In his “municipal meltdown” diary last week, Charlie quotes a Commonwealth piece extensively about the fiscal crisis facing cities and towns. One line from Commonwealth really pushed my stupid button:
When the leader of the Massachusetts Municipal Association (a group whose initials are mocked by critics to mean “more money always”)….
The only “critics” who crack that joke are on Beacon Hill. It’s not a standing joke at the VFW. The soccer moms don’t roll their eyes and complain that those greedy cities and towns need more money again. It’s legislators, staffers, and hangers-on.
Yuk it up, guys.
In the Beacon Hill – o – centric view of the universe, cities and towns are Not Invented Here and always have their hands out. (And they can’t even offer high-paying jobs to bored legislative leaders.)
Let’s be clear. Cities and towns are subdivisions of the commonwealth, not illegal aliens from outer space. Every power that they have, from assessment to zoning, is based on a chapter of the General Laws.
State law sets the terms of how they function. They must pay special-education costs that are inherently outside their control; in a small town a single special-ed student can lead to deep cuts in the non-SPED school budget. Many must reward law enforcement personnel with automatic pay (and pension) increases for taking night classes. Communities can’t even charge motor vehicles a tax that covers the damage they do to streets, and on and on and on.
It is state law that sets the terms of labor-management contract negotiations, state law that allows and prohibits practices to pay for and control health-care costs, and state law that says cities and towns must rely to the degree they do on the property tax. And, of course, that tax is capped at less than the rate of inflation for government services.
Those are not all bad things. But to set up this framework and then dump on the cities and towns for the consequences is cynical and rude. Only the legislature has the power to change the fiscal dynamic, and it has chosen not to do so.
In his diary, Charlie asks, rhetorically, “can’t you just smell the entitlement?” Well, it doesn’t smell. It stinks.