By Keith Regan, Contributing Writer
Northborough – All four members of the town’s legislative delegation appeared at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting March 9, offering to go to bat for the town’s priorities and providing some positive budget news.
In what is becoming an annual occurrence, the town’s two state representatives and two senators credited Northborough’s provocative approach to the legislative process, which includes an annual memo listing the town’s most pressing State House priorities.
State Sen. Harriet Chandler, D-Worcester, told the board that recent data show tax collections have rebounded and are now running about $200 million ahead of projections, possibly setting up a scenario where budget writers will have more cash to work with as they move toward completion of next year’s spending plan sometime in June.
Chandler and the rest of the delegation also said lawmakers were poised to protect local aid funding in Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed budget, which would increase payouts to Northborough by 1.3 percent, or about $65,000 more than the current year’s levels.
“The house and senate will do all it can to maintain local aid,” Chandler said. “We know it’s important.”
In laying out a host of legislative priorities, Northborough officials focused on three top issues: Chapter 90 funding for roadwork; so-called circuit breaker funding for special education; and reform of OPEB, or other post-employment benefits, which mainly includes the cost of health insurance for retired town employees.
Town Administrator John Coderre said new, higher levels of support for Chapter 90 enable the town to maintain its roadways when combined with local funding sources. A reduction back to old levels would mean the town falls behind again, he said.
State Rep .Harold Naughton, D-Clinton, said there appears to be support for maintaining higher levels of Chapter 90 funding, and that House Speaker Bob DeLeo has said he wants to hear the transportation needs of the entire state before decided how much to invest in the MBTA.
State Rep. Danielle Gregoire, D-Marlborough, said she has told budget leaders that special education and transportation funding is her top priority. She also said she had been appointed as vice chair of the house Education Committee, a group that would be examining the issue of unfunded mandates and their impact on local school districts.
“It’s time to stop talking and start getting to work,” she said.
Chandler noted that Northborough is one of several communities in her district that sees an outsized impact from special education, in part because of the town’s proximity to a major autism education center in Southborough.
For their part, local officials said the town does not shy away from doing its part to address issues, but some things require state help. For instance, the town has begun to fund its future OPEB liability – estimated to be around $32 million – by diverting hotel taxes into a dedicated fund, building the fund up $500,000 per year.
“This is one thing we can’t spend our way out of,” Coderre said. “We’re doing our part, but we need reform to truly fix the issue.”
A study commission looked at the OPEB issue last year, said State Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, and legislation may be forthcoming this year to address changes. The town would like to see retirees receive health benefits on a sliding scale based on number of years worked and other factors, Coderre said. Eldridge said some lawmakers are concerned that diluting public benefits too much will keep people from accepting jobs with municipalities.
Selectman Jeff Amberson said of the town’s top legislative priorities, the education circuit breaker funding may be the most urgent to fix. “You only have once chance to educate kids,” he said. “From a moral standpoint, if I had to pick one thing to address, which is not suggesting the others aren’t important.”
Meanwhile, Selectman William Pantazis said the town had become a victim of its own success, with strong schools attracting more families–including those with students who require special education services–and economic growth bringing additional traffic to roadways.