, Newburyport, MA

February 28, 2013

Selectmen give Mirra, O'Connor Ives an earful Board members highly critical of state's unfunded mandates

By Warren P. Russo

---- — MERRIMAC — Merrimac’s newly elected state representatives listened to complaints Monday night about unfunded mandates imposed by the state.

“The smaller towns are really suffering because of level funding,” said Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, who was immediately hit with complaints about the many unfunded mandates being steadily imposed on Massachusetts communities by the Democratic administration of Gov. Deval Patrick.

“Here’s one thing you can do for Merrimac,” said an emphatic chairman of the board, Earl Baumgardner. “Get rid of all these unfunded mandates that are riding on the backs of the taxpayers.”

Selectman Laura Mailman also chimed in with a complaint about the so-called “formula grant,” which the state dispenses for the benefit of the community’s senior citizens.

“People are living longer and healthier lives, and we’re providing transportation, facilities, educational courses and physical fitness classes for our baby boomers who are getting into their 80s and 90s,” she said. “Yet, all the state gives us to conduct all of these programs is just $7 per senior per year, and the amount of the annual grant doesn’t change for 10 years.”

Since Merrimac’s population of senior citizens — which the state classifies as anyone age 60 or over — is 1,232, the town’s formula grant is $8,624 for the year.

“It’s a well-spent dollar,” said Mailman, as she continued criticizing the plethora of unfunded mandates raining down on financially strapped Massachusetts cities and towns. She made her angriest attack against the state-mandated ethics test, which must be taken by town employees every two years.

“They’re treating us like children by making us take the ethics test every two years,” she said, “when once is enough.”

Mailman added that the test takes 45 to 60 minutes, noting that “the cost of administering it is real.” She added that people’s ethics don’t change, especially not within a two-year period, so she believes the test is a waste of time and money.

Signage is another significant expense that will be borne by Merrimac taxpayers as an unfunded mandate, said Mailman. According to the state requirement, every sign in town must be tested for clarity and reflectivity and replaced at taxpayer expense if it fails to meet the standards.

State Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, brought along some examples of her own favorite unfunded mandates.

Topping her list is the state-mandated body mass indexing (BMI) of public school students, which is apparently already under way in North Andover. She has reportedly filed legislation to halt the BMI procedure.

O’Connor-Ives promised to reduce the number of unfunded mandates in the state budget, while also assuring that Merrimac “gets whatever loans or grants are available to reduce the town’s expenses associated with next spring’s revamping of the water and sewer systems.

“We could fund all of the education-related programs in the state,” Mirra said in a post-meeting interview, “ if we could just eliminate the wasteful spending on free attorneys for Level 3 sex offenders.”

Last year, with the endorsement of the Patrick administration, Massachusetts spent more than $1.2 million on free legal representation at free hearings for Level 3 sex offenders who want their photographs and addresses removed from the Sex Offender Registry.

Under a current loophole in the law, sex offenders classified as Level 3 – the worst level – are entitled to free, taxpayer-funded legal representation, as well as a free hearing, regardless of their financial condition. By having a judge reduce their classification to Level 2 or Level 1, they once again become invisible to the communities where they live, thus defeating the original purpose of the law.

Plus, under a new bill filed by Brian Mannal, D-Barnstable, the sex registry board would be required to contact every sex offender who wants to get their name off the online registry and inform them that they have a right to a free lawyer and a free hearing, all at taxpayer expense.

“This isn’t like providing lawyers for the indigent accused,” said Mirra. “These are people who’ve already been convicted of a crime.”

Mirra vowed to look into this issue to try to find ways to stop the practice, because “it isn’t right, and it’s a lot of money.”

Mirra also cited the enormous waste, fraud and abuse of EBT cards being distributed to unqualified recipients, noting that O’Connor-Ives has already filed legislation requiring the holder’s photograph on the EBT card.

“We owe the exposing of these abuses to the newspapers,” said Mirra. “Without the press, I wonder if we would ever find out about some of these things.”