Gateway Cities veto draws fire

Patrick says expansion would dilute program

Legislators and municipal officials from Gardner slammed Gov. Deval Patrick for vetoing a budget provision that would have allowed their city and two others to be designated as Gateway Cities and qualify for tax credits and other economic benefits.

In his budget veto message on Sunday, Patrick said he vetoed a provision that would have lowered the population threshold for a Gateway City from 35,000 to 20,000 people because he feared the resulting increase in the number of Gateway Cities would dilute benefits for the program.

But Gardner officials said any expansion in the number of Gateway Cities would be minimal. They also charged that the veto was politically motivated because the three communities are represented by Republicans at the state or local level.

Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke, a Republican, said lowering the population threshold would result in a net gain of only two new Gateway Cities, raising the total from 24 to 26. He said Gardner, West Springfield, and Agawam would become Gateway Cities with the population change while Barnstable would fall out because its per capita income now exceeds the statewide average.

“I don’t believe that’s diluting resources,” Hawke said.

But Gregory Bialecki, who oversees the Gateway Cities program as the governor’s secretary of housing and economic development, said potentially up to seven new communities would become Gateway Cities with the population change. He also disputed Hawke’s assertion that Barnstable would drop out, saying there is no Gateway Cities requirement on per capita income.

Other than having a population between 35,000 and 250,000, Gateway Cities must have a median household income below the statewide average and a rate of educational attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher that is below the state average.

Hawke said the governor had told him in the past that he supported Gardner’s push for Gateway City status. “Since then he has not followed through on that promise,” Hawke said.

In a statement released on Sunday, state Rep. Richard Bastien, a Republican from Gardner, slammed the veto, saying the governor “turned his back on the residents of Gardner, Agawam, and West Springfield.”

“His claimed reason for vetoing this is absolute nonsense,” Bastien said. “These cities meet all the economic, income, and educational criteria, but can’t dig themselves out of high unemployment because of an arbitrary number the state set that has no rational basis.”

Bastien also suggested that the veto was politically-motivated, because “each of the cities that would have received the new designation has either a Republican mayor, state representative, or both.”

Hawke also said he thinks politics played a role in the veto. “I’ve not been the biggest fan of the governor,” Hawke said. “I do believe it’s politically motivated.”

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But Bialecki denied that political concerns played any role in the veto decision. “It’s not true,” Bialecki said. He said the administration was concerned that the program would expand too quickly, diluting the available resources and undercutting its impact.

Both Bastien and state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, a Democrat from Leominster who represents Gardner, say they want to override the governor’s veto but it is unclear whether the relatively narrow issue will draw enough support in the Legislature.