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Massachusetts does not have the financial wherewithal to fully address the looming fiscal problems facing cities and towns.
But municipal officials’ pleas that state lawmakers look at cost-free fixes that would save communities millions or tolerable tax hikes have fallen on deaf ears on Beacon Hill. That was the takeaway from the leaders of three mid-size cities at a Harvard Kennedy School of Government panel discussion Monday night.
Mayor James Fiorentini of Haverhill, who was joined by Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg and Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, said that last Tuesday’s election results showed that "voters are not adverse to some revenue increases." He pointed to the rejection of Question 3, which would have voided a sales tax increase approved by the Legislature last year. The ballot question actually would have gone much further than return to last year’s 5 percent rate, cutting the sales tax instead from 6.25 percent to 3 percent. Voters also reelected Gov. Deval Patrick, "who never ruled out revenue increases, as opposed to Charlie Baker," Fiorentini said in an interview after the forum.
Asked what state lawmakers could do specifically for municipalities that would not cost the state money, the unanimous choice of the mayors was the often-heard plea to allow cities and towns to move their employees and retirees into the Group Insurance Commission, the state’s health insurance plan, without having to negotiate that transition with municipal unions.
The mayors also said that although Beacon Hill took care of the most egregious pension abuses in last year’s pension reforms, the Legislature should revisit those issues to get municipalities out from under some of their crushing responsibilities that they still face.
"We don’t have a partnership with the Legislature," said Curtatone. "They don’t have a full understanding of what [it takes to run] municipalities." Somerville dealt with an $8.1 million gap in its fiscal 2011 budget through a combination of layoffs, wage freezes, and outsourcing. The city has also seen its health care costs triple in the past decade, according to Curtatone.
Fiorentini said state lawmakers could begin by increasing the retirement age for municipal employees. (Currently, the minimum retirement age is 55 for municipal employees. Those workers also can also receive full retirement benefits at age 65.)
He pointed to Vallejo, California, as a cautionary tale of what happens to a city that fails to resolve pension issues. Vallejo was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2008 after municipal unions refused to compromise on pensions.
The mayors also agreed that the Legislature needs to take on municipal unions more forcefully. Wong, who is the subject a profile in the current issue of CommonWealth, urged tackling the "perceived power of the unions" and touted her city’s success in negotiating "multiple years of zero [municipal pay] raises."
"The Legislature thinks the unions are more powerful than I think they are," said Fiorentini, who said that he was reelected to a fourth term last year despite the opposition of Haverhill’s municipal unions.