Rural challenges: Hilltown officials outline bevy of concerns in a visit by state auditor
|Published: 02-28-2023 6:39 PM
GOSHEN — Hilltown officials had the opportunity Monday to share some of the challenges faced by rural areas in western Massachusetts with state Auditor Diana DiZoglio, who visited town in advance of a snowstorm to gather local concerns from the source.
Municipal building problems, all-volunteer emergency services, inadequate highway funding and large areas of tax-exempt or tax-limited land were among the issues the participants from Cummington, Worthington, Westhampton and Goshen highlighted.
“Infrastructure is enormous,” said Amy Wang, chairwoman of the Worthington Select Board, listing the poor condition of the highway building, the lack of a shelter for police vehicles, the unheated fire department building and the school.
Goshen, similarly, has a highway department that’s too small to house modern plow trucks.
“We’re storing them outdoors,” Select Board Chairwoman Angela Otis said.
With small populations — most communities hover around 1,000 residents each — and a tax levy limit under $3 million, unforeseen problems can turn into significant setbacks, Goshen Town Administrator Dawn Scaparotti noted, such as the shingle roof on the New Hingham Elementary School that failed not long after it was installed, leaving Chesterfield and Goshen needing to borrow $800,000 for a new roof.
Cummington has its own school problems, Select Board member June Lynds said, being in a long process of withdrawing from the Central Berkshire School District, which decided to close the town’s Berkshire Trail Elementary School in 2015, and is still requiring Cummington to pay for lingering costs associated with its exit. The town is seeking a new use for its vacant school, which is now serving as an internet hub.
“We’d like to move the town offices in there,” Select Board Chairman Ken Howes said.
Westhampton Select Board Chairman Phil Dowling acknowledged that his town had been fortunate with its capital expenditures. It recently completed a new public safety building, having secured a rock-bottom interest rate on the loan, and renovations to Hampshire Regional High School 20 years ago should last another 20, he said.
But there’s a public safety concern in a town with no full-time police or firefighters, he said, following recent changes in the state’s requirements for police training.
“Reform has done away with part-time policing,” Dowling said. “People can’t take three weeks away from their other full-time job to train.”
DiZoglio acknowledged the officials’ concerns, and cited some of the efforts made to address them, notably the Rural Rescue Plan advocated by her predecessor, Suzanne Bump, following the October 2021 release of her office’s report on the need for investment in public infrastructure in western Massachusetts.
The study called for a 50% increase in Chapter 90 funding, which provides state money to municipalities for roads and bridges, from $200 million to $300 million annually, as well as an update to the formula to put more emphasis on road mileage, rather than population. It also called for creation of a public infrastructure agency and continued investment in expanding access to broadband internet.
Otis complimented DiZoglio’s deputy, Ben Tafoya, for his work on the infrastructure study, calling the report “so spot-on.”
Bills calling for a Public Safety Building Authority that would help small towns with financing have been introduced in the Legislature. DiZoglio said she’d be happy to advocate for them, but added that it was also important for lawmakers to hear from the towns themselves. And while Scaparotti had said she had “no illusions” that the Chapter 90 funding formula would be changed, the auditor said it was her understanding that the Department of Transportation has the power to change the formula, and she suggested that officials contact the administration.
“It could speed things up,” she said.
Another key challenge that Scaparotti detailed in her presentation concerned land that is tax-exempt or pays a reduced tax bill under the Chapter 61 program for farms and forestland. Out of 11,328 estimated acres in Goshen, 6,319 acres, or 56%, fall under these categories.
For state-owned land, such as the DAR State Forest in Goshen, there is a “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) program to reimburse municipalities for lost revenue. But for years, that program has been underfunded, a problem that DiZoglio focused on when she visited western Massachusetts along with then-state Rep. Paul Mark last summer as a candidate for auditor.
At Monday’s meeting, Tafoya said the state is set to finally increase the amount of money in the PILOT program, with Gov. Maura Healey proposing $51 million, a big raise from the $30 million at which it has been pegged since 2009 and close to full funding. But, he said, the formula for distributing the money remains “a massive problem,” based as it is on property values.
DiZoglio, who was joined at the meeting by Mark and Northampton Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, said she had filed a bill dealing with PILOT reform and would welcome amendments before it becomes final.
“I’m looking to put this information to work, to advocate, testify, to shine a light on the darker areas of state government,” she said.