ACTON -- In the most well-attended in a series of recent Town Hall meetings held by State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, the senator requested and received ideas for legislation for the next legislative session last Monday night.
Eldridge stated that the filing deadline for legislation is Jan. 18.
Constituents representing seven of the 14 towns in his Middlesex & Worcester Senatorial District asked the senator questions and made suggestions about everything from retiree health benefits to gun control.
Acton Selectman Janet Adachi started by asking the senator when the state would be releasing its final report on other post-employment benefits (OPEB).
Even though OPEB are not received until after employment has ended, they are a part of the compensation that employees earn each year. That makes it difficult to assess the full cost of public services and the long-term financial health of municipalities.
Adachi acknowledged that the state has recognized the need to mitigate the burden of OPEB on municipalities, but wondered if the Governmental Accounting Standards Board would be recommending a mandate in terms of the amount that towns must set aside to pay in to the benefits. She suggested that a long-term bond would provide a source of funding for cities and towns.
Eldridge said there would be no mandate, and agreed with Adachi that the state has an excellent bond rating. "We'll have to take a look at that," he said.
Many towns are starting to set aside funds toward retiree health benefits, but in Acton, for example, the amount set aside is only about $500,000, according to one participant.
Massachusetts towns are still awaiting the recommendations of the special commission created by the 2011 pension reform act on how towns might pay for retiree health benefits. Green, a member of the Devens Economic Analysis Team, added, "The sooner these numbers are calculated and published, the better. We would like guidance from the state."
One citizen raised a question about the per-pupil dollar amount of the state incentive to regionalize school districts, as Acton is looking to expand its regionalization with Boxboro.
The question asked was if that amount might be increased to $100 per student. The current amount of bonus aid from the state is $50 per student in the first year, which would decline by $10 per student per year for five years, according to Eldridge.
The state is considering legislation to increase the bonus aid to $100 per student, he said, "but there do appear to be budget cuts looming."
Eldridge added that there would be some significant cost savings to the district through the merger, but agreed that "there need to be greater incentives for regionalization."
State education mandates
Westboro School Committee member Bruce Tretter said he had met with Eldridge and his school superintendent to discuss the number of state mandates required of the schools.
"I call them distractions," he said, adding that mandates take away from teaching and learning time in the classroom.
An example is the new Massachusetts model system for educator evaluation. "The new evaluation system is very time-consuming," said Tretter. "How can we accomplish it without distractions?"
With so many requirements, he said, "then test scores go down and the state wants to test even more.
"It would do us all good," he said, to improve efficiency by having the option to "opt out" of some of the many mandates, a list of which he has compiled.
Eldridge suggested that if there were a way to constructively manage education on the state side without making the education department feel threatened, "that would be an awfully good thing to do."
We need to look at the redundancies," said Tretter. "What information is really necessary on the state side? We just need to know that, and then go down (the list) in priority after that.
We need to ask, 'How will this improve classroom instruction?' Just looking at that would have a large effect."
For each state education mandate, said Tretter, the problem the mandate is designed to solve should be clearly stated, and communities that have reached those mandates be allowed to opt out.
Ginny Dow, of Acton agreed. "Acton-Boxboro worked hard to bring outplacement special-education kids back into the district and their community."
The districts that work hard and reach the goals should not have the mandates, to free up more time for teachers. It has to be a collaborative process," she said.
Prison budget cuts
Shirley resident Betty Keddy brought up the issue of budget cuts to the state Department of Corrections, which are preventing prison volunteers from being able to offer weekend workshops.
I spend a lot of time in the Shirley prisons," said Keddy, who is an Alternatives to Violence volunteer. "A lot of the prisoners were traumatized as kids ... A lot of them can barely read or write a sentence for you.
It costs $47,000 a year to keep a man in prison. What is being mandated so that this doesn't happen to our kids in the cities?"
Eldridge said he is working on arranging a meeting with Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral in an effort to get the funding back for weekend prison guards. Beyond that, he said, there is a need for more social workers, better access to health care, and economic improvements.
Green, who is an elections clerk, added that he would like to see a state bill filed that would make it easier for elections officials to check voters' status on the day of voting.
Massachusetts is a bit of a laggard in this," he said. "You find that people who go to vote are not on the voter rolls. They may have registered in another town. If we automated things, we could check on it for them."
Eldridge mentioned that he is the lead sponsor of a bill that would include Election Day registration and early voting, and eliminate the requirement that people check out at the polls.
On the question of corporate and special interest funding for campaigns, Eldridge said that he would again be filing a public financing bill.
If you spend money to influence an election, it should be public knowledge," he said.
He was the lead sponsor of the Senate resolution calling for Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, restoring the first amendment, and ending unlimited outside spending in elections.
Green brought up the last two issues of the evening: maintaining Devens Utilities so that it can be turned into a municipal utility and maintain its lower electricity rates, and gun control. With regard to the latter, Green said that the issue should be addressed as a public health problem.
And what better place to start than Massachusetts?" Eldridge answered. Although Massachusetts already has an assault weapons ban, he suggested that the state close loopholes for gun show sales, and reduce the number of gun permits issued per person per month.