Editorial: Pandemic leads to belt-tightening

Published: 5/26/2020 8:14:20 AM

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” In other words, the prospect of calamity causes one to focus on what’s important. For towns, that calamity is the coronavirus pandemic and what’s important is avoiding a fiscal train wreck as a result of receiving less money from the state than anticipated.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a leading Beacon Hill watchdog group, recently revised its tax revenue forecast for next year, now predicting the state could collect $6 billion less than anticipated just five months ago. The foundation also predicted a tax revenue shortfall of between $700 and $800 million this fiscal year, and has already suggested that Beacon Hill lawmakers consider delaying implementation of the landmark education funding reform bill passed late last year. That bill, much lauded in Franklin County, aimed to close persistent achievement gaps and committed the state to spending about $1.5 billion more on K-12 education over seven years.

Foundation President Eileen McAnneny now says that revenues could miss targets set in January by more than 19 percent as unemployment in the state swells to 22 percent by June. That level of job loss, the group said, would cause withholding taxes to fall by $1.9 billion and cost the state $2 billion in sales taxes. “As the size, scope, and duration of this public health crisis grow, we have revised our forecast to reflect the deteriorating economic outlook. With rapidly-changing economic and fiscal conditions this may not be the last time a revised forecast becomes necessary,” McAnneny said.

Towns will feel the pinch as the state revises what it thought it could afford in January.

Montague town officials recently set the example for other towns by delaying funding on a handful of town construction projects or capital improvements slated for the upcoming fiscal year. In total, the delays are worth nearly $660,000 out of a fiscal budget worth roughly $26 million. Their decisions were based on which projects absolutely could not be delayed, which ones reasonably could be delayed, and which delays would lead to more expensive repairs later. For example, tennis court repairs got delayed, a leaking roof repair was not. Safety repairs got the go-ahead, while a facade repair did not.

This is probably much the same process going on in households this summer. Cosmetic improvements like replacing the screen door that got chewed by the dog during a panic attack may be postponed, while the new gutters that protect against storm damage are still a go.

Town Finance Committees famous for wielding sharp pencils will be revisiting discussions of what’s essential and what’s not. Consequently, annual town meetings may be a lot shorter this spring as some monetary articles are postponed or removed from the warrants. It all promises to concentrate the municipal mind wonderfully.


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