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Less of a Winter Oversight Wonderland under Reform Bill…

UPDATED 8:40PM: Both Houses of the legislature approved the conference report Sunday evening.

Shoveled, yes. But with what oversight? (WMassP&I)

Shoveled, yes. But with what oversight? (WMassP&I)

The Massachusetts legislature faced a glut of work during two, rare weekend sessions following the political conventions this month. Major bills on energy, ride-hailing services and non-compete clauses in employment have still not emerged from House-Senate conference committees and the legislative clock runs out at 11:59PM Sunday night. Only one big-ticket item has emerged as of Saturday night. While passage is likely, it could prompt some minor controversy.

A municipal reform bill escaped the maw of conference after House and Senate negotiators ironed the differences in the two chambers’ version of the bill. Loosening state law’s tight grip on liquor licenses, which the House did not approve, is not in the final product. However, the conference language slightly clips the financial power of legislative bodies in cities and towns.

The bill was top priority for Governor Charlie Baker, especially in light of his administration’s mission of municipal outreach. Much of it revises technical jargon, streamlines processes or updates dollar values to reflect inflation.

But the law also cuts city councils and town select boards and finance committees out of authorizing deficit spending for snow and ice removal. It is one of many changes to streamline municipal operations, but one that runs counter the budgeting system envisioned by the Municipal Finance Act, the state law that governs how localities budget, spend and borrow.

Broadly speaking, the act gives municipal executives incredible control over spending, but local legislatures can halt virtually any action that financial obligates the community.

The conference bill assigns the power of authorizing snow and ice deficit spending to the community’s “chief administrative officer.” The term is not defined in the bill and the current law, does not have a definition either. The House and the Senate approved identical language, following the governor’s original bill.

Springfield CAFO T.J. Plante (WMassP&I)

Springfield CAFO T.J. Plante (WMassP&I)

Springfield, as a consequence of the Control Board, has a rather developed financial and administrative hierarchy. Timothy Plante, the Chief Administrative and Financial Officer would clearly be the relevant officer. But in other communities it may be more confusing. Mayors and city and town managers are the intuitive, but not necessarily unambiguous candidates for this power. Literally read, mayors and managers are also cut out in the revision.

“That’s ridiculous,” Springfield City Council President Michael Fenton said when asked about councils losing their power to authorize deficit spending. Though he had not yet seen the language, he said such a thing would be “completely inconsistent with the scheme of participatory budgeting.”

The Massachusetts Municipal Association favored the change, but gave no reason in its letter of support. The group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ostensible reason for the change is to simplify the financing of remove snow and ice especially during tough winters. The existing deficit authorization language allows additional spending on plowing contracts, overtime and the like without available funds to pay for it. Communities usually appropriate money from savings or free cash to fill the deficit before the fiscal year ends.

Without the authorization, if the snow and ice budget is exhausted, in theory a municipality could spend no more to remove snow. It is not clear this has actually happened, however.

Eastern Massachusetts has faced far worse snowfall in recent years compared to the 413. Yet, in Western Massachusetts, there has been no apparent disruption of snow removal due to the current authorization process involving mayors, councils, select boards and finance committees.

If the snowfall has been bad, Springfield councilors will usually complain, but they always approve the deficit authorization in time for the next storm. (WMassP&I)

During bad winters, Springfield councilors will usually complain, but they always approve the deficit authorization in time for the next storm. (WMassP&I)

In cities like Springfield, councilors often use the authorization as an opportunity to critique cleanups, but it usually gets approved quickly even when requested merely as a precaution.

Practically speaking, councilors and select boards, would not be completely cut out. Authorization to transfer funds to pay off the deficit would still go before municipal legislatures (select boards’ function is part-executive/part-legislative), lest it count against the following fiscal year’s revenue.

Still, the change raises worries about municipal budget planners deliberately under-appropriating for winter weather, knowing the chief administrative officer could simply approve deficit spending as snow piles up. The conference bill leaves undisturbed existing wording that allows deficit spending only if the current fiscal year’s regular appropriation for snow removal meets or exceeds the prior year’s.

Other areas of the bill diminish local legislatures’ financial oversight, but in few practical or substantive ways.

Though the change dates to Baker’s bill, it would prudent to withhold aspersions for now. The language merely follows state law’s preference for local executive branches especially on financial matters.

Though hardly exclusive to municipal legislators, city councilors and select boards can be havens of buffoonery and obstruction that frustrate expeditious and efficient government functions. Slight tweaks in favor of the executive such as for snow removal may be prudent. Still, that section of the conference bill would represent a precedent, however small, against the current financial power-sharing arrangement in cities and towns.