Prepared by Rural Commonwealth
Rural Policy Advisory Commission Listening Session
Thursday, December 13, 2018, 5pm – 7pm
Greenfield Community College Downtown Campus
Rural Commonwealth is a nonprofit based in Franklin County that works on strengthening the 170 rural communities across Massachusetts. We have interviewed and worked with hundreds of rural residents, municipal leaders (through the Small Town Summit), and business owners. These people who are on the ground in small town-Massachusetts repeatedly mention the following key themes as needs for their areas of the state:
- Local access to health care
- A focus on economic growth
- Changes to the system of payments for State-owned land
- Enhanced transportation in the “rural core” between the Vermont and Connecticut borders, and Rt. 7 and I-91
- Changes to regional school funding formulas
- Corrections to the inappropriate use of ZIP codes for important State functions.
Some of the issues we are raising today require collective action by a number of groups — and in particular, input and participation from actual residents of rural Massachusetts who are often excluded from State planning exercises that impact their lives.
Other issues we raise require legislation. In September 2018, shared a list of legislative priorities for rural Massachusetts communities with legislators who have significant numbers of rural communities in their districts, including your Representative Paul Mark, who serves on this Commission. As advisory body to the State Legislature and Executive Office, we hope the Rural Policy Advisory Commission will work with us to champion bills related to these issues in the new General Court that begins in January.
We currently have workgroups and advocacy campaigns focused on all of these issues. Realizing that time here today is limited and the issues we are presenting are complex, we would be happy to discuss them further with the Commission at a later date.
Finally, we are happy that the State is developing a plan for rural communities. We believe that effective solutions to these challenges require planning and execution in the rural communities they serve. This work can be aided by agencies and legislators in the state’s cities, including Greenfield, but they must originate and be carried out in the rural communities to be successful.
Much of rural Massachusetts is a medical desert. For example, the eight towns in western Franklin County have only three practicing physicians. This area completely lacks dentists, lab facilities, and organized mental health and addiction care. Continuity of care is precarious. Community nursing is available during very limited hours, and the closest emergency room can be forty-five minutes away. None of this is new, but it is getting worse as the population continues to age. This healthcare access crisis is worsening as the rural population ages and is an impediment to attracting new families to rural communities.
TThe rural communities of Massachusetts have been largely untouched by the economic resurgence in urban and suburban areas. Poverty and lack of job opportunities continue to be serious problems in many of the state’s small towns. An effective approach to rural economic development needs to be both based in these communities and firmly rooted in the expressed needs and wishes of local residents.
The widespread lack of broadband in rural Massachusetts has excluded much of the western part of the state from participating in this boom seen in the east. As broadband becomes available in these communities, there needs to be a concerted effort to provide access to training for rural residents in everything from using online banking to preparing for high-tech careers that can be done remotely.
Payments for State-owned Land
The current system used to provide payments for State-owned land to municipalities causes significant financial hardship for the rural communities in Massachusetts. A one-year leveling of payments that was approved this year helps in the short-term, but it does not address the loss of tax income that continues as state agencies continue to purchase land in rural towns. A solution requires both legislation and other actions as listed below:
- Each rural town should be reimbursed for state-owned land on a consistent annual basis using a formula that is based on the town’s current residential tax rate and the number of acres owned by the State during that year.
- The Legislature should explore and support ways to make it easier for farmers to obtain mortgages on agricultural properties that exceed 20 acres.
- All hearings about state-owned land should be held in the communities where the parcels in question are located.
- Assessors, Select Boards, Finance Committee members, and Town Administrators should receive single-topic notifications about any proposed or actual changes to the state-owned land compensation procedures.
Transportation in the “rural core”
(towns between the Berkshires and I-91 between Vermont and Connecticut)
While some excellent efforts have been made in this area, including by Commissioner Dave Christopolis and the Hilltown CDC, there are many needs in these communities not being met. For instance, employees have no public transportation to their jobs, there is no delivery service for needed prescriptions or groceries, regional school transportation is an expensive mess to put it politely, and the list continues. There need to be coordinated projects that alleviate these transportation deficits. For more information about rural transportation challenges, please visit:
Legislative action: We propose a funded study into transportation solutions in the rural core.
Background report: “Transportation in Massachusetts’ Rural Core: What’s missing?”
Regional school funding
This issue is one that has had significant momentum, particularly over the last couple of years, but the work is not yet complete. A revised education funding formula must get through the legislature and signed by the governor.
Rural communities in Massachusetts are harmed in many ways by the inappropriate use of ZIP codes by state agencies. This issue results in cash-strapped small towns failing to receive hotel and restaurant tax revenue from DOR. It also prevents rural residents from successfully registering to vote. It causes birth and death records to go missing.
The solution to this problem is both legislative and non-legislative. First, we proposal a meeting to include legislators, DOR, RMV, Secretary of State, Auditor, Lt. Governor to address the ZIP code problem. Ultimately, a correction will require legislation that funds changes to State databases currently using ZIP codes in an inappropriate way.