SHIRLEY -- Massachusetts Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, paid his biannual visit to the selectmen Monday night, as usual calling for questions and asking if the town has "funding priorities" he can help with.
Eldridge presented the board with a letter sketching the legislative agenda for the next fiscal year and highlighting problems to be addressed, including a "substantial gap" between revenue and services.
First on the senator's four-item priority list was protecting local aid to cities and towns, a moving target subject to challenges, changes and the governor's whim.
Local aid includes Chapter 70 education aid, lottery aid, Special Ed Circuit Breaker funding and regional school district transportation, for which Eldridge promised to seek "full funding" this year. This issue keenly interests Shirley, now in the third year of a regional school district partnership with the neighboring town of Ayer.
Also on his advocacy list were the following:
* Maintaining funding for "safety net" services such as programs to help the homeless, low-income families, at-risk children, the disabled and the elderly.
* Promoting "significant" investments in capital infrastructure, including transportation, water, higher education, libraries and public schools.
* Protecting the environment, with one percent of the budget dedicated to the cause.
Besides his own budget priorities, the senator's letter also highlighted pieces of pending legislation he believed the board might be interested in, such as House Bill 3822, "an act promoting municipal collaboration and regionalization throughout the Commonwealth."
Eldridge said he filed this bill, which passed in the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. It promotes sharing services such as veterans agents and can lead to better, cost-efficient municipal management, he said.
Eldridge also pointed out another piece of legislation he filed: Senate Bill 2021, "an act improving drinking water and wastewater infrastructure." Recently passed by the Senate and now in the House Ways and Means Committee, this bill seeks to protect rivers and streams via practical means such as building better partnerships with cities and towns, growing municipal options and providing incentives toward increased responsibility and best management practices. In local terms, the bill provides more money for water and sewer loans, increasing the existing nest egg from $88 million to $138 million.
Senate Bill 2033, "an act financing improvements to the (state) transportation system," was recently passed by the Senate and is now in a conference committee. This bond bill will authorize $13 billion in capital spending over the next five years for transportation upgrades, including $1.5 billion for Chapter 90 (state highway aid) to repair and rebuild local roads and bridges and $50 million for various transportation initiatives such as walking paths, bicycle lanes, public transit, automobiles and freight. The bill also allows the Mass Department of Transportation to exceed its annual snow and ice removal budget by $50 million in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.
Selectman David Swain asked if Chapter 90 funds could be pinned down and doled out earlier in the year. "One of my concerns is ... we need to let the governor know that the money needs to be released in full, as soon as possible," he said. "Everybody has capital items" the funding is slated to pay for, such as road repairs after a rough winter.
Swain also asked if snow and ice funding might be increased.
Yes, Eldridge said, as part of a supplemental budget.
Responding to a query about the status of a proposal to build an anaerobic digester on state land within town boundaries at MCI Shirley, Eldridge said it's in the works.
Asked whether the town might gain revenue from the plant, a regional facility that will process organic waste materials from the prison kitchen and other sites such as farms to make fertilizer products, Eldridge said there could be a financial benefit, but not taxes. Possibly a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) set-up, however. He promised to look into it.
Chairwoman Kendra Dumont asked about a bill not on the list: C4RJ, for "restorative justice."
Eldridge said it was a program offered by a nonprofit organization in Concord that cities and towns can apply for and that serves 10 communities so far, including Ayer.
Basically, youthful perpetrators of nonviolent "small offenses" categorized as "criminal" could participate in an alternative program that instructs rather than punishes and avoids the court system. Those who complete the program would come out with a clean record, if local law enforcement and government officials agree and victims don't object.
"It sounds like a great plan," Dumont said.