Lawmakers hear list of concerns during Royalston visit 

  • State Rep. Susannah Whipps (left) and state Sen. Jo Comerford discussing issues at Saturday's legislative listening session. Royalston Selectboard members Chris Long and Roland Hamel (backs to camera) listen in. —Greg Vine

  • Royalston Selectboard members Roland Hamel and Chris Long listening to state Rep. Susannah Whipps during a meeting at Royalston Town Hall Saturday afternoon.' —Greg Vine

  • Rachel McMahon, Legislative Aide to state Rep. Susannah Whipps, Rep. Whipps, a resident of Royalston, and state Sen. Jo Comerford at Saturday afternoon's meeting in Royalston. —Greg Vine

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 10/27/2019 9:55:25 PM
Modified: 10/27/2019 9:55:21 PM

ROYALSTON – State Sen. Jo Comerford (D-Northampton) and state Rep. Susannah Whipps (I-Athol) were peppered with questions during a 90-minute-long “listening session” Saturday afternoon at Royalston Town Hall. Whipps, a former member of the Athol Selectboard, is in her third term as representative of the 2nd Franklin District. Comerford mounted a successful write-in campaign in a four-way race to succeed former Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who resigned in May 2018 after his husband Bryon Hefner, became embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. She represents the Hampden, Franklin, Worcester District.

In opening remarks, Rep. Whipps pointed out that she and her fellow House members represent about 42,000 people. However, while her district is comprised of 12 communities, that of the average representative from Boston is made up of about 20 city blocks.

“So, as rural representatives, (Sen. Comerford and I) find it very important to get together. On broadband issues, for example, when we talk to a representative from Boston, they find it hard to believe there are places in the state that don’t have broadband service. I think one of the things we do very well as a rural caucus is to get together and explain to the folks in Boston what life is like out here.”

Whipps said she and Comerford have also been fighting to increase the amount of Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) money the Commonwealth pays for state-owned property in communities across the state. Since municipalities can’t tax the state for the property it controls, that land is exempt from property taxes. However, Whipps and Comerford want to reconfigure the means by which PILOT payments are calculated to ensure cities and towns aren’t getting short-changed by the state.

“I don’t believe the formula has been looked at in decades,” she said. “(The state has) actually increased the amount of non-taxable land they have, but their PILOT payments have actually gone down in recent years.”

Comerford said she was pleased with the supplemental state budget passed by the Senate last week. The spending plan includes $50,000 for the North Quabbin Community Coalition, a public/social service agency serving nine towns in the area, including Royalston. She said the package also includes an additional $60 million in Chapter 90 funding, which cities and towns use to maintain roadways, as well as $5.2 million for regional school transportation reimbursements, a major issue for systems like the Athol-Royalston Regional School District.

In response to a question from former Royalston Selectboard member Gary Winitzer, both lawmakers said they would look into how to possibly make improvements in public transportation for small rural communities.

Winitzer pointed out that buses for the Montachusett Regional Transit Authorty, better known as MART, pass through Phillipston and Royalston on their way between Athol and Gardner, but make no stops in either town.

“Sometimes you’ll see buses passing through town with just two people on them,” he said. “And yet there are no stops here on their way to Winchendon.”

Comerford and Whipps, responding to complaints about restrictions on snowmobiles on state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife land in Royalston, also promised to see what could be done to open state lands for use by snowmobilers. Several people in the audience agreed that the biggest problem with recreational vehicles has been created by dirt bikers and ATV drivers, claiming those vehicles do much more damage to the land than the snowmobiles.

“We’re going to reach out to (Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner) Ron Amidon and see what we can do,” said Whipps. “The property should available to anyone who’s not going to do damage to it.”

Several other issues, including education and economic development of the Athol-Royalston region were also discussed before Whipps and Comerford had to leave for another appointment in Wendell. Both seemed genuinely pleased with Saturday’s turnout and the involvement and interest shown by the Royalston residents who attended the event.

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