Overhaul urged for Massachusetts disaster response

Christian Cunnie of the International Association of Emergency Managers displays images of Massachusetts natural disasters on the screen during a briefing on a proposed state disaster relief fund on Tuesday.

Christian Cunnie of the International Association of Emergency Managers displays images of Massachusetts natural disasters on the screen during a briefing on a proposed state disaster relief fund on Tuesday. SCREENSHOT

JO COMERFORD

JO COMERFORD

NATALIE BLAIS

NATALIE BLAIS

By SAM DORAN

State House News Service

Published: 01-15-2024 5:00 PM

As towns and cities see a rise in natural disasters that require greater emergency response than their local resources can support alone, two western Massachusetts lawmakers renewed their call Tuesday to divert a portion of excess capital gains tax revenue toward a proposed disaster relief fund.

Flashing photos and news headlines on the screen from floods and tornadoes of 2023, Christian Cunnie of the International Association of Emergency Managers said a dedicated funding stream for disaster response is “extremely vital.” Last year featured “flooding, to wildfires, droughts, tornadoes and more,” he said.

Massachusetts is one of just two states (with Connecticut) that deal with disaster response funding through one-time appropriations, Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said during the virtual briefing.

That lack of a standing fund places the state at a disadvantage, Cunnie said, particularly when local communities do not meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency funding threshold.

Holyoke’s emergency management director, Jeff Trask, said the idea — sponsored by Comerford and Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield — could “overhaul the quality of emergency response” in the state.

The proposed funding source for the Disaster Relief Trust Fund, which would be automatically pumped up to a $250 million level, would be capital gains tax revenues over a fixed threshold that currently flow into the state stabilization fund. Also known as the rainy day fund, the stabilization fund currently holds around $8.1 billion.

“We would scoop out some of that before it hits the rainy day fund,” Comerford said. “It’s, of course, raining in our communities. And so we feel like that’s an appropriate diversion for this one-time capitalization and then a replenishing.”

Blais said that “the idea here is that we’re taking this limited amount of funds, and instead of it sitting in the rainy day fund, it’s sitting in this fund so that it’s ready for when disaster strikes.”

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The hulking stabilization account also features in a proposal from Gov. Maura Healey, set for debate in the Senate on Thursday, that would allow the state to use the substantial interest generated by the fund to help compete for federal grants or pay down debt.

“She is contemplating taking the interest from the stabilization fund in order to be able to leverage federal funding. This is a good idea,” Comerford said. “It’s a different idea than simply diverting some of the excess capital gains funding. And so we’ll have to see where that goes in development, but right now we’re in good, I think very productive, conversations with the Healey-Driscoll administration about this.”

The bill sponsors hosted the video call with Region 1 of the International Association of Emergency Managers and encouraged local professionals on the call to talk to municipal officials about the bill and get constituents involved who have been personally impacted by disasters.

In the absence of a standalone disaster relief fund, Healey responded to major flooding at Massachusetts farms in July — and at least $15 million worth of crop damage — by promoting a private fundraising campaign administered by the United Way of Central Massachusetts.

The Legislature folded a $15 million reserve into its slow-moving fiscal year 2023 closeout budget — “to provide extraordinary relief and support mitigation costs associated with storms and natural disasters that impacted municipalities throughout the commonwealth in 2023” — but lawmakers did not get that bill across the finish line until December, around five months after the disaster happened.

Blais said Tuesday that while the Legislature can provide targeted disaster relief as it did in 2023, that “is not certain” and is “based on the availability of funds, the timing of the event and many other factors.”

“As a result, there have been many disasters in Massachusetts that have left municipalities with millions of dollars worth of damage, and no funding available to assist,” she continued.

Besides the FEMA funding threshold, emergency management professionals also cited concern around the timeliness of any money that does come through.

As Healey solicited private donations for the storm-ravaged farms last summer, she said she was “not holding my breath” waiting for federal aid, and said the effort was launched “because we need people to pitch in now while we pursue all of those other federal means.”

The town of Leicester’s emergency management director, Jason Main, said the timeliness of funding availability would be key for a new fund to be effective, especially for “towns like mine that are right up against the levy.”

Much of the authority over the new fund would rest with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which the bill tasks with creating “program administration regulations and guidance” including “application procedure and eligibility criteria.”

Under the bill, MEMA would disburse money from the account “to provide emergency disaster relief and alleviate the damage, loss, hardship or suffering caused by a natural or human-caused disaster or other catastrophic event, including but not limited to a hurricane, tornado, storm, rain, flood, tidal wave, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, extreme heat, fire or drought, including when a federal or state disaster declaration has not been made, or to supplement funding related to a federal or state disaster declaration.”

Blais and Comerford filed their bills (H 4181 / S 2506) in early November, and the proposals have sat since then in the Joint Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Management chaired by Sen. Marc Pacheco and Rep. William Driscoll Jr. Eleven senators and 23 representatives have signed on as cosponsors, the most recent of whom — Rep. Steven Xiarhos of Barnstable — registered his support on Tuesday, according to the Legislature’s website.

While she sees no “ideological” opposition to the bill, Comerford forecast one potential roadblock: “we’re in difficult budget times and everybody wants the revenue streams that we have identified for this,” she said.

“As you know better than anyone, the best time to prepare for disaster is before one strikes,” Blais told the emergency response professionals on Tuesday’s video call.