DiZoglio, Mark press for full PILOT funding

  • MARK

  • The Kenneth Dubuque Memorial State Forest in Hawley. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2022 5:41:37 PM
Modified: 8/5/2022 5:38:30 PM

HAWLEY — With a population of just 353 according to the 2020 census, Hawley is one of the smallest towns in Massachusetts.

Already, Hawley’s mostly residential tax base is tiny. But to make matters more difficult, around half of the entire town is forestland owned by the state, which does not pay property taxes.

The state does reimburse municipalities for lost revenue through a “payment in lieu of taxes” program, known as PILOT. But for years, that program has been underfunded, made worse by recent changes in the state’s process of assessing the value of those lands.

Standing at Hallockville Pond in the Kenneth Dubuque Memorial State Forest on Tuesday, state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, and state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, called on the state to stop “shortchanging” smaller rural communities with its PILOT program.

“With an extremely limited and almost all-residential tax base, the failure to fully fund PILOT creates severe financial hardships on these small towns as they struggle to pay their share of regional school budgets and keep their roads maintained,” DiZoglio said.

DiZoglio and Mark were on a campaign stop at the state forest to call attention to the plight facing smaller communities. DiZoglio is currently running for state auditor and Mark is running for the state Senate seat for the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden District.

DiZoglio will face first-time candidate Chris Dempsey in the Sept. 6 Democratic primary. Mark will go up against Huff Templeton of Williamstown in the primary.

DiZoglio said that despite the state just ending the fiscal year with a $3.6 billion surplus, the Legislature has failed to fund the PILOT line item in the budget with its full amount of $45.6 million. Instead, she said, the line item has remained flat at around $30 million since fiscal year 2009. She said that in that same period, property tax collections across the state have increased by about 57%.

“That’s really unacceptable,” DiZoglio said.

In 2020, state Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report that found the PILOT program to be woefully underfunded, with an allocation formula that disproportionately impacts small, rural communities. The report called for an update to the PILOT program’s funding formula. Speaking Tuesday, Mark said Bump’s report played an essential role in highlighting the problem, which western Massachusetts lawmakers had been previously talking about.

“It gave us the data we needed,” he said. Lawmakers could now point to a “price tag” to indicate just how much their communities were being shorted.

DiZoglio said she would continue to pursue equitable funding for western Massachusetts communities if elected, working to release critical reports like Bump’s and using the office to advocate for disenfranchised communities. She spoke about her co-sponsoring a bill to reform the PILOT program, and said that if elected as state auditor she would direct her staff to conduct spot checks of PILOT payments and make sure the Legislature has the most updated information to address the problem.

“Holding state government accountable,” she said. “That’s a track record I have at the State House.”

Mark said he would continue the work of current state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to “make sure our area gets a fair shake.”

DiZoglio said that when communities are shortchanged by the state, those deficits show up in their municipal budgets. Her own Senate district includes regional school districts like many western Massachusetts hilltown communities, which she said are already underfunded. Failing to fund PILOT means that money is coming out of a town’s public safety or school budget, for example.

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” she said.

Mark and DiZoglio both talked about the important role that the state auditor can play in pushing for more equitable funding for western Massachusetts communities that have been overlooked by Beacon Hill, whether through the PILOT program or on other issues such as public transportation funding.

“State forests like Kenneth Dubuque are wonderful recreational resources for residents of the third-most densely populated state in the nation to enjoy along with tourists and visitors,” DiZoglio said. “But we must keep the fiscal faith with host communities like Hawley, Plainfield and Savoy that we will adhere to state law by making good on our PILOT appropriations every year.”

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