Comerford sees good things in governor’s budget

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 03-10-2023 5:27 PM

ATHOL – State Sen. Jo Comerford (D-Northampton) said the FY24 state budget proposed by Gov. Maura Healey includes several items that should—if they survive the legislative process—be helpful to the communities of North Quabbin.

“Overall, I think it’s a really strong blueprint,” she said. “I do think Gov. Healey and Lt. Gov. Driscoll have, from the start, been very open to discuss and engage with what it really means to have regional equity and a rural agenda. That is something I’ve spoken with the governor and lieutenant governor directly about and they’re keenly aware that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all policy, nor a one-size-fits-all budget.”

Comerford sees a number of intuitive changes, including a significant increase to PILOT payments, a hike to regional school transportation and funding in the budget of the food security infrastructure grant.

Town officials throughout North Quabbin and the rest of western Massachusetts have been pushing for years to see an increase in PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) payments to municipalities. The program was established to provide a source of revenue to communities that have state-owned lands within their borders – lands not subject to the municipal property tax. Healey’s budget proposal commits $51.5 million to PILOT payments, which represents a $6.5 million increase over FY23. That amounts to a jump of 14 percent over the current fiscal year.

Comerford did say that, while generally supportive of the Healey administration’s spending proposal, there are some portions she would like to see tweaked a bit.

“I’d like to see an increase to local aid,” she explained. “I’d like to see Chapter 90 better reflect road miles. As you know, out here we have the miles, and I want towns to receive funding based on road miles. I’d like to see an increase to the Healthy Incentives Program, which was significantly underfunded in the budget; that’s a priority of the Legislature so, hopefully, we’ll go and get that. Also, funding for local and regional public health.”

Comerford said the money for rural school aid is very good, but there is a need for a more systemic fix. Rural school aid would be boosted by $2 million to a total of $7.5 million for FY24. The aid is used by school districts to help pay for fixed costs. Such costs can include, but are not limited to, building maintenance, utilities, amortization of debt service, insurance, and more.

Comerford said she’d also like to see a change to the way funding for schools is calculated.

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“As Chapter 70 (state aid to education) goes up, net school spending amounts – the amount municipalities have to pay – increases,” she said. “There is a ‘pothole’ account for that in the budget; I’d like to see that we earmark some of that for rural communities.”

Two days after Comerford’s interview with the Athol Daily News, Gov. Healey and Lt. Gov. Driscoll, on a visit to Deerfield, announced the creation of a new position in the Executive Office of Economic Development. The Director of Rural Affairs will, according to a release, serve as “an advocate and ombudsman for rural communities.” Comerford said she’s hopeful a final state budget will be negotiated and passed on time this year.

A delay in passage of a state budget, which has been common in recent years, makes it difficult for municipalities and school districts to hammer out details of their budgets for the fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“I’m hoping it will,” she said. “I’m very much hoping it will. I do think it’s our job to budget on time. I don’t take it lightly that we haven’t done that. So, I’m very much hoping we are able to get the budget out on time.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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