BOSTON – State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D- Pittsfield) announces today that the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed a municipal relief bill yesterday, providing cities and towns with new tools and local options to plan budgets, pool resources and save money. The package also includes new pension reform provisions that will generate millions of dollars in savings for local and state retirement systems.
“This bill removes unnecessary requirements that stand in the way of regionalization and other options that can help save money, giving communities additional authority and independence to make decisions and structure local programs,” said Downing. “This bill gives local officials the tools they need to operate more efficiently, thereby saving money in this difficult financial time.”
The bill establishes cost-saving efficiency measures specifically for local governments and gives municipalities the ability to enter into shared-service agreements free from collective bargaining requirements. During the debate, two Downing sponsored amendments were adopted:
The first raises the threshold at which a contractor needs to obtain a payment bond for municipal projects to $25,000. Current law requires a payment bond of 50% for all municipal building over $2,000. Most public works projects, like paving, roofing and painting, fall well below this threshold; many of the small contractors who otherwise would do the work do not qualify for bonding. Consequently, small building repairs are often delayed and worthy local contractors do not bid on the project. This provision was strongly supported by Berkshire town officials and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
The bill also provides local assessors additional time to conduct audits of personal property tax returns filed by certain corporations holding locally-assessed taxes. Local communities will be able to engage the services of private auditing firms to conduct such reviews; however, Downing’s amendment prohibits the hiring of contingency fee auditors, thereby preventing unnecessary, overaggressive auditing for profit while allowing assessors to get the technical help they need.
Several regionalization measures in the bill would allow cities and towns to establish mutual aid agreements between fire, police, EMS, public works and other local services; and allow school districts to share superintendents and enter into collaborative bulk-purchasing agreements.
Other initiatives benefiting schools include:
Flexibility in municipal and regional school districts to finance projects over a term matching the asset’s useful life, not to exceed 30 years, spreading out cost over a longer term to reduce annual expenses (this provision applies to municipalities in general as well);
Additional money-saving local options in the bill establish an early retirement program for municipal employees with at least 20 years of service. The benefit would be capped at 80 percent of the employee’s salary. Municipalities would be limited to the number of salaries they could replace.
The bill also gives municipalities the option to use electronic billing, if approved by a board of selectmen or mayor, and establish temporary tax amnesty programs that would expire June 30, 2011.
A series of sound business practices in the legislation improves and streamlines the local bidding and procurement process, and allows municipalities to enter into cost-saving cooperative purchasing agreements.
Finally, the bill also increases the authorized term of municipal leases from 10 to 30 years, and it eliminates the need for legislative approval to rectify irregularities in town elections or town meetings if the secretary of state finds that procedural standards were met.
The pension reform provisions are a unique aspect of the Senate municipal relief bill and will apply to all current and new employees to the extent it is constitutionally permissible.
“The Senate continues the progress made with landmark pension reform legislation passed last year,” said Downing. “This legislation closes more loopholes in existing law and ensures a more equitable retirement benefit system for all public employees.”
The key provisions include:
Elimination, for all new employees, of the so-called “Section 10” termination allowance, which was removed for elected officials in last year’s pension reform legislation;
A buy-back rule, consistent with all other state employees, that would require retired public officials elected to a new office to repay received benefits plus interest in order to rejoin the system; and