Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Towns Losing Fiscal Buoyancy Through Unfunded Mandates

By Larry Schmeidler, Editor

     Framingham's procrastination in dealing with unfunded mandates, dumped on it by the Feds and Beacon Hill, mirrors what is plaguing local governments across the nation.

     The mandates partly came into being to ensure that children in poorer communities get the same educational opportunities as those in more affluent towns and cities. The price tag is said to be already costing local governments an average of 30 percent of their annual budgets.

     And this issue is hitting at a time when financial analysts are worried that the U.S. economy could finally go over the cliff because of economic policies causing steadily mounting debt.

     When forced to look this issue squarely in the eye, Framingham may have done a fancy two- step to avoid a solution during its Town Meeting held on September 10th.

     TM members had the chance to pass -- again -- an article (or bill) requiring their Federal and State Representatives and Senators to file legislation that would eliminate the mandates and reinforce "Home Rule".

     The reason: Those designated elected officials virtually ignored a similar official request specified in an article that was overwhelmingly passed three months earlier at the annual TM meeting held last May.

     What actually happened was TM blamed the messenger -- the presenter of the article -- saying that the article was poorly worded and vague, and wasted TM time in being asked to consider a motion that was already on the books.

     Members then voted to "refer the article back to sponsor," which did two things: By not defeating the article outright, it avoided a perception it favored the mandates; and by the no action tactic, it kicked the can down the road while further debt piles up.

     What was not mentioned during the floor discussion were the cost estimates of the mandates printed in supporting background information provided by the presenter. According to this document, the Federal mandates cost Framingham over $30 million. This data was provided by Kathy Ahearn, Policy Advisor in the Boston office of U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass).

     The backgrounder also cited a report by the town's School Department indicating that state mandates on education cost Framingham over $21 million.

     A factor that could have played a role in adding to TM members' frustration and anger was the failure of the state officials to issue reports -- before the September 10th meeting -- on whether or not they honored the request of TM expressed last May. It is a time-honored tradition for those officials to write bills on behalf of citizens who request them, and especially when notified by towns and cities.

     Two officials, State Senator Karen Spilka and Rep. Tom Sannicandro promised written support for the presenter -- Steve Hakar -- but took no action and did not attend the meeting. Rep. Chris Walsh did attend and explained briefly why no action was taken on a "complex" issue.

     However, the issue was well publicized around town when the Framingham Taxpayers Association presented analyses during two popular public meetings held in March and April of this year. The last one was called "Staggering Along or Bankruptcy".

     Further action in this matter will take place at Town Meetings in nearby Sudbury and Wayland on September 24th and October 3rd, respectively.

     The upshot: The issue is very much alive, and it could get considerably worse.