SHIRLEY — When Sen. James Eldridge and state Rep. Jennifer Benson paid their annual visit to selectmen April 29, the focus of conversation was on the state budget relative to the town, including MCI prison mitigation money Benson pledged to “campaign” for.
Shirley’s MCI prison mitigation money was promised to the town by the state but siphoned away by the Department of Corrections this year. Benson said she’s hoping that at least part of that amount, $94,000, gets reinstated in the supplemental state budget. She said the same situation holds true for other communities that host state prisons.
Benson said she’d need grassroots help securing the funds.
Selectmen Chairman David Swain, however, suggested a simpler way to ensure the money comes through each year, by creating a conduit to funnel the funds and bypassing the DOC.
“I’d like to see that money go directly to the communities,” he said.
The two legislators said a move like that is beyond the scope of the House or Senate. “That has to come from the governor,” Benson said, so the selectmen should lobby him.
Benson said she filed an amendment seeking restoration of the prison mitigation funding, presumably via existing channels, and was working with other representatives who have prisons in their districts to that end. Last year, funds were budgeted at the full amount, but Gov. Deval Patrick cut it, mid-year, as he has “historically” done, she said.
The governor “has that right,” Benson said, but it’s unfair to the communities with existing state contracts. She aims to seek a sit-down with Patrick to talk about it, she said, and in the meantime urged the selectmen to write to him, stating their side of the issue.
Other key areas targeted for improvement in the state budget included regional school transportation reimbursement and “circuit breaker” funding. The good news is that local aid has risen to “pre-recession” levels, Benson said, and cities and towns can expect a “large increase” in Chapter 90 highway funding.
Swain said it is “interesting” that increased local aid is being touted as a plus at the year 2000 watermark. But according to an analysis done by the town’s financial team, the picture isn’t so rosy. In 2008, local aid to Shirley was $1,774,000, plus MCI money, for a total of $1.96 million. But only $1.1 million is expected in “unrestricted aid” this year.
As revenues continue to fall short of expenses, the town’s operational revenue (structural) deficit increases each year, he said, like a growing elephant in a small room. The net change in unrestricted state aid revenue is part of the problem. Formerly received as “lottery and additional assistance,” respectively,” the additional aid stopped in 2009.
As Treasurer Kevin Johnston later explained, that revenue was never replaced. Shirley depended heavily on state aid, which has been reduced by more than $685,000 since 2008, according to a report prepared by the town offices’ financial staff and collectively presented as a joint effort with the Finance Committee and selectmen. Now, state aid is only nine percent of total revenue, down from 38 percent less than eight years ago.
This lost revenue “is the single most significant element needed to move to sustainability and (recovering it) is a cornerstone in building a solid financial base for the future,” the report states.
Apprised, in part, of this issue, Benson wondered aloud if something had changed in the state formula to account for the gap, such as the town’s “aggregate wealth.”
“Not that we know of,” Swain responded. “We see a rather large discrepancy.”
“We can look into that together,” Benson said.