City, town leaders cheer Healey proposal for local tax options; harder sell on Beacon Hill

Rebecca Hahn, a manager at Woodstar Café in Northampton, chats with customer Jennifer Fox as she pays for her order on Tuesday. Gov. Maura Healey on Monday filed legislation that would give municipalities the authority to increase local option taxes on meals, lodging and motor vehicles.

Rebecca Hahn, a manager at Woodstar Café in Northampton, chats with customer Jennifer Fox as she pays for her order on Tuesday. Gov. Maura Healey on Monday filed legislation that would give municipalities the authority to increase local option taxes on meals, lodging and motor vehicles. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 02-15-2024 8:19 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Local leaders are reacting favorably to legislation filed last week by Gov. Maura Healey that would give municipalities the authority to increase local option taxes on meals, lodging and motor vehicles.

The state’s Democratic legislative leaders, however, are taking a more cautious approach to the governor’s so-called Municipal Empowerment Act, while Republicans are firmly against it.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said the act has “game-changing elements in how municipalities make decisions around revenue streams that are right for their community.”

“I think an important element is that they are opt-ins. They are not unfunded mandates,” she said.

The act would enable cities and towns to raise the maximum local option tax on hotels, motels and other rentals from 6% to 7% of the price of a room. The local option meals tax could increase from 0.75% to 1%, and a new local option vehicle surcharge plan would give town officials the option to add an additional 5% fee onto vehicles registered in their communities.

LaChapelle, who is the incoming president of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association, noted that for communities like Easthampton, which are not tourism destinations and don’t have much of a hotel presence, the ability to increase the excise tax on vehicles will be especially useful.

“To have local revenue keep pace with increasingly more expensive resources — as far as roads, as far as public safety, as far as electricity and energy costs — that excise tax, I think, is something that Easthampton needs to have a very serious conversation about to keep that up [and] to better support operating budgets and expenses,” LaChapelle said.

South Hadley Town Administrator Lisa Wong, one of 30 municipal leaders quoted in a release from the governor’s office, praised the state’s executive branch for listening to municipalities and acting on what they say.

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“The Municipal Empowerment Act is a comprehensive package that will make local government work more efficiently and effectively, providing municipalities with much needed resources to better serve our residents,” Wong stated.

Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman also credited the administration for listening deeply to local communities, and for putting together fiscal initiatives that will help cities and towns.

“We are especially interested in exploring the numerous tools being offered to make local government more efficient and options for raising much needed revenue to provide relief for property taxpayers,” Bockelman said in an emailed statement.

Wait and see

Legislative leaders, though, sounded more cautious Monday. Acknowledging that he hadn’t yet read the bill, House Speaker Ron Mariano told the State House News Service that “a lot depends.”

“(The proposals) will be evaluated to see what they have, what impact they have on our competitiveness, which is one of the reasons why we don’t want to raise taxes,” Mariano said.

Senate President Karen Spilka said she had heard “mixed feelings” about the bill at the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s meeting last weekend and said the Senate would be taking “a good look at it.”

Republicans came out firmly against the idea.

“Massachusetts is an expensive place as it is and this will make the Bay State less competitive,” GOP Chairwoman Amy Carnevale said in a statement Friday. “This action, if passed through the Legislature, will result in companies looking at less expensive options to host their conventions and conferences. Tax increases hurt our communities and make our state less affordable.”

‘Not raising taxes’

Healey pushed back Monday against the idea that introducing the bill went against her word to not seek a state tax hike, as well as her plan to make the state more affordable.

“We are not raising taxes,” the governor said.

She said the bill was based on conversations her administration has had with local officials in recent months. Her bill would not universally raise taxes, she said, but create an opt-in for communities.

“We’re not imposing this. This is just an example of giving local communities the option to do what they think is in the best interest of their community,” Healey said.

Holyoke Mayor Joshua A. Garcia said Healey’s bill “recognizes the challenges faced by municipalities and demonstrates a commitment to their well-being.”

“With the Municipal Empowerment Act, local governments will be given the flexibility needed to create a brighter and more inclusive future for residents,” he stated.

Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said the governor’s bill shows that the administration is “tuned into the needs of local governments like ours. It offers exciting prospects for Northampton, particularly regarding new local tax options and senior tax credits.

“We’re actively analyzing how these proposals could directly impact our community.”

Sciarra added that it was important to “thoroughly understand the full implications before celebrating.”

Leaders of smaller, rural communities also found value in the bill. Goshen Town Administrator Dawn Scaparotti and Select Board Chair Angela Otis said the governor’s office was addressing many of the concerns raised in municipal listening sessions.

“Rather than legislating all actions, (the administration has) created a smorgasbord of options aimed at lessening the administrative burden across a number of areas including procurement and complex property valuation calculations, which is especially important for small towns such as Goshen with fewer financial and staff resources,” they stated in the release from the governor’s office.

Other measures

In addition to offering flexibility on local option taxes, the Municipal Empowerment Act also makes permanent a number of popular COVID-era allowances for hybrid public meetings, outdoor dining permits and to-go cocktail sales.

Healey also filed a two-year, $400 million Chapter 90 bill (HD4811) for local road and bridge repair, proposing a multiyear authorization to help build in predictability for municipalities looking to plan longer-term projects.

The annual Chapter 90 authorization would be supplemented by another $100 million for local road and bridge repairs through Fair Share surtax spending proposed in the fiscal 2025 budget, and an additional $24 million dedicated to rural communities.