middle of a very cold winter. I remember knocking on my first door in northern Shirley, the driveway and walkway leading to the front door encased in ice. As I made my way through the town meeting voters into the summer, I found residents friendly, proud of their hometown, and very comfortable expressing their diverse opinions. Shirley is a blue-collar town striving to find ways to attract more businesses, improve services, provide a better education for their kids and keep property taxes low. There was a lot of discussion that year how to go about that.
Since that time, the town and its elected officials have worked hard to achieve those goals. Shirley has had a close partnership with MassDevelopment, the agency that oversees Devens, to acquire lands for a new middle school and town buildings. It’s supported efforts to upgrade the commuter rail that passes through Shirley and has partnered more recently with the town of Ayer to form one of the state’s newest regional school systems. Shirley became a Green Community with the hopes of reducing residents’ energy costs through putting up solar panels all over town. While the opinions of residents vary greatly politically about the proper role of state and federal government, it has been a very strong partner with many of the state’s goals.
Shirley is a town that deserves greater financial support from the state. And despite the streams of state revenue that flow to the town, the reality is that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts needs to do more, for all communities. The debate this year about revenue highlights this fact. The discussion should have been about how government provides enough resources to principals, teachers, and town staff to dramatically improve schools, stabilize property taxes, reach children before they turn five, and attract more businesses.
Instead, more often that not the approach to the tax debate was as if a certain magic number of revenue would be small enough to avoid earning the ire of anti-tax voters, letting pass arguably a once in a generation opportunity to dedicate the amount of revenue to transform the kind of state’s we are, and the vision we have for communities and residents in need of more support. While the transportation finance bill that passed in the House and Senate reflects the Legislature’s support of improving the state’s transportation system, this missed opportunity will only lead to more discussions like that Monday night in Shirley, where there were more questions than answers.