WE ARE HOMETOWN NEWS.

CHESTER — “Small towns in Massachusetts share many of the same problems as their larger neighbors,” said Town Administrator Donald Humason, “but they also have a set of unique issues that we need our leaders in Boston to be aware of and act upon.”

Each year, members of the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts discuss and collaborate on a priorities list of important matters impacting small towns and the residents who live in them. These priorities represent the key focuses for small towns in Massachusetts as selected by the membership.

The STAM group is composed of town managers and town administrators from over 100 towns in the Bay State with populations under 12,000 people. The current leadership consists of Denise Dembkoski of Stow, president; Ryan McLane of Carlisle, vice president; Kelli Robbins of Brookfield, treasurer; and Paul McLatchy of Ashfield, secretary.

Humason, a former state legislator and Westfield mayor now in his 18th month as Chester’s town administrator, said he meets regularly with the group, and also participates in weekly check-ins with Gov. Maura Healey’s director of rural affairs, also a former state legislator, Anne Gobi.

Recently, Humason shared STAM’s 2024 list of priorities, and planned to ask the Board of Selectmen at a meeting this week to endorse the list and share it with state legislators.

“We come up with a pretty good list every year, and we’ve had some success. Hopefully if we stick to a small list of items that we believe are doable, the governor will accept them,” Humason said.

At the top of the list, STAM members addressed crumbling infrastructure as their top legislative priority. For one, they are asking the governor to permanently change the Chapter 90 formula, increasing the total funding statewide to more than $330 million per year to help small towns improve roads, bridges and water systems.

“We believe the revenue should be increased with the ability to spend over multiple years,” Humason said. He said the longtime appropriation of $200 million a year to split between 351 cities and towns is not adequate. Chester’s Chapter 90 amount for fiscal year 2024 is $228,959, which doesn’t leave much after the engineering is completed for a project, he said.

Second on STAM’s list is the creation of a Municipal Building Assistance Authority, modeled on the Massachusetts School Building Authority, as an avenue to fund municipal buildings such as public safety complexes. The bill was scheduled for a joint hearing last September, with no other action listed on mass.gov.

“I don’t see it happening for a couple of reasons,” Humason said. “There’s 351 of us, and everyone of us needs something — a fire station, council on aging — every one of our cities and towns. Massachusetts is a pretty old state.”

Humason said even the MSBA is only able to accept a limited number of school projects for funding each year.

“They’ve got a penny on the sales tax,” he said, adding that a new funding source would have to be identified for the Municipal Building Assistance Authority. He did point out that the current state budget is $57 billion.

Next on the STAM priority list is regional school support and sustainable approaches to education. The group is asking to reform education funding formulas to provide more support for regional school districts in towns having to choose between schools and municipal services, and requesting regional incentives for districts looking to create sustainable pathways in the face of declining enrollment and increased costs for personnel and transportation.

Another priority for STAM are common-sense reductions in procurement burdens for small towns, which in Humason’s opinion would make the biggest difference to Chester.

The group is advocating to increase state procurement thresholds to reduce administrative and cost burdens on small towns with limited budgets and vendor choices, and to improve prevailing wage laws by providing exemptions and rural factors that would allow small towns to complete necessary projects.

“When we try to procure bids to our towns, to repair the school roof or fix the town hall, if the threshold is over a certain level, we have to put it out for competitive bids,” he said.

Humason said the state raised the level for schools to $100,000, but the towns are still at the $50,000 limit.

Prevailing wage is two or three times the normal rate charged in Western Massachusetts, he said.

“Local contractors charge much less than Boston or other big cities,” he said, adding that prevailing wage “eats into the limited resources much quicker. We’re asking that rural and small communities be granted exemptions from these rules.”

Humason also said the state is doing a good job of offering money to cities and towns, but the grant applications are too burdensome and time-consuming for small towns.

“Bigger cities have grant writers — we don’t. We’ve been saying to Anne Gobi that we need administrative simplification in all forms. That’s the biggest one with the most benefit.”

Also on STAM’s list is reform of the state-owned land payments in lieu of taxes, especially in Western Mass.

“A lot of our property is taken up with DCR land. The Boston-area towns are getting reimbursed at a higher rate than the Hilltowns, because the value is deemed higher,” Humason said, adding that it’s a question of fairness. “We’re the ones that end up suffering at the expense of the large municipalities.”

Finally, STAM is asking the governor to provide staffing and support for the Office of Rural Affairs.

“I know our Selectboard is 100% supportive of these efforts and will sign off on them. Then I plan to send these to our state senator, Paul Mark, and state Rep. Nick Boldygya, with a copy to the governor and lieutenant governor,” he said.

Humason encouraged Hilltown residents to take this list and reach out to their legislators as well.

“Western Mass. towns and residents have always done better when we’ve worked together toward a common goal,” Humason said.

As for Chester, Humason said it’s a great town that is “poised.”

“We need that one small business to come in, or one developer to come in and do something. I would love to see Main Street Chester completely revitalized,” he said, with more shops, more boutiques and restaurants. He said people already come to Chester for the historic railway station, the keystone arches, the foliage, the Westfield River, Jacob’s Ladder Trail and the Chester Theatre.

Humason also said people in Westfield think of Chester as being far away, which he said it is not.

“Come out, try it, you’re going to find the drive is beautiful. It’s not that far,” he said.

amyporter@thewestfieldnews.com | + posts