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Myths about Walpole prison mitigation

December 11, 2012

Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick cut local aid by 1 percent and eliminated Walpole’s exclusive prison mitigation pork in mid-fiscal-year emergency budget cuts.

The loss of our prized prison mitigation pork is a tough blow for Walpole, but we’ve been here before. In 2008, Patrick cut the same earmark to Walpole during similar emergency budget cutting in the middle of the 2009 fiscal year. Walpole didn’t get the money back until last year, 2011, after much lobbying by our legislators.

Any time the state cuts funding to a city or town, it isn’t pleasant. But before everyone gets caught up in the talking points and rhetoric about how unfair it is that Walpole will no longer receive prison mitigation money, take a look below at some common myths, debunked. These are the same myths that 180 got caught believing a few years ago, before doing the research and realizing the talking points aren’t accurate:

Myth #1: Walpole is required to provide emergency services to MCI-Cedar Junction

There seem to be two competing claims on this. Town officials claim they are required by law to provide services. In theory, this makes sense, but if it’s true, see myths #2 and #3 below.

But in a letter to Walpole Selectmen in 2011, the State Auditor’s Division of Local Mandates told town officials in no uncertain terms that “after considerable research … DLM has not been able to identify a state law, regulation, or agency rule that requires the Town of Walpole to provide emergency response at MCI Cedar Junction.”

“There is no language in the 1953 Act [creating the prison], or any known agreement executed between the state and the Town of Walpole that requires the Town to service the facility,” the letter read.

I’d be inclined to take the opinion of the professionals at the State Auditor’s office over the opinion of Town Hall politicians.

Myth #2: The town uses the prison mitigation money to offset the cost of providing service to the prison and its impact on the community

180 can find no evidence, looking at years of Walpole budget documents, that the prison mitigation money has ever been directly applied to pay for the services the town provides to the prison, or that it is directly applied in any way to mitigating the impact of the prison on the town.

Last year, for example, the money was partially used for a facilities study. In previous years, prison mitigation had been used for personnel and recurring expenses, although that practice ended after 2008 when it became clear the money wasn’t a yearly guarantee in the state budget.

If the money was really being used for mitigation, shouldn’t it be put into the fire department budget for their ambulance trips to the prison?

More than half of the prison mitigation money from last year hasn’t even been spent by the town yet. This should seem odd, considering the prison is supposedly a drain on our emergency services.

Deputy Fire Chief Michael Laracy has never returned phone calls to 180 regarding how many emergency calls the prison has per year and whether the value of these trips is $750,000 per year.

Also, it is worth noting that no other prison host town in the state, except Walpole, receives special mitigation money for its prison (although surely they wouldn’t mind getting it.)

Myth #3: Without mitigation, Walpole would receive no money from the state for the prison

The Mass. Department of Revenue makes payments to cities and towns every year for tax-exempt state-owned land, including prisons.

According to the DOR, the state will pay Walpole about $79,000 this year as official payment-in-lieu-of-taxes specifically for the prison land.

This money has NOT been cut as part of prison mitigation, and is included as part of Walpole’s cherry sheet aid. This money is outside of the prison mitigation money and the smaller prison host grant. So even if myths #1 and #2 above were true, it would seem that $79,000 is enough to cover the costs of whatever impact the prison has on our town. To reiterate: Walpole ALREADY receives $79,000 for the prison from the state.

Myth #4: The prison mitigation money is the equivalent of what Walpole would receive for property taxes if it wasn’t state-owned land

If the land was privately-owned, Walpole would probably not be getting as much as $750,000 in taxes per year.

If the 198-acre prison land was a residential subdivision, the town would probably be losing money, simply due to the impact on the school system.

If the property was zoned as residential, it would generate about $120,000 per year in taxes, according to town assessor Dennis Flis. If it was zoned as commercial, it would generate about $150,000 in revenue, according to Flis. These amounts obviously would vary depending on what type of buildings were located on the property and based on other factors of the use of the land, but town officials haven’t been able to point to any data to show they would generate $750,000 in tax revenue if a prison wasn’t located there. Walpole is lucky just to be getting $79,000 (see myth #3) for the land.

Fact:

The prison mitigation money is an earmark. It is perfectly acceptable for people to defend it as an earmark, and to declare that Walpole should receive it as part of the legislative process. Earmarks are controversial, but some believe they are necessary because of the broken local aid process, requiring legislators to literally fight for any earmark they can get for their district. I have had many debates with people about whether earmarks are justified, and there are perfectly logical arguments to be made in favor of earmarks themselves.

But it is highly inaccurate and insulting to the taxpayers to claim that this is really being used for prison mitigation and that it is really “deserved” based on the prison’s impact to the community. It is a special earmark, plain and simple, and our legislators just slapped “prison mitigation” on to it to make it sound justified. As myth #2 explains, the money isn’t even used for prison mitigation.

It took awhile for even 180 to understand this. Just four years ago, 180 was slamming Patrick for cutting the money. It takes time to cut through the talking points.

Should Walpole be getting more funding from the state for our schools and municipal departments? Of course we should be. If prison mitigation is the only way we can get that, I can see why some at Town Hall and in town might support it. But let’s not pretend that this is actually so-called “prison mitigation.” We don’t need to listen to the dramatic complaints about how Town Hall is being unjustly robbed of its prison mitigation money. This is a gift from our legislators that no other prison host community gets. We hadn’t even used all of our mitigation money from last year. So there is no reason to think we needed it again this year. If Walpole is able to chip in $750,000 that it wasn’t even using to help address the state’s budget shortfall, I think that’s a good thing. It’s better to cut that than some other essential government service.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Tom Driscoll permalink
    December 16, 2012 4:03 PM

    Thanks. Very interesting and facts we wouldn’t learn from elected or appointed officials. This raises a broader question of any state aid to towns and cities. It seems 1) we are overtaxed by the state, in part, to cover aid to local municipalities 2) before they “generously” remit this aid they make some adjustments to cover their wasteful expenses 3) have the nerve to tell us how it will be spent and 4) have our hack politicians seek credit for bringing home the “bacon” which is simply a portion of our overtaxed dollars. The obvious solution is to reduce state taxes by the amount of state “aid” and allow the local towns to offset reductions and determine how to spend any gains. It could be argued the “have” towns have an obligation to aid the “have nots” especially in education. It makes no sense, however, to collect excess state funds to also subsidize the “have” towns.

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