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BELCHERTOWN — Sitting down with the Select Board at the April 1 meeting, state Rep. Aaron Saunders (D-Belchertown) put his topics of discussion about the state budget front and center.

“I will put this in the context of the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.

Speaking before the board members and an audience including the school community and town employees, the Democrat from Belchertown expanded on his remarks offering up what was currently going on in Boston and what it meant for Belchertown.

“The ugly is for the last nine months, the commonwealth has missed its revenue benchmarks.”

Saunders explained that this year’s fiscal growth in Massachusetts was not going to continue at the previous 6.5 to 6.8% that it had been, meaning temporary federal funding that Belchertown had been receiving will not be continuing and Saunders said he does not see any replacement dollars on the horizon.

“Those are effectively the cards that we have been dealt going into this next fiscal year,” he said, acknowledging that he and Sen. Jake Olivera (D-Ludlow) are focused first on not losing ground for Belchertown and the other Western Massachusetts communities.

Direct appropriations into the town, including Chapter 70 education aid, Chapter 90 transportation aid and unrestricted government assistance were dissected, as were programs and services benefitting Belchertown families, including those not directly routed through the municipal government, including free school meals and the Senior Circuit Breaker tax cut.

Saunders said unrestricted government aid, which is largely driven by lottery and gaming receipts, has been negatively impacted by legalization of sports betting in the commonwealth.

“Without the type of growth in the lottery we don’t have a surefire way to connect the dots directly between unrestricted local government aid and those specific receipts.”

Saunders said Chapter 90 transportation aid consideration is currently moving through the state Legislature with movement expected in the coming weeks. He said he and his fellow legislators from rural communities have been working toward a change to the formula for that state aid provides more funding weight to a community’s road mile makeup as opposed to population density.

Saunders also told the board that in speaking with colleagues from more populated areas, he has presented with their perspective on rural communities and the current Chapter 90 formula which some consider limiting.

“Sometimes we’ll hear back, ‘This is the price you pay for having a 50-acre back yard,’” he said. “We try to remind colleagues that the work that we do in Western Massachusetts so often is preserving the open space that is the lungs of the commonwealth and there needs to be some recognition for the value of that.”

In terms of Chapter 70 education funding, Saunders said some investments made previously under the state’s Student Opportunity Act are now not equitable for suburban and rural school districts.

“We can’t leave communities like Belchertown behind that are seeing a very modest increase in school aid compared to neighbors 15 miles down the road.”

While Saunders said he and his colleagues will be fighting for aid, what is received will likely not be what has been delivered in previous fiscal years.

Board member Ronald Aponte thanked Saunders for his efforts and expressed his frustration with Belchertown’s share of state aid.

“We just have to accept the fact in Belchertown [that] we are a bedroom community and we’re never going to have 40% of our revenue stream coming in through business, it’s just not going to happen,” he said. “State aid is very important to the town of Belchertown and we’re seeing increases of about 1% and seeing inflation a couple years ago at 8 or 9% and even last year 4 or 5%, even in the best of times at 2%, we are losing ground.”

Aponte went on to cite examples in the schools noting the discussion of layoffs for 17 positions and the regionalization of emergency dispatch costing five positions before he brought up the state’s “Right to Shelter” law which affords unhoused families and children certain housing and child educational benefits.

“That is absolutely killing us right now,” Aponte said. “The shelter system is running approximately $900 million per year and those are conservative estimates and once again, I don’t have to tell you, that’s a budget buster.”

Noting that Massachusetts is the only state with the “Right to Shelter” law, Aponte suggested to Saunders the possible repeal or reform of the law in order to reduce the monetary impact.

“I know it’s probably not the politically expedient thing to do to say, ‘No, we’re just going to do away or we’re going to heavily reform the Right to Shelter,’ but it has to occur, it’s killing the state,” he said.
Calling it, “an unprecedented cost we’ve been saddled with,” Saunders placed the blame on the federal government’s inability to have a cogent immigration policy while acknowledging what the system is and does.

“This is families, this is women and children, we can’t leave these folks on the street,” he said, calling unemployment and a restriction on work permits the biggest roadblock to minimizing the time migrants spend in shelters.

Aponte, recognizing Saunder’s response, expressed his continued concerns with the “Right to Shelter” law.

“[Migrants] know as soon as they set foot in Massachusetts, that by law the state is going to have to take care of them for, be it nine months, 12 months, 18 months, whatever it might be,” he said. “The concern I have is that acts as a beacon and a magnet saying, ‘Okay if you’re in this situation, come here to Massachusetts.’ The other 49 states don’t have that, why is it just Massachusetts that has that?”

Recognizing the difficulty of the conversation and the financial impacts, Saunders said what needs to be found is a way to allow people to live their lives with dignity and be given an opportunity to contribute.

Board member Lesa Lessard Pearson said the impacts from the myriad financial drains on the Belchertown community is far reaching and the need for state aid is apparent.

“It’s making us fight with each other and everybody wants the best,” she said. “The decisions we’re being asked to make are between a poor decision and a poor decision.”

Saunders said it’s the rural communities who are seeing an uphill battle while the more populous municipalities are more or less content with the status quo when it comes to the state aid afforded by the aforementioned programs.

He also acknowledged significant shortfalls within the state’s emergency shelter system which he said is need of reform but not due to a lack of interest in making positive changes, but the challenges posed needs in other areas that also require funding and attention.

“It’s health care, public safety, economic development, housing,” he said. “These conversations are going on simultaneously.”

Saunders spoke about economic development projects currently in states process in terms of housing and building infrastructure but also what Belchertown in doing in their own right to maintain its fiscal health by pursuing residential, commercial and industrial personal property taxes.

Addressing the potential for cuts within Belchertown schools, Saunders told school community members in the audience said while keeping the financial opportunities or deficits from the state in mind, he will be asking questions of the School Committee and the superintendent what might be possible to help avoid the elimination of positions.

“What are our options whether it’s short term or where is that wiggle room that we have so that we don’t need to take on the drastic steps of losing positions by attrition or layoffs.”

Saunders said while the schools are making difficult decisions and improvements to stretch the dollars, there also needs to be more coming from the state.

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