NMCOG, communities land state grants

Feb 17, 2013 By Allison Thomasseau, The Lowell Sun

Lowell-area towns and government groups have received more than $150,000 in community development grants to develop regional collaborations that will promote efficiency in transportation and stormwater management.

The state Executive Office of Administration and Finance’s community innovation challenge grants provided $2.25 million to 27 regional community projects statewide. The projects, involving 162 towns, aim to combine town services, such as 911 dispatching and property assessing services, into a regional collaboration.

“Whether you’re in a small town in a rural area or a big city in a metropolitan area, there are ways to partner, and these grants build on that,” Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said at a meeting of 75 grant recipients on Tuesday.

The North Middlesex Council of Governments, a regional planning agency serving Greater Lowell, received a $98,000 grant to start a storm water education and management program.

Under the collaborative, cities and towns invest in their own infrastructure, but work with nearby towns to coordinate their efforts and public education campaigns.

“The biggest impact is going to be cost savings,” said Jay Donovan, assistant director of the council. “Cities and towns won’t have to run their own programs, and we’ll have a regional focus on how to deal with storm water.”

Stormwater management costs the North Middlesex region about $1.9 billion annually, but new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations mean costs could increase.

The North Middlesex Council of Governments estimates the collaborative could save $285,000 to $570,000 annually.

In another grant, Acton, along with six surrounding towns, including Westford, received a $60,000 to launch a regional transportation association.

Acton will receive the grant to work with other municipal partners to consolidate commuter transportation, such as van service, that overlaps in each town.

“We’re trying to share transportation resources, and the money will help us bridge the two different (regional transportation authorities) by considering establishing a transit management association,” Westford Town Manager Jodi Ross said.

Last year, these communities received an $184,575 innovation grant to study the benefits of sharing the transportation. This year’s grant will put those findings into action.

“We’re trying to be more effective in how we provide transportation to our residents,” Ross said.

The grant program awarded $4 million in 2012, its first year, to 27 community projects. It was created to establish partnerships between the local and state government to promote economic innovation and growth.

State budget cuts decreased funding this year; most grant applicants did not receive the full funding they requested. The projects received enough to cover initial start-up costs, and but will need to find other funding to continue operating.

Pam Kocher, administration and finance’s director of local policy, said the committee looked for programs with a wide appeal.

“We were looking for projects with a potential to be useful to other communities,” she said.

Kocher said Boston’s Citizens Connect smartphone app, which was launched in 2009 with innovation grant money, is the type of idea the office was looking for. Citizen’s Connect lets residents report neighborhood issues, such as potholes, and is now used in 35 Massachusetts communities, including Ayer and Fitchburg.

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