Auditor: WMass infrastructure money inadequate

  • State Auditor Suzanne Bump during a meeting with local legislators and town officials atop Mount Sugarloaf in July. STAFF file PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • State Auditor Suzanne Bump released a study Oct. 5 addressing infrastructure funding disparities in the state. Among recommended improvements is a change in the formula for allocating Chapter 90 funding to towns in Massachusetts. SCREENSHOT/ZACK DELUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 10/5/2021 12:10:10 AM

Western Massachusetts communities don’t have the tools and money necessary to maintain or develop public infrastructure for roadways, buildings and broadband internet, according to a 100-page study the state auditor is set to release on Tuesday.

The region’s inability to address key infrastructure is due to a declining population, geographic challenges and a lack of overall resources, states the report, “Public Infrastructure in Western Massachusetts: A Critical Need for Regional Investment and Revitalization,” which is now available through Mass.gov

“This report advocates for increased investment in our western regions,” State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump said during a virtual media roundtable Monday morning in advance of the report’s release.

The study notes that if not addressed, “public infrastructure challenges will further exacerbate the commonwealth’s east-west divide.” It centered on addressing the connection between the quality of life and adequate infrastructure.

Division of Local Mandates Director Ben Tafoya, who joined Bump at the roundtable, said the results of the study focused mainly on concerns of shortfalls in investment for municipal buildings, broadband and transportation or roadway infrastructure.

According to the report, the Division of Local Mandates sent a survey in late 2020 to all 101 communities in western Massachusetts. Responses were received from 45 communities that show a deep need for continuing investment in infrastructure and a lack of sufficient resources to meet that need. Responses to this survey showed “a tremendous need for improvements and changes across all categories,” Tafoya said.

Having lived in the western part of the state herself for over 20 years, Bump said she saw “the reality of the east-wide divide” and the limited ability of communities that are “strapped for cash” to fund infrastructure projects themselves. Earlier this year, Bump’s office released a report relative to the disproportionate impact of PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, programs on western Massachusetts communities.

“With this report, too, we have focused on the unique problems that confront the four counties of western Massachusetts,” Bump said Monday. “Let me get right to the bottom line of the report, which underscores the need for the commonwealth to come forward with a rural needs rescue plan ...”

She said this is an “opportunity to reverse decades of disinvestment” in the four rural counties of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire. After the various mills which once powered the area’s economy ceased to operate, and without the same “high-tech” business boom as seen on the eastern side of the state, Bump said western counties have consistently faced shrinking populations and labor forces.

With fewer taxpayers, the communities are inadequately funded for public infrastructure. Bump addressed the Chapter 90 formula for funding for roadway infrastructure. While this funding is available to all communities across the commonwealth, it is distributed based on “a formula that hasn’t been updated since the 70s,” Bump said. She said many towns rely on Chapter 90 money for more than 60% of their annual roads budgets.

The study asked communities to assign a dollar figure to the gap between what they spend and what they perceive to be the amount needed to adequately maintain their roadways each year.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which has consistently advocated for a funding amount of at least $300 million annually, estimates that an annual total investment of more than $588 million is needed to have all roads across the commonwealth brought to a state of good repair. This means there is an annual funding gap of $388 million between the current appropriation level and funding need.

“Deferred investment and chronic underfunding of the Chapter 90 Program has caused this gap to grow, and it will continue to do so without further investment from the state,” reads the study.

According to Bump, the formula for distributing this money is weighed more heavily on population than road mileage. With shrinking populations, the towns in the four counties of western Massachusetts receive dwindling shares of Chapter 90 money. The study proposes a revised formula that weighs roadway mileage more heavily than population.

Bump said the state administration has the power to change this formula to one “that takes into consideration the lack of ability to self-fund by rural communities.” And in this case, she said, “it’s not just western Massachusetts, but across the commonwealth all rural communities are particularly strapped.”

In the report, Bump notes this is an opportune time to make the proposed changes, as the federal government is engaged in discussions to increase investment in neglected areas of roadways, broadband internet and more. Additionally, the report states “the commonwealth is examining the use of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and a significant budgetary surplus as sources for further investment in climate resiliency and critical infrastructure.”

On Tuesday, Bump will testify before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means and House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight on state spending of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. In her testimony, she will urge lawmakers to allocate federal funding to the Office of the State Auditor, Office of the Inspector General, Office of the Comptroller, Division of Local Services and Office of the Attorney General for oversight costs associated with ensuring this funding is spent appropriately and effectively.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.


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