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State Rep. Candidates Tackle Your Questions on Taxes, CPA and More

State Rep. candidates George Georgountzos and Jason Lewis answer questions previously submitted by Patch readers.

You asked and incumbent State Rep. Jason Lewis and challenger George Georgountzos have answered your questions. This is the third round of answers provided by the State Rep. candidates to your questions.

Lewis, a Democrat from Winchester, is facing Stoneham resident and Republican challenger Georgountzos for the State Rep. position, which represents the communities of Stoneham and Winchester.

Here are the candidates' responses to readers' questions:

What are your plans for solving Chapter 70 issue that has plagued Stoneham?

Lewis: "I have been pursuing a (three)-pronged strategy to address the issue of adequate and equitable Chapter 70 education funding for Stoneham and other similarly situated communities.

1. File legislation, budget amendments, and pursue any other legislative opportunities to get communities like Stoneham that are below their target level of state aid up to their target. Stoneham’s target is 17.5 percent (of the foundation budget) and the town is currently at 14.85 percent. About one-third of all cities and towns in the state are currently below their target aid level.  Here is a link to a bill that I have co-sponsored that would achieve this objective: http://www.malegislature.gov/Bills/187/House/H03538

2. I have filed legislation that further works to rectify inequities in education funding in the Commonwealth by not just mandating that we bring each community up to their target aid level, but by creating a new category of “middle income” communities, including Stoneham, that would have a higher target aid level of 20 percent. Here is a link to this bill that would make the Chapter 70 formula more equitable: http://www.malegislature.gov/Bills/187/House/H00152

3. I have also filed legislation that would require a comprehensive review and overhaul of the Chapter 70 foundation budget which many experts believe no longer accurately reflects the costs faced by Stoneham and other school districts, particularly in the areas of health insurance and special education. As a result, the state is basing its calculations for Chapter 70 aid on an unrealistically low foundation budget, and this hurts Stoneham and all school districts across the state. Here is a link to this bill:  http://www.malegislature.gov/Bills/187/House/H00153. To help generate support and momentum for the bill’s passage, I have teamed up with the Mass Teachers Association and the Mass Association of School Superintendents to launch the Coalition for Student Success.

This year, Senator Clark and I were successful in increasing Stoneham’s Chapter 70 funding by $156,000 over and above the amount recommended by Governor Patrick in his original FY13 budget submission. This will bring Stoneham closer to the 17.5 percent target.

If you are interested in seeing detailed information on Chapter 70 and its distribution statewide, here is a link to the Department of Education’s spreadsheets that outline a tremendous amount of information about how the formula works: http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/chapter70/

Fixing the Chapter 70 formula so that Stoneham and all communities receive adequate and equitable funding to meet their educational needs will remain a top priority for me.

Finally, we also should not lose sight of the importance to Stoneham of Unrestricted Local Aid, which is almost as much annually for the town as Chapter 70 aid. Stoneham currently receives $136 per capita in this type of state aid, compared to a statewide average of $126 per capita. We must do everything we can to preserve this level of unrestricted aid while, at the same time, continuing to fight for changes in Chapter 70."

Georgountzos: "The problem with Chapter 70, at it's core, is that it is unfair to towns like Stoneham. It's unfair because we never receive the promised threshold funding percentage of 17.5 percent. It's unfair because the system is skewed against towns that share Stoneham's tax base. It's unfair because wealthy towns like Dover, Newton, and Brookline get a higher percentage of the allocation then do we.

The first step is to establish an honest and achievable threshold percentage which would provide equity to all towns. There's not enough money in the Chapter 70 pool to fund 17.5 percent of every town's school budgets, but there probably is to fund 10 percent or 12 percent. So, as a start, we should adopt a baseline to make the system fair. The study advocated by Rep. Lewis may be a positive step towards reforming the system in the long run, but won't provide fairness or equity immediately. And there's little hope of any passage of reforms if the House remains in its current constituted makeup where the majority of the Democrats represent towns and cities that are doing well under the current regime.

Making the Chapter 70 system fair and predictable is the first step towards meaningful reforms and to additional funding for Stoneham schools."

Why should Stoneham adopt the Community Preservation Act (CPA)?

Lewis: "A warrant article was recently approved by Stoneham Fall Town Meeting which will place a CPA question on the ballot at the next town election in the spring. It will be up to Stoneham voters to decide whether or not Stoneham should adopt the CPA.

Below is an op-ed column for the local papers about the CPA that I wrote along with Senator Clark before the Fall Town Meeting:

Investing in Stoneham

Stoneham is a great community to live, work, and raise a family. The town has a rich history and character, strong commitment to education, passionate business community and civic institutions, beautiful natural resources, and outstanding cultural attractions like the Stoneham Theatre and Stone Zoo. Like many other communities, however, Stoneham faces financial challenges in preserving its existing assets while also investing to meet the future needs of the community.

In 2000, the state legislature created an innovative program to help communities meet some of these challenges through a state-local partnership.  Known as the Community Preservation Act (CPA), this smart growth tool helps communities preserve open space and historic sites, create affordable housing, and develop outdoor recreational facilities. Once a community votes to adopt the CPA, a dedicated Community Preservation Fund is established and funded with local contributions and state matching funds. A local Community Preservation Committee is formed to make recommendations on CPA projects to Town Meeting, which makes the final decisions on which projects to fund.

Since it was enacted, 148 cities and towns in Massachusetts have adopted the CPA, including Reading, Bedford, and Peabody. They have used CPA funds to preserve and improve the quality of life in their communities. For example, Agawam used CPA funds to build a new park, including athletic fields and a playground. Ashland used CPA funds to restore its Town Hall which had fallen into disrepair.

Earlier this year, the state legislature made several important changes to the CPA that are designed to make the program more attractive to communities like Stoneham. CPA funds may now be used not just to build new recreational facilities but also to upgrade existing parks, athletic fields, and playgrounds.  The legislature appropriated an additional $25 million in funding for the program, which will increase the state match to about 40 cents for every dollar raised locally. Finally, although the community must still approve a property tax surcharge, other sources of municipal revenue and even privately raised funds can also be deposited in the local Community Preservation Fund and qualify for state matching funds.

If Stoneham were to adopt the CPA, there is certainly no shortage of important local projects that could be considered for funding. Some examples might include:

  • Building a new turf field for the use of Stoneham high school athletic teams and other Stoneham youth sports organizations
  • Renovating the town’s historic fire station
  • Preserving Whip Hill Mansion and the surrounding estate
  • Rebuilding playgrounds like AP Rounds
  • Preserving the Town Hall organ, which is among the oldest in the state
  • Refurbishing the Senior Center and other facilities

The CPA must be adopted through the passage of a local ballot initiative.  Stoneham residents would need to approve a property tax surcharge of at least 1 percent. Exemptions would be available for low-income seniors. In addition, Stoneham could deposit free cash, stabilization transfers, mitigation fees, land sales, private donations, and general fund appropriations into the town’s Community Preservation Fund, and all these dollars would then qualify for state matching funds. With an investment of approximately $50 per household per year, Stoneham could potentially generate $1 million annually (between state and local funds) to invest in new and improved recreational facilities and in preserving the town’s unique historic character.

We hope that you will attend Town Meeting on October 1 to learn more about the Community Preservation Act and join the discussion about how this program might benefit Stoneham.

For more information about the CPA, please visit www.communitypreservation.org or you can email Jason.Lewis@mahouse.gov or Katherine.Clark@masenate.gov."

Georgountzos: As a member of Stoneham's Finance & Advisory Board I voted to allow the CPA issue to come before the citizens as a ballot question in April because we deserve to discuss the merits of the program. Yes, the CPA is a tax but it may serve as an avenue for additional state resources for important, unfunded improvements to playgrounds and other capital needs. It may also result in the end of the trash fee, which unlike a real estate levy is not deductible on your Federal income taxes. But, it is a tax, and it's important to be sure that if it passes, it is not used as an excuse to justify additional spending on other issues because resources are freed up. There needs to be clear plans of action outlined during the next few months to justify the imposition of this new tax in order for us to support this initiative."

What can you do to reduce spending rather than raise taxes?

Lewis: "Massachusetts is required by law to have a balanced budget each year.  The great recession caused a huge drop in tax revenues for Massachusetts and other states. My first year in office, for example, we faced a $5 billion deficit in the state budget. The legislature has pursued sound fiscal management policies and, unlike many other states, we have been able to successfully meet these huge fiscal challenges. It has required deep and painful spending cuts across a wide range of state and local government services and numerous reforms to make our government more efficient, accountable, and transparent. Every year that I have been in office we have had on-time, balanced budgets. We passed sweeping pension reforms that will save taxpayers $5 billion over the next 30 years and ensure the solvency of the system for years to come. We passed comprehensive transportation reform that eliminated the Turnpike Authority, consolidated a number of transportation agencies, and will save taxpayers $250 million. We passed municipal health insurance reform that is saving cities and towns more than $100 million in healthcare costs while preserving quality, affordable healthcare for teachers, police officers, firefighters and other municipal employees.  The state legislature has not passed any tax increases in the last (three) years.

As a result of this strong budget and fiscal management, Massachusetts’ credit rating was upgraded and is now at the highest level in the state’s history.  Massachusetts is also one of only four states that has a stabilization fund balance greater than $1 billion."

Georgountzos: "I have already signed CLT's no taxes pledge. I would hold the line on discretionary spending and call for an audit of all surplus state property (real estate and equipment) and sell them off. I would also seek to seriously look at duplicative agencies and consolidate in a manner that provides true cost savings. From day one, my goal will be to keep an eye on spending so that your hard earned funds are not squandered or wasted."

What would you do to attract businesses to Stoneham?

Lewis: "Stoneham is a great community to live, work, raise a family and own a business. The best way to attract new businesses to Stoneham is to continue to invest in the community. Strong schools, safe streets and excellent municipal services all contribute to a good quality of life and will attract both new residents and new businesses to the community. We also need to be more proactive in identifying local economic development opportunities and seeking business partners to pursue these opportunities."  

Georgountzos: "The key to attracting businesses to Stoneham is not singular to Stoneham. Keeping taxes low, maintaining a fair regulatory system and enjoying a growing economy will attract businesses here. There is nothing inherent in Stoneham or Stoneham policies that dissuade businesses from setting up shop here. The private sector needs to be confident in the economy before businesses will take root here or elsewhere. Stoneham's officials have tried to do what they can; from permitting issues to spreading the word about this great town. Unfortunately, the town is not in the position to provide huge tax breaks to companies to relocate to Stoneham. As a state representative and resident of Stoneham, I will always keep business development in the top of my priorities and when opportunities arise, I will devote my energy to taking advantage of them and promoting Stoneham."

Previous coverage:

  • State Rep. Jason Lewis Answers Readers' Questions
  • State Rep. Candidate George Georgountzos Answers Readers' Questions
  • Candidate Profile: Jason Lewis
  • Candidate Profile: George Georgountzos
  • Winchester League of Women Voters Seeks Questions for Candidate Forum
  • Lewis Bests DePinto for State Rep in Democratic Primary

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