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Municipal Modernization Act gives greater flexibility to cities and towns

By Ed Londergan

A bill signed into law by Governor Baker in August will have a far-reaching effect on the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. The Municipal Modernization Act is the first comprehensive overhaul of the laws and regulations governing how the cities and towns operate in decades. The goal of the bill was to eliminate or streamline outdated and obsolete statutes and state requirements, provide some new local options, and generally help cities and towns operate more efficiently. The law is designed to give the towns and cities more and better ways to cope with budget pressure and manage their affairs.

The 125-page, 253-section bill includes many provisions including simplifying many financial reporting requirements, allowing simpler bidding processes for contracts for small projects, let local rather than state officials approve certain types of borrowing, allow municipalities to have one person serve as both tax collector and treasurer, and eliminate duplicative reporting requirements related to debt.

Julie Jacobson, Town Manager of Auburn, a community of more than 16,000 as of the 2010 Census, spent 24 years working in the Worcester city government in various roles, her last being that of assistant city manager. In 2011, she became the town manager so she has a depth of experience that allows her to fully understand the implications of the new law on municipal government.

She was very impressed by both the Baker administration’s and legislators’ outreach efforts.

“The governor and legislature worked very closely with the cities and towns to find out what they needed to operate better. It was the best state government outreach I’ve experienced. Both Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito’s local government experience played a role in the level of outreach,” she said.

One of the best aspects of the law is the removal of provisions that have been hampering municipal governments for years.

“The bill addressed lots of outdated and onerous regulations that made sense when they were enacted but no longer do,” Jacobson said. “The many things that were eliminated is the best part,” she noted. Some of the regulations had not been updated in 100 years.

She is pleased with everything. One of the key provisions was giving local governments more control and authority, letting them operate in the manner that is best for their particular situation.

An example of this is the competitive bidding process. The bill raised the dollar amount at which three bids are required from $35,000 to $50,000.

“Years ago, it was $25,000 but then got increased to $35,000. However, the costs of the construction projects continued to increase so the minimum needed to increase but had not. The new $50,000 minimum will help expedite projects.”

There are a few things Jacobson would like to have been included in the final bill but were not, such as giving local governments control over the number and type of liquor licenses. However, some of these may be addressed in future legislative sessions.

It will take time to implement the new laws. State agencies that administer the different provisions of the bill are expected to release guidance and further details on the law to assist municipalities.

“While it will take time,” Jacobson noted, “it is a huge step forward.”