Forum with legislators explores rural school aid, recreation tax and more

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, and state Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, take questions on rural school aid during a forum  on Friday.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, and state Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, take questions on rural school aid during a forum on Friday. For the Gazette/Liesel Nygard

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, and state Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, held a public forum at Charlemont Town Hall on Friday. About 20 people attended.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, and state Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, held a public forum at Charlemont Town Hall on Friday. About 20 people attended. FOR THE Gazette/LIESEL NYGARD

By LIESEL NYGARD

For the Gazette

Published: 02-22-2024 4:16 PM

CHARLEMONT — State Sen. Paul Mark and state Rep. Natalie Blais fielded questions on rural school aid, potential recreation taxes, affordable housing and more during a recent public forum attended by roughly 20 residents.

The “ReMarks and Refreshments” forum at Charlemont Town Hall, one in a series of forums that Mark is organizing in an effort to reach all 57 communities he represents in the Senate, also allowed the public to offer comments on opportunities and challenges facing the region.

“It’s very important to have these discussions where people can just come in and talk about their concerns,” Blais said. “It helps make sure that we’re doing our jobs.”

Friday’s conversation began with an update on rural school aid. Mark explained how last August, Gov. Maura Healey signed a budget for fiscal year 2024 that provided an extra $9.5 million for rural school aid compared to fiscal year 2023’s numbers, which stood at around $5.5 million.

With the rural school aid line item now standing at $15 million, Mark said Healey has proposed that this number “act like a baseline” even though “we’re looking at a tougher revenue year.”

“If we were having this conversation a year ago, I would have really felt confident saying we might get up to $20, $25 million,” Mark said during the discussion. “As we sit here this year, I would really love if we could get that up to $20 million, and if we can get beyond, so much the better.”

Talking about rural schools sparked a conversation about affordable housing in rural Massachusetts.

Attendees expressed concern over housing costs. Blais said “the affordable housing production programs that have been put in place in the commonwealth have not worked for rural communities” based on the economies of scale for housing units, which she said “is really high.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Next 5-story building cleared to rise in downtown Amherst
‘Our hearts were shattered’: Moved by their work in Mexico soup kitchen, Northampton couple takes action
Hampshire County youth tapped to advise governor’s team
Amherst-Pelham schools look to address school absences with new plan
Northampton School Committee takes stand for budget increase during emotional meeting
Amherst regional superintendent candidate stresses inclusion, broad expertise

“There’s economies of scale that end up being a challenge for rural communities, generally speaking,” Blais told the public.

“We’ve been trying to fix that and I will say that it is something that we are trying to shine a light on in this new housing act.”

The act Blais was referring to is Healey’s $4.13 billion Affordable Homes Act, which, in conjunction with recently reauthorized housing tax credits, will allow for the creation of more than 40,000 homes while also rehabilitating, preserving or improving over 27,000 existing homes.

According to Blais, the hope is to provide municipalities with grant programs and to make sure “that the number of housing units is something that is actually attainable for a rural community.”

“We’re really glad that the governor is addressing the affordable housing needs,” said Blais. “At least we have a bill that’s moving, that would provide us with the ability to insert the tools in for rural communities.”

Public safety bills

A question about forming a fire district encouraged Blais to mention two additional bills that are being worked on in the realm of public safety, including bill H.2449 that would allow a member of a police or fire department to serve until the age of 72. Under current state law, emergency services personnel cannot work past the age of 65. However, through a piece of special legislation known as a home rule petition, they can seek approval to work until age 70.

Additionally, Blais said she and her colleagues have been trying to advance a municipal and public safety building authority that would recognize “many of our municipal buildings [that] are crumbling” and would help ease the creation of new public safety facilities.

People were also curious about Blais and Mark’s joint petition, known as bill H.2713, that would authorize the town of Charlemont to establish a 3% tax on commercial recreation services such as skiing, ziplining, whitewater rafting, kayaking and more.

Mark said the proposed recreation tax “has passed the House of Representatives multiple times” but “has never made it to the governor’s desk.” Blais said the bill is now under consideration by the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government and a hearing is scheduled at the end of February.

“I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” Mark said about the bill’s progress.

The last topic of discussion on Friday was the Affordable Connectivity Program, which a member of the audience said has been a “fantastically successful” program that gives low-income people $30 a month toward their internet bill. However, given that the program was initially funded using emergency COVID-19 relief funding, the attendee asked if it might find stable funding in the future. Mark replied that having affordable internet “is a statewide issue,” so conversations around retaining this program continue.