Municipal meltdown

Illustration by Tim Bower

a majestic grove of evergreen trees overlooks the town swimming pools in West Boylston’s Goodale Park. For Dennis Mulryan, it’s a sentimental spot. The longtime resident of the Worcester suburb worked there as a lifeguard, met his wife poolside, and saw his son take up his old job of keeping an eye on swimmers. But on a muggy afternoon this past summer, there were no youngsters splashing around in the water; instead there were pine cones and needles covering the floor of the kiddie pool and a heap of concrete chunks sitting at one end of the main swimming area. After more than five years of budget cuts, the parks department doesn’t have the $1 million needed to refurbish the 1950s-era facility.

The pool has been closed for two years now. Not that residents didn’t knock themselves out trying to keep it open with volunteers and donations, including a $6,000 bequest from a former town moderator. And Mulryan, the chairman of the town’s Board of Parks Commissioners, surely went beyond the call of duty. A scuba diving enthusiast, he learned how to plug leaks with putty while underwater, and did his best to keep things patched up. But the discovery of more extensive structural defects sealed the pool’s fate.

A volunteer parks commissioner in scuba gear armed with a tube of putty? Is this what it has come to for Massachusetts cities and towns? Increasingly, yes.

Dennis Mulryan lost his fight to keep open
West Boylston’s town swimming pools.
The West Boylston pool story stands out because it was an attempt to hold things together almost literally with chewing gum, but other Massachusetts communities have their own examples of retreat from services that had long been taken for granted as worthy, if not essential, roles of local government. In Saugus, the complete shutdown of the town library made headlines earlier this year. In Stoneham, residents faced a possible elimination of all high school sports. And the town of Randolph stopped providing school bus service to all except special education students and others with extraordinary needs.

Local governments on the ropes aren’t exactly new to the Bay State. Chelsea and Springfield have both served as poster children in recent years for fiscal dysfunction. The difference now is that the problems are not just hitting struggling older cities, but are increasingly finding their way to middle-class suburbs. Today’s communities on the edge are the West Boylstons, Stonehams, and Sauguses—places where libraries and pools were never regarded as perks, but as time-honored touchstones of community life.

For more and more Massachusetts cities and towns, the financial equation isn’t adding up. The costs of local government are simply rising at a rate far faster than the revenues used to pay for services. Though homeowners have been howling over steadily rising bills, overall property tax collections are held in check by Proposition 2 1/2, the state’s landmark tax cap measure. State aid to cities and towns, which has become an increasingly important source of funding for local governments because of the property tax cap, has risen only modestly in recent years—after deep cuts during the state budget crisis several years ago. Add soaring health care and pension costs, and you have a recipe for municipal disaster. One result has been a creeping government-by-subscription, with residents now asked to pay out of pocket for everything from trash pick-up to joining the high school football team, while local officials cast about for creative fixes to keep core departments running.

“Communities have been underfunding their libraries, their public works programs, their recreation programs for years,” says Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the statewide lobbying group for cities and towns. He calls it a “quiet crisis” that has been building over time.

His cry of crisis finds an echo from a most unlikely corner. Barbara Anderson was one of the architects of Proposition 2 1/2, and she remains the state’s most prominent anti-tax activist. But even Anderson says municipal government is in a true state of peril. “[It’s] not just the usual ‘the sky is falling’ that you hear all the time,” she says. “This time I think the sky really is going to fall.”

Fiscal problems aren’t limited to older cities. They are now hitting middle-class suburbs too.

When the leader of the Massachusetts Municipal Association (a group whose initials are mocked by critics to mean “more money always”) and the state’s leading anti-tax advocate agree that cities and towns are in trouble, people should pay attention. But what to do about the crisis is where the agreement ends. While Beckwith and other municipal advocates invariably point to the need for more revenue—from an increase in state aid to its former levels, from Proposition 2 1/2 overrides, or from new options for raising revenue—Anderson sees it as a spending problem, with communities unable or unwilling to get a handle on things like public employee salaries and benefits.

Perhaps there is an opening for solutions that draw from both viewpoints. In a Boston Globe op-ed this spring, David Luberoff, executive director of Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, called for a “grand bargain” between the state and cities and towns, one that would include new revenue for cash-strapped local government but would also require communities to adopt certain management reforms. The Patrick administration has offered a version of this with a set of proposals put forth earlier this year. It would be nice to believe that this kind of thinking could lead cities and towns out of the hole they are in. But no one expects a major attitude adjustment any time soon.


The town common in Stoneham is dominated by a traditional gazebo at one end and perennial flower beds throughout. It is the nexus of municipal life, with the town hall, a post office, and police and fire stations sitting along three sides of the park. But what happens on the green itself may soon be as important to the operation of town government as what takes place in the buildings alongside it.

The defeat of a $3 million Proposition 2 1/2 override in June, the second in three years, led to a high-profile bout of soul-searching. At an August special town meeting, Stoneham voters approved a $200-per-residential-unit trash fee that will bring in $1.3 million. The schools received $750,000, saving the day for the high school sports programs, and other departments divided the remainder. But the fee was a one-time assessment, making for a stopgap measure that solves Stoneham’s problems only for this year.

Randy Perillo, a stay-at-home Stoneham dad, envisions the town common as the staging ground for a civic renewal that fills the holes created by the budget crunch. Perillo, who distributes an email newsletter on town affairs to some 400 families, is trying to help residents become better-informed about Stoneham’s financial issues. He is also organizing fundraising events on the common that benefit programs from youth sports to the police and fire departments.

Town administrator David Ragucci supports Perillo’s efforts for a simple reason: He sees droves of people stepping up to the plate to contribute if they see a clear path for their dollars to go directly to sports programs or other things they care about. But he says those same residents recoil at requests for tax overrides to support general operating costs, including pay raises and employee benefit costs that are more and more rapidly draining many municipal coffers. To John Hamill, chairman of Sovereign Bank New England, who has headed two task forces on municipal finances over the last 18 years, helping local budgets through bake sales is a noble venture, but it’s no substitute for a shoring up of local government finances. “It’s a good thing,” says Hamill, “but it’s not going to make the difference.”

Ragucci doesn’t pretend that it will take care of Stoneham’s woes, either. At the edge of the common, in Town Hall, he and the town accountant, Ron Florino, add up the factors that explain why the generous impulses of a few good citizens won’t begin to solve the town’s big problems. Like most municipalities, the town’s quandaries begin with health insurance costs. Health care costs consume $7 million, or 12 percent, of the town’s current $58 million budget. Five years ago, health insurance consumed 5 percent to 6 percent of the budget.

Stoneham has also been pretty aggressive in funding its employee pension liabilities. The town participates in the state’s public employee pension fund and is on track to be fully funded by 2018, well before the state-mandated deadline. That’s hard enough to do, Ragucci says, with money needed elsewhere. But the tab for retiree health care benefits, about $50 million, is also looming. “One million plus per year will bankrupt us right now,” he says of the amount needed to begin funding future health care costs for retirees. “Not only Stoneham, but most other communities.”

Cleary, municipal officials are going to have to get creative about how they finance local government. For a start, Ragucci has switched health care providers from Blue Cross Blue Shield to Tufts Health Plan, which will translate into $250,000 in savings on premiums. Ragucci also notes that a more lucrative use could be found for 3.5 acres of land that now constitute the town dump. He has even entertained the idea of purchasing life insurance policies on town employees, with the town designated among the beneficiaries, to pay for a portion of its unfunded health care and pension liabilities. “We’re not cry-babying about anything that’s happening in Stoneham,” says Ragucci, who is now staring at a $700,000 deficit for fiscal 2009 (which could increase to $2 million if other unions reach agreements similar to a recently negotiated teachers’ pact). “We are looking at innovative ways of spending our money and utilizing our assets in a better way.”

Health care consumes 12 percent of Stoneham’s budget, up from 5 percent only a few years ago.

Some municipal managers dream of commercial development as the answer to their problems, but new business doesn’t always spell long-term relief. A housing and commercial construction boom a decade ago in West Boylston helped keep the town afloat until investment funds dried up, leading to an unsuccessful $3.1 million override vote in May. In Saugus, the busy Route 1 business corridor hasn’t helped forestall financial stress, since only about 30 percent of the town’s revenues come from commercial property. Saugus Chamber of Commerce president Jim Morin explains that most businesses are of the “mom and pop” variety, as opposed to the outlets of deep-pocketed national chains that many communities covet.

Stoneham town administrator David
Ragucci says voters like sports programs but
hate paying for general operating costs.

While anti-tax sentiment seems to be running high across the state, it has had many years to get embedded into the political landscape. Modern-day disillusionment with taxation crystallized under President Ronald Reagan. “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem,” Reagan declared in his first inaugural address, setting the tone for an era of harsh views toward taxes and government spending. In Massachusetts, rising anti-tax attitudes translated into passage of Proposition 2 1/2, approved by voters on the same election day in 1980 that swept Reagan into office.

Under that law, cities and towns cannot increase their overall tax levy by more than 2.5 percent a year, and the total tax levy cannot exceed 2.5 percent of the full market value of all taxable property in the community. Passage of the property tax cap measure led to a significant increase in state aid to municipalities, but those payments have not keep pace recently with rising local costs. The Massachusetts Municipal Association projects that 54 percent of municipal revenues statewide will originate with the property tax in fiscal 2008, up from the low point of 46 percent in 1988. (It was 59 percent in fiscal 1981, before Proposition 2 1/2.)

So municipal officials trudge up to Beacon Hill, hat in hand. At a recent Local Government Advisory Council meeting, they called on the Patrick administration to support increased funding for cities and towns, including benchmarking local aid to 40 percent of all state revenues. Lawmakers are sympathetic, but they believe they have done right by municipalities, given demands elsewhere in the state budget. “The state has been more than generous and more than an equal partner with every single city and town in the state,” Rep. John Binienda, a Worcester Democrat, told the State House News Service in September. “They should be thanking us.”

The latest property tax revolt peaked as a confluence of events reduced the dollars coming into municipal coffers. In contrast to the 1990s, when Massachusetts was comparatively flush with funds, in 2002 the state experienced a 15 percent decline in revenue, thanks to stock market woes and a recession that coincided with an income tax cut. Local aid payments from the state are now nearly 12 percent below the fiscal 2001 level. What’s more, most local aid increases since the 1990s have gone to education aid, limiting monies available for other services.

“Even if we were treading water and had local aid at the same levels, there would be a need to invest more,” says Mass Municipal’s Beckwith. That’s partly because rising fuel and construction costs, as well as debt service charges, are eating up the new dollars coming in. But the biggest municipal budget buster in many communities is employee health insurance. A recent joint study by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation reported that from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2005, health care costs rose 63 percent, even as municipal budgets overall went up by only 15 percent.

“In an era of declining resources, health care and fixed costs to the town are rising at an explosive rate, higher than what we can raise through Proposition 2 1/2 constraints,” says Leon Gaumond, the town administrator in West Boylston, where a $3.1 million override request was voted down last spring by a 3-to-1 margin.

As of early September, 66 cities and towns had either taken at least one property tax override vote or were scheduled to for fiscal 2008. While that isn’t a historic high, municipal leaders say that it’s becoming increasingly frequent for towns to schedule multiple override attempts only a few months apart from each other. Bridgewater, Dartmouth, Norton, and Groton have each voted twice this year on override requests, a trend that shows how tight things are, according to Beckwith.

Indeed, cost pressures have effectively transformed the Proposition 2 1/2 override into the default revenue raising mechanism for local government. “There is no place [else] for us to go,” says Andrew Bisignani, the town manager of Saugus, where a $5.2 million property tax hike override failed in April.


The fiscal stresses facing cities and towns got plenty of attention in last year’s gubernatorial campaign, with candidate Deval Patrick often zeroing in on the shaky condition of local government. “Unless we are approaching these things with forethought, then we’re really not going to break this cycle that it seems we’re in, where cities and towns are having to figure out patches year after year—and frequently that patch is a 2 1/2 override, which, for operating [expenses], is just not a sustainable model,” Patrick told CommonWealth in an August 2006 interview.

Six weeks after taking office, Gov. Patrick proposed a series of measures designed to shore up the financial health of cities and towns. The Municipal Partnership Act combines reforms aimed at cost savings in health insurance and pensions with a new set of tax-raising options to help communities boost revenues.

With exploding health insurance and pension costs at the center of the fiscal storm, it is perhaps not surprising that the two components of Patrick’s plan that have been passed by the Legislature and signed into law deal with those issues. Municipalities can now join the Group Insurance Commission, which provides health insurance coverage to 286,000 state employees and retirees. Using its bulk purchasing power and other negotiating clout, the GIC has held down increases in health care premium costs far better in recent years than have cities and towns, making it an attractive option for municipal managers. (Between 2001 and 2006, municipal health care costs grew 84 percent, while Group Insurance Commission costs grew 47 percent, according to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation’s 2007 report on municipal health reform.) However, the legislation requires that communities secure approval to join the state system from 70 percent of a municipality’s public employee committee, a panel made up of union representatives and retired municipal workers.

The Legislature also approved a measure submitted by Patrick that requires the 25 cities and towns with underperforming municipal pension plans to move their assets into the Pension Reserves Investment Trust, the state public employee pension fund.

The Group Insurance Commission provision, which has created the most buzz among municipal officials, has garnered mixed reviews. In contrast to their municipal counterparts, unions covered by the state system have no say in copayment levels, hospitalization charges, and other elements of health plan design. Given that, many municipal leaders say it will be hard to convince local unions to join the GIC system. In their report, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation claimed that, by joining the GIC, cities and towns could save $100 million in fiscal 2009, $750 million in fiscal 2013, and $2.5 billion in fiscal 2018. But the report also labeled the requirement for collective bargaining approval “a stumbling block.”

Towns can join the state’s health plan, but only if unions give their approval.

At his September press conference announcing his plans on casino gambling, the governor conceded that his administration “had to do more work to encourage cities and towns to take advantage of the cost control opportunities presented by the MPA.” He did not spell out how his administration might take the pressure off municipalities in the next two fiscal years before those savings can be realized.

Hamill, the Sovereign bank executive and longtime municipal affairs expert, insists critics will be proven wrong as the new GIC opt-in has time to take hold. The idea of bringing cities and towns into the state system “has been out there for a long time,” and “no one wanted to take it on,” he says.

“It isn’t going to be an overnight sensation,” says Leslie Kirwan, Patrick’s secretary of administration and finance. “But these problems didn’t happen overnight, either.” As of mid September, three communities had signed onto the state system.

Some supporters of the GIC measure argue that making it more ambitious would have alienated unions and doomed the legislation. They point out that two years ago the Massachusetts Teachers Association helped scuttle a bill that would have allowed municipalities to join the state system without consulting unions. This time around, the teachers’ union and AFSCME were on board, though the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts opposed the law.

Kirwan says the towns and cities that join the GIC, as Springfield has, will see savings in a relatively short period of time. That, in turn, will temper growth in property taxes and will allow communities to invest in neglected areas. “Those savings will make the case to other communities and public employee unions that they should do the same,” she says.

In Quincy, health insurance costs were a key issue in a contract showdown in June that resulted in illegal four-day strike by the city’s 900 teachers. As part of the contract settlement, city leaders got the teachers to agree to reopen the health coverage negotiations should Patrick’s proposal, then still pending, become law. But other city unions would still have to agree to join the state system, something the president of the teachers union doubts there will be much interest in. “Getting municipal unions to act in concert,” says Paul Phillips, is “a lot like herding cats.”

At any rate, “the health insurance and pension reforms are partial solutions, not the structural changes that will make a long lasting difference,” says Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. He sees the local option taxes that Patrick also proposed as one structural fix. Those provisions of the Municipal Partnership Act would allow communities to increase the hotel tax from 4 percent to 5 percent and to levy a local meals tax of up to 2 percent (on top of the state tax). Patrick also proposed eliminating a longstanding property tax exemption on telephone company poles and wires.

Lawmakers balk at local meals taxes: ‘People are afraid of not having uniformity.’

Of these local-option provisions, the proposed meals tax has met with stiffest resistance in the Legislature. The fact that restaurant-rich communities would seem to benefit far more than other cities and towns would is one factor hurting its prospects. “People are afraid of not having uniformity,” says Rep. Paul Casey, a Winchester Democrat.

That means Massachusetts communities, for now at least, won’t be able to take advantage of well-established taxation mechanisms that localities rely on elsewhere. Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington state all permit municipalities to levy an additional sales or income tax in addition to the property tax, according to the 2006 report by Northeastern University’s Center for Urban and Regional Policy. A 2007 Boston Foundation study of the taxation powers of Boston and six other cities—Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle—found that Boston fared the worst. In 2003, Boston saw 60 percent of its revenues come from property taxes, while the comparable figure in Seattle was 27 percent (the next highest) and in Chicago was 12 percent (the lowest). All but Boston received revenues from sales taxes. Boston had only four taxes overall, including the property tax; the others anywhere from three to seven times that figure.


One concept for easing the fiscal crunch facing local government that nearly everyone professes support for is regionalism. Massachusetts certainly is no stranger to joint purchasing, health insurance collaboratives, and other regional initiatives. The challenge is to extend those models to areas where there are significant savings to be gained in municipal services delivery—not through a return to unfondly remembered county government, but not by reinventing the wheel, either, when the state’s 13 regional planning councils already coordinate numerous programs among cities and towns.

The future of municipal government in Massachusetts has to be focused on regionalization, says Gaumond, the West Boylston town administrator. “Economies of scale are going to be the thing that gets us through the next several decades,” he says. Public safety may be a sector particularly well suited to municipal alliances. Thirteen Essex County communities are currently studying a proposal to consolidate their individual public safety dispatch units into a central location to handle police, fire, and ambulance calls. Under mutual aid pacts, many fire departments are already operating on a de facto regional basis.

Other states have established specific programs to stimulate regional cooperation. Maine’s Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Local and Regional Services takes 2 percent, or about $2 million of municipal revenue sharing funds each year, and allows one or more other applicants to apply for grants to develop collaborative arrangements such as municipal service consolidation, regional emergency dispatch, and recycling and waste management projects.

But there are several significant barriers to regionalization in Massachusetts. One is the contradiction between state policy and practice. While state officials encourage municipalities to work together, there are laws on the books that make collaboration difficult. For example, current law requires the approval of town meeting in order for communities to enter into agreements with other towns to jointly contract for services. A bill pending in the Legislature would allow town administrators to strike such deals on their own.

Quite a bit of state policy promotes the importance of regionalization in areas such as smart growth and homeland security planning, but there are no tools available to facilitate the process, says Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, an umbrella group comprising the 26 towns of Franklin County. Another obstacle to regional agreements is the lack of groups like Dunlavy’s in other parts of the state. “They don’t have an organization to say, ‘We will work together to form a building inspection program for 17 towns,’” she says.

The idea of tinkering with Propisition 2 1/2 and its tax cap sets off alarms on Beacon Hill.

The principal roadblock to more cost-saving regional agreements, however, may be the tradition of home rule itself, which fosters an inviolable sense of local autonomy—a cherished, if quaint, notion even when things are falling apart. Accustomed to running local affairs as they see fit, some municipal officials may simply balk at joining forces with others, especially if voters in any one of the affected towns believe that those alliances could result in inferior programs or services. “One of the real fundamental issues is the way we run our railroad here in Massachusetts, with 351 cities and towns [each] like its own fiefdom. And they do things 351 different ways,” says Rep. Rachel Kaprielian, a Watertown Democrat and co-sponsor of the GIC legislation.

In the meantime, the Patrick administration has proposed a commission to study ways for the state to provide incentives for the regionalization of municipal tasks such as budgeting, economic development, and capital planning. No one argues that there aren’t efficiencies to be gained from regionalization, says Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. “The question is,” he says, “is it going to require a fiscal crisis to make that happen?”


Though it has long been a third-rail topic, Ragucci, the Stoneham town administrator, goes there anyway. He suggests that “maybe it’s time” to raise the state property tax cap to 3 percent, a move that, he says, would eliminate the need for overrides and program cuts. But it’s not hard to imagine communities quickly bumping up against a new, slightly higher tax cap. The idea has long been a nonstarter anyway on Beacon Hill, where the mere suggestion of tinkering with the law sets off alarms. In case there are any doubts, Kirwan stresses that the governor “has not proposed nor is considering any amendments to Proposition 2 1/2.”

Linda Dunlavy, of the Franklin
Regional Council of Governments,
says the state isn’t doing enough
to promote regional solutions.

Indeed, some think that despite a steady stream of stories about cash-strapped communities slashing programs and services, we need to put cities and towns on an even stricter revenue diet. A recently certified initiative petition would lower the annual allowable increase in the property tax levy from 2.5 percent to 1 percent. The ballot question’s backer, Greg Hyatt of Citizens for Real Property and Excise Tax Control—a one-time Republican candidate for governor—calls the proposal “a fairly moderate middle step between reducing the tax and getting rid of it altogether.”

In addition, a bill pending in the Legislature would require 12 months between one override and the next request and also permit votes on “underrides”—a permanent lowering of the tax limit—by referendum without a recommendation from municipal legislators. State Sen. Scott Brown, a Wrentham Republican who filed the Citizens for Limited Taxation–backed measure, says some communities are abusing overrides by treating them as a first option rather than a last one. “If they are doing an override for operational reasons, there is a basic ledger problem in the community anyway,” says Brown.

But agreement on the nature of the ledger problem and on solutions that can carry the day politically is proving elusive. In particular, the Legislature’s reluctance to give cities and towns some additional revenue-raising powers is angering those who are convinced of the need for more money to fund local government.

“Somebody has got to ask the question, ‘If not this, then what?’” says Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “Somebody is going to have to show the political courage.”


There’s no doubt that people enjoy West Boylston’s Beaman Memorial Public Library. Circulation has soared from an estimated 24,000 items in fiscal 1984 to nearly 73,000 in fiscal 2007. Borrowing books, however, doesn’t pay the library’s bills. Every year since 2003, the library budget has been level-funded or cut. To keep some periodicals on the shelves, the library resorted to an “adopt a magazine” drive. Of the 92 subscriptions available for “adoption,” residents and businesses have paid for 50. But adopting magazines won’t save Beaman, which is already in trouble on two of the four standards needed to maintain state certification. It doesn’t spend the state-required percentage of its total budget on materials, and it is failing to meet a requirement of regular increases in the town’s library budget.

Generous benefits for municipal employees aren’t playing well in the court of public opinion.

Library director Louise Howland isn’t sure whether Beaman will be able to secure a waiver for fiscal 2008 from those requirements. But if it doesn’t, Beaman will lose its certification, state aid, and interlibrary loan privileges. “In some ways, it is very draconian, but there has to be some measurable way of holding communities accountable,” says Howland.

But what does it mean to hold communities accountable? There is a strong current of public sentiment that says municipal officials brought this crisis on themselves by doling out overly generous pay raises to municipal employees and maintaining benefit packages that most private sector workers couldn’t dream of having. Residents shouldn’t have to fork over more of their hard-earned dollars to pay for poor public management, goes this line of thinking. “I really fail to see why the failure of the cities and towns’ leadership to deal with their unions, which is partly the fault of the state for not giving them the tools, is the fault of the person stopping by the coffee shop to have lunch,” says Barbara Anderson. She points to cases like that of Wrentham’s King Philip Regional High School, where the principal retired three years ago, only to take another job as a Rhode Island high school principal. The district still pays 75 percent of his health insurance premium. When he dies, the benefit goes to his wife.

On the other side of the coin, municipal officials see a disconnect between town hall and the average household. Residents want the same level of services that they have become accustomed to, but without paying any more for them than they have in past years. At one extreme are wild ideas about the ramifications of fiscal breakdown. Bisignani, the Saugus town manager, says that a woman who stopped by his office during the spring override campaign announced that she was voting no and encouraging her entire family to do the same. A parent of school-age children, the woman explained she wanted to see Saugus go into receivership, so that the town could get the resources that Chelsea got during its fiscal crisis. “We’ll get all new schools if the town goes into bankruptcy,” the woman told him.

More common is pure disinterest in the number-crunching. According to Ragucci, the Stoneham administrator, most people, particularly younger ones, don’t want to delve into the “very dull and boring” world of municipal finance to better understand how their tax dollars are spent. “You have young families out here who are going out and buying those beautiful, 42-inch flat-screen TVs, and when the time comes for an override, they say, ‘My taxes are going to go up 200, 400 bucks a year. I can’t afford that.’”

Some view the disenchantment with local government simply as an expression of the powerlessness citizens feel with state and federal government decision-making. “They come down to town meeting, they’re frustrated, they are angry, and they can vote ‘no’ here, and their voice is heard,” says Howland.

Other municipal officials believe that, under present conditions, a fiscal meltdown involving multiple communities is inevitable. “Chelsea’s stress at the time was considered to be an isolated incident,” says Jay Ash, the city manager there. When middle-class communities like Saugus and Stoneham start to experience problems, Ash says, “that’s a signal that we are getting to the point that the stress is such that the state is going to have to react.” Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer III agrees. “You are going to have a line of local government officials, figuratively speaking, dropping off the keys at the desk of the state saying, “Here, you own it, we’re done,” says Kezer.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Beyond the local quality of life, the fiscal dilemma of many cities and towns signals bigger issues for the state. Much fanfare accompanies any expansion announcement from a local company or any news from state economic officials that they have wooed a firm to Massachusetts. But as a 2006 report from Northeastern’s Center for Urban and Regional Policy pointed out, municipalities stand at the frontlines of any drive for economic growth. If Massachusetts towns and cities offer only minimal services, companies considering expansion or relocation here may well think twice. Who would blame them for concluding that skilled workers and managers will be unenthused about landing in a high-cost state where local communities nonetheless struggle to keep libraries or pools open from year to year?

Voters may not want to delve into the ‘very dull and boring’ world of municipal finance.

In West Boylston, Mulryan, the parks commissioner, has more or less resigned himself to the new reality. By defeating the proposed override earlier this year, the voters have spoken, he says. Possible state grant monies may yet bring the pool back. But, in a nod to the government-by-subscription trend, he says with only the faintest trace of humor, the town seems to be somewhere between keeping parks free and putting up turnstiles and charging to walk on the grass. “Who knows what is going to happen?” he says. “I don’t think the ‘pay-as-you-go’ and the à la carte mentality is going to go away for a long time.”