Town managers, mayors, council members, and other municipal officials from all six New England states gathered this month at the Lincoln Institute to review the region’s economic outlook, learn from the fiscal challenges of San Bernardino and Baltimore, explore Boston’s fiscal and economic development initiatives and delve into the promises and risks of technology.
The seminar, Critical Issues for the Fiscal Health of New England Cities and Towns, is part of the Lincoln Institute’s effort to promote municipal fiscal health, and was co-sponsored by the New England Public Policy Center of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The presentations can be viewed on the Lincoln Institute’s SlideShare page by clicking on the name of each speaker.
Robert Triest, vice president and director of the New England Public Policy Center, compared the economies of the New England states, reporting that growth is strongest in Massachusetts and weakest in Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island, where employment has not yet rebounded to its pre-recession peak. Christiana McFarland, research director for the National League of Cities (NLC), shared the results of the NLC’s latest survey of fiscal conditions, in which four times as many cities reported being better able to meet financial needs than those who reported being less able. Bo Zhao, senior economist at the New England Public Policy Center, reviewed research on the possibility of local option taxes, concluding that they could generate considerable additional revenue for New England cities and towns, but would not be likely to reduce fiscal disparities.
Michael Lawson, a researcher for the George Mason University Fiscal Sustainability Project, shared a fiscal comparison of Baltimore and San Bernardino, noting that the equalization of state aid and the presence of clear lines of executive authority in the city charter represent two factors among many in Baltimore’s more robust recovery. Peder Schaefer, associate director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, presented a case study of the city of Woonsocket, whose use of the Budget Commission Act helped the city reach fiscal solvency.
Ronald Rakow, Boston’s Commissioner of Assessing, argued that a heavy dependence on property tax revenues makes it essential for the city to be creative in both growing and preserving its property tax base. Lourdes Germán, fellow at the Lincoln Institute, followed with an overview of municipal access to capital markets for public projects, highlighting recent projects such as the City of Brockton’s clean renewable energy bonds. Richard England, visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute, argued that the preferential tax assessment of rural land isn’t as effective for encouraging small farms as its enactors had hoped, and that reform is necessary to prevent misuse of this policy tool.
Finally, Adam Chapdelaine, town manager for Arlington, Mass. began a discussion of technology with a tour of Arlington’s award-winning fiscal transparency program. Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director and senior policy fellow at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University, discussed the technology risks facing municipal officials, which extend beyond cyber security to financial, operational, and reputational risk.