Saying they need help resolving “long-standing matters that impact Hingham,” the Board of Selectmen sent a letter to state Senator Robert Hedlund and Representative Garrett Bradley asking for increased leadership and guidance on reforming several sensitive but costly issues.
“Hingham seeks flexibility on pension funding, civil service reform, healthcare financial relief and Quinn Bill modification for our public safety officers,” Selectmen Bruce Rabuffo, Laura Burns, and John Riley said in the letter dated June 23.
Rabuffo said in a recent interview that the Legislature often ties the hands of cities and towns by mandating certain things and either insufficiently funding those requirements or not funding them at all.
For example, the letter cites the police career incentive program, often referred to as The Quinn Bill. When cities and towns voted to participate in the program, which increases police officers’ pay 10 to 25 percent for each advanced degree they earn, the legislation required the state to pay half the qualifying officers’ raises. Statewide, the agreements usually cost $100 million annually – half covered by the state and half covered by the cities and towns.
But, because of budget constraints, the state funding for the program has been cut significantly – from $50.2 million in fiscal 2009 to $10 million in fiscal 2010, which ends next Wednesday. In Scituate, Mashpee, and Wrentham, officers have sued the town for the other half of their funding.
In Hingham’s case, the town has agreed to cover the state’s half of the funding, a commitment of more than $100,000 to the officers’ contract.
A particularly sensitive issue that Rabuffo said needs state-level reform is special education, which requires individual cities and towns to pay for the education of all children, including those with learning disabilities, which can become costly as students require aids and other modifications.
“The education of these students is the responsibility of the entire Commonwealth, but the cost is apportioned to towns in an inherently unequal manner,” the selectmen wrote.
Rabuffo, whose wife was a teacher, said the system is unfair to the larger community, as well as the children who do not live in a town with resources like Hingham’s.
“Right now kids are not getting a fair shake if they are in some of the other poorer towns, and that’s not right,” Rabuffo said.
The state assists cities and towns with the costs of special education according to a formula known as “circuit breaker,” but, as with the Quinn Bill, the state has cut its portion of the funding.
In the fiscal year that starts July 1, the selectmen write, special education will be about $10 million of the town’s $80 million budget and is expected only to become more expensive with each year.
In an interview, Representative Bradley said the funding cuts are a casualty a difficult economy.
“In the good economic times, we’ve been able to meet that obligation,” Bradley said of special education. “But when times are tough, every line item’s taken a hit,” he said.
Bradley also said that he is grateful for the letter.
“I always tell my selectman,” Bradley said, “‘Don’t assume we know everything. We may like to think we do, but we don’t.''
Senator Hedlund said he shared the selectmen’s frustration that they meet their funding obligations when the state sometimes falls short.
“One of the principles that guided me throughout my tenure here is that I voted against any and all unfunded mandates,” Hedlund said.
Rabuffo said the challenges facing state and local governments are daunting.
“Nobody wants to deal with the political consequences of the issues we’re raising,” he said. But, Rabuffo said, he’s fed up, and he and his fellow selectmen have to start somewhere.
“We’re barking up a tree, but I’m going to keep jousting at the tree,” he said.
Read the letter for yourself (PDF)