Posts Tagged ‘Jaclyn Reiss’

Lawyers balk at Gov. Patrick’s budget proposal

Monday, March 14th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

Published March 14, 2011

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The governor’s budget proposal to restructure the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides legal defense for poor people, has drawn an outcry of criticism from attorneys around the state.

The proposal seeks to eliminate the 3,000 contracted private attorneys in the CPCS and replace them with 1,000 public defenders over a five-month period. There are currently 250 public defenders.

Gov. Deval Patrick said his proposal would save $48 million in fiscal year 2012. In 2011 the public counsel program cost $210 million.

Since 2004, 40 percent of the CPCS budget growth has been due to increasing the private counsel rate from $30 per hour – then the lowest in the nation – to $50 per hour for district court representation, $60 per hour for superior court, and $100 per hour to represent defendants in murder cases.

These old rates made the normal quality of life unreachable for attorneys just starting out, said Michael Brennan, a Needham-based private attorney in the program.

“I started at $21,780 per year in 1990, and I worked a second job at Filene’s in Chestnut Hill Mall,” Brennan said.

Rates were supposed to increase over three years starting in April 2005, reaching up to about $120 per hour for murder cases, though the attorneys only saw one year’s worth of raises.

Rather than produce savings, Anthony Benedetti, the public defenders’ chief counsel, worries Patrick’s plan would end up costing the taxpayers more.

His office now pays the 3,000 private lawyers an average of $51,195 per year, with no fringe benefits or reimbursement for office space and supplies. However, hiring 1,000 public employees would cost a total of $85,304 per full-time lawyer each year with benefits, space and equipment reimbursement, and possible future salary increases through collective bargaining.

Benedetti and Brennan also worry the program would lose the experience base that private defenders provide.

“It improves the effectiveness of both groups (public and private defenders) by sharing resources and ongoing peer development,” Benedetti said. “Nationally, the experts in this area say that a mix of public and private is the best way to go.”

Taking a two-thirds personnel cut would also mean a reduction in manpower available for more advanced cases at the superior court level.

“Where are we going to find 1,000 attorneys?” Benedetti said. “They make the assumption everyone would be paid at the district court salary level, which will not be efficient to attract the level of experience to handle the varied caseload, such as felonies, murder cases, and parental rights cases.”

If the state lays off 3,000 private attorneys, MetroWest area constituents would suffer a lack of efficient representation, as well as an economic dip because of the rise in unemployment, Brennan said.

“There are 3,000 lawyers that are small business people in our communities,” he said. “They pay rent for office space; they buy food at restaurants in the community.”

Benedetti and Brennan, speaking at an editorial board meeting with the Daily News, said the state would better save costs and streamline the judicial system by reforming other areas of the program.

They said the state now loses money because defendants who could afford a private lawyer lie to get subsidized representation from the state.

While potential defendants sign a document acknowledging they are subject to perjury, financial backgrounds are seldom checked.

“It’s self-reporting,” Benedetti said. “There’s no independent verification of any kind.”

Creating an independent agency to do that verification would save approximately $24 million, Benedetti said.

The two attorneys also recommended decriminalizing a handful of first-offense minor offenses such as shoplifting, disturbing the peace, larceny by check, trespassing and driving without a license. This would cut back on cases assigned to public defenders, allowing them to concentrate on other clients’ cases.

“There’s almost nothing in Massachusetts you can be charged with that you cannot go to jail for,” Benedetti said. “And if jail is a possibility, you get a lawyer.”

Redefining these misdemeanors as civil infractions and doubling fines for these offenses would save the state money, as well as bring in more money, Benedetti said.

Between fiscal years 2000 and 2004, CPCS projected that it could have saved $8.5 million if the misdemeanors were decriminalized.

“We care about quality but also recognize this is taxpayer money, and that we have to be careful with it,” Benedetti said.

The governor’s press representative did not respond to calls for comment before deadline.

Read more: Lawyers balk at Gov. Patrick’s budget proposal – Framingham, MA – The MetroWest Daily News http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x1664569999/Lawyers-balk-at-Gov-Patricks-budget-proposal#ixzz1GYreCNfK

Framingham officials push for collective bargaining bill

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

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BOSTON – Local officials and legislators appeared before the Public Service Committee yesterday asking lawmakers to pass a bill that would end Framingham’s coalition bargaining arrangement with public workers and replace it with one that would offer the town substantial savings in health insurance costs.

“Health costs consume everything in its path, gobbling up town revenues for teachers, firefighters and police officers,” Framingham Town Manager Julian Suso said. “This system has caused us to lose these same public servants. The quality of our schools and the public safety of are neighborhoods are being compromised.”

Suso said the town spends about 16 percent of its revenue on health insurance benefits. That’s $33.9 million, and Town Counsel Chris Petrini has said costs are expected to rise by $7.5 million over the next three years.

Without relief, town officials project health costs will represent 25 percent of the budget in 2020.

Getting rid of coalition bargaining could help, but how much would be saved is not known because calculating that is not possible, Suso said.

“To make the leap about predicting future health plans, there would have to be a lot of assumption involved,” he said. “But clearly, savings would be substantial because we’d have the ability to bargain.”

Framingham was one of only two municipalities in the state to adopt coalition bargaining in 1993.

In coalition bargaining, the town must negotiate changes to benefits through the Public Employee Committee, an umbrella organization covering many of the town’s unions. The town currently needs 70 percent approval by that committee for health insurance-related changes.

Under collective bargaining, the town can negotiate with each union, helping its chance to win individual concessions.

Framingham had tried to get around the 87 percent of health care costs it currently pays for each employee by requiring new employees to pay 25 percent of their premiums. But the coalition fought that decision in court, and in January, a judge denied the town’s appeal of an arbitrator’s award made last summer in favor of the committee.

“Only a couple communities in the commonwealth did (coalition bargaining), so there’s a message in that,” Suso said. “If it was broadly viewed as the way to go, it’s very curious that only a couple signed on.”

State Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, supports collective bargaining, but she said yesterday that it is important to revamp the way municipalities negotiate health benefits for public employees.

“I want to stress that we’re not a Wisconsin,” she said. “We all support collective bargaining rights, but we need to allow tools to our municipalities as well.”

Framingham Town Meeting recently voted overwhelmingly to start the process of changing the health care negotiations to collective bargaining.

“We want to be in the same position as everyone else,” said state Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland. “We obviously care about our municipal employees, but it’s also very important to have them bargain collectively.”

Sannicandro said there is no knowing if and when the committee will deliberate the bill and make a decision.

Read more: Framingham officials push for collective bargaining bill – Framingham, MA – The MetroWest Daily News http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x1664569303/Framingham-officials-push-for-collective-bargaining-bill#ixzz1G7ORPkfA

Campaign enlists men to stop domestic violence

Friday, March 4th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

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BOSTON – More than 100 people rallied at the State House yesterday to support White Ribbon Day, Jane Doe Inc.’s effort to raise awareness about domestic violence by asking men to sign pledges to end abuse.

Gov. Deval Patrick kicked off the event with a pitch to keep state spending for domestic violence prevention services at the current level of just over $20 million in the face of a looming budget deficit.

Growing up without a father, Patrick said he learned about manhood from other people around him. He also gave credit to his wife, Diane, who was abused in a previous marriage.

“Being a man has nothing to do with exerting power over other people,” Patrick said. “Being a man is about wisdom, about kindness, about understanding, about the courage of showing your own vulnerability and nothing at all to do with mistreating or hurting or demeaning another person.”

Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray cited figures from the Jane Doe organization that domestic violence murders in the Bay State spiked to 30 in 2009.

“This is a public health issue and awareness is part of it,” he said. “We now come together as men to end domestic violence against women. In any form, it is unacceptable.”

MetroWest has seen its share of domestic murders, including two in the past year: Heather Alleyne in August and Rebecca Bibart in November.

Alleyne, 19, was killed and her body left wrapped in blankets and trash bags in the Framingham apartment she shared with her husband, Kyle Alleyne, 23. He was charged with her murder.

Bibart, 41, was stabbed and beaten to death by her 43-year-old husband Richard Bibart in their Westborough home during a murder-suicide, according to police.

Framingham-based Voices Against Violence is one of the local organizations providing counseling, preventive services, and other forms of assistance to domestic and sexual assault victims.

“The demand for our services has gone up, and what’s difficult for us is to meet that demand,” said Mary Gianakis, director of Voices Against Violence. “Service demand goes up not because economic issues cause the violence, but because they can exacerbate an already violent situation.”

Gianakis said almost all the funding for running the confidential domestic violence shelter, staffing the 24-hour hotline and conducting supervised visitation services comes from the state.

“To maintain those core services is critically important to the people we serve in our community,” she said. “The governor’s commitment to hold that means we can continue to save lives.”

However, the organization had to face a 25 percent cut to its sexual assault services in 2009 because of state budget cuts.

“It devastated us,” Gianakis said. “We had to reduce hours of rape crisis service, reduce support groups we can provide, and reduce community outreach and prevention.”

Marlborough Police Detective Martha Shea said between November and the end of January, the department counted 78 incidents of domestic abuse. The department had to hire an additional detective to investigate the cases.

“The follow-up gives us the ability to make sure the victim is aware of services that are out there, and to take a much broader look at the relationship,” Shea said. “We’re going to get more in-depth because we have the time to do that.”

Westborough Police Chief Alan Gordon said his department sees about five cases of domestic violence per month. For all the reported cases, he said, many go unreported.

“The perpetrator may be the primary supporter of family, and if they report something and this person gets incarcerated, the victim thinks, ‘How will I support myself and family if they are unable to work?”‘ Gordon said.

To reach the Voices Against Violence 24-hour hotline, call 508-626-8686 or 1-800-593-1125.

Read more: Campaign enlists men to stop domestic violence – Framingham, MA – The MetroWest Daily News http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x1923551119/Campaign-enlists-men-to-stop-domestic-violence#ixzz1Fdvq99j3

Students urge state leaders to maintain college aid

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

By Jaclyn Reiss/Daily News correspondent

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BOSTON – Armed with cookies and talking-point cue cards, 135 college students hit Beacon Hill yesterday to urge state lawmakers to lobby Washington against cuts in financial aid programs.

“We want to put a face onto this budget proposal,” said Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, the lobbying group that took the students to the State House. “Let them know from your heart how important this is.”

Congress is considering a bill to cut financial aid this coming academic year by reducing the maximum Pell grant of $5,500 by 15 percent, or $825 per student. The bill would also eliminate a federal supplemental grant that gives the state $28 million in grant aid, Doherty said.

But in a victory for financial aid proponents, Gov. Deval Patrick’s 2012 budget proposal would keep state spending for financial aid at $89 million – the same as fiscal 2011, despite a looming budget deficit.

About $37 million will go to private institutions, and public schools would get the other $52 million, Doherty said.

“That’s a big win, because it really is the safety net for students, and we have to maintain a safety net in these times,” he said.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo welcomed the students, from 29 schools, pledging his support and appreciation of higher education, especially when it helps Massachusetts’ bottom line.

“I want you to graduate here and stay here in Massachusetts,” DeLeo said. “I want to make Massachusetts more inviting to the best and brightest. … The biggest thing I want you to do is pay taxes here. I want you to make a lot of money and pay a whole lot of taxes.”

The association provided hundreds of bags of gourmet cookies from Miss Jackie’s in Malden, which were laid on a table outside the first-floor meeting room. Students were urged to drop the cookies off for individual lawmakers in State House offices. Postcard-sized cue cards were filled with talking points about saving financial aid programs.

Although private universities were the focus of yesterday’s meeting, public schools would also feel the pain of federal cuts.

Framingham State University, with 92 percent of its students from Massachusetts, gave $24 million in financial aid to 2,677 students for the 2009-10 academic year.

Three-fourths of the money – approximately $18 million – came from the federal government, said Susan Lanzillo, Framingham State’s financial aid director. The state gave the school $2.6 million.

If funds are cut, many students would have to change their lifestyles to pay for college.

Maxwell Walterman, a Framingham State junior and Framingham High School graduate, said he receives $3,700 in financial aid, about half of his $7,065 cost. Although his parents help him financially, Walterman also works two jobs.

“If my aid was cut, I would no longer be able to afford to live on campus, and I would have to work a lot more in addition to the classes and jobs I already have,” Walterman said.

Walterman also said he relies heavily on government aid because Framingham State makes its internal grants available to a select group of students.

“We are a normal school, which means we specialize in training education professionals, so we mainly give scholarships to minorities, women or education majors,” said Walterman, a pre-engineering major.

Alex Torti, a Framingham native and sophomore at Stonehill College, stressed the importance of providing aid in a dire economy.

“I receive financial aid, and I would definitely feel the effects if aid was cut,” he said. “And I’m only one of thousands of kids that need this aid to go to school.”

After meeting with DeLeo to express concerns over aid cuts, Torti said a dip in his financial aid would mean racking up high-interest private loans.

“These are tough times, and kids need to go to college more than ever,” he said. “Now (the federal government) is considering cutting aid? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Read more: Students urge state leaders to maintain college aid – Framingham, MA – The MetroWest Daily News http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x1923550920/Students-urge-state-leaders-to-maintain-college-aid#ixzz1FT5NbjVG

MWRA: Clean water is their business, passion

Monday, February 28th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

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Fred Laskey’s eyes grow wide, his hands dance around the air and the corners of his mouth stretch into an excited grin as he explains the effects of groundwater levels on the environment.

Not a particularly riveting subject for most people, but for Laskey, it is the thrill of another day as executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority.

Tall and lean, Laskey has been director since 2001. It’s hard to believe his enthusiasm has remained at a high pitch for nearly 10 years.

“I still feel like I’m the new guy,” he says.

In some ways he is. Established in 1984, the MWRA is charged with providing water and sewer services to greater Boston and updating the technology used to treat and deliver water. Now, the authority seeks to keep up with federal regulations and deliver high-quality drinking water through modernized technology while keeping operating costs down.

Laskey shows the same enthusiasm while taking a tour of the John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant in Marlborough. The plant serves as the heart of the water supply system for Boston and the MetroWest area, treating 200 million gallons of water from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs that supply 2.5 million people per day.

It’s not an inexpensive undertaking. The MWRA racks up $18 million in electric bills, or 8 percent of the authority’s $210 million annual operating budget. So energy conservation is key.

To cut electric costs, the MWRA established a solar panel field at the plant last December. That move is projected to save 6 percent of the $1.2 million in annual electricity costs the authority pays for the Carroll plant alone.

The plant, staffed by about 30 workers, also installed motion sensors in the indoor light fixtures to save additional energy and money.

“Before this, the lights inside were on 24/7,” said David Coppes, director of Western Operations. “Now with the motion sensors, we are projected to save $20,000 per year.”

In the field, the MWRA’s elevation-based engineering has kept costs comparatively low. The 65 miles the water travels begins at a high elevation point in the Quabbin Reservoir and gradually descends until the water arrives in Boston, allowing gravity to push 85 percent of the water. Without gravity, the MWRA would have to invest in more costly pumps, which run on either diesel fuel or electricity.

“This is considered one of the greatest engineering water systems in the country,” Laskey said. “The elevation of the reservoirs is one of the greater advantages we have.”

The system has another natural advantage. The two reservoirs are surrounded by approximately 85 percent of natural wetlands or forest, which reduces pollution and helps keep the water clean before any treatment has started, Laskey said. This makes expensive filtration plants unnecessary.

“We have spent millions of dollars over the last 10 to 20 years to buy and protect land in the Wachusett watershed,” Laskey said. “A fundamental investment is at the source to make sure the quality of the water is good.”

Constantly changing regulations are a hurdle for the MWRA. The federal government mandated the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment, or LT2, rule, in 2006. It is aimed at reducing gastrointestinal illnesses associated with the contaminants giardia and cryptosporidium by requiring water from uncovered reservoirs undergo further treatment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

To adhere to these new regulations and still keep expenses down, the Marlborough plant will install ultraviolet lights to reduce ozone use while treating the water.

“The treatment we selected to meet the new regulations will allow us to reduce the amount of ozone that we add, which would reduce our operating expenses to offset increased operating expenses for the new disinfection,” Coppes said. “So, we’ll end up with two means of primary disinfection, but operating costs won’t increase significantly.”

The Marlborough plant is key to the system, treating water for 48 of the 51 communities the authority services.

“This is the heart of our system, because all the water comes in through here before going out,” Laskey said.

The treatment process starts with creating ozone. Four ozone generators sit in an otherwise empty room the size of a soccer field. The round metal containers stand about 10 feet tall and emit a loud humming as 5,000 volts of electricity are applied to the oxygen inside.

By applying electricity, the oxygen changes into ozone, a highly reactive gas. This gas is funneled through pipes to a water tank under the generators, where the ozone bubbles through the water for 10 to 40 minutes (less contact time is needed in the summer, since the water is warmer).

Afterwards, ozone-treated water receives a secondary treatment, which includes the addition of chloramines to keep the water fresh, adding fluoride to promote healthy teeth, and adjusting the pH level to save copper pipes.

“We want to avoid leeching of the lead (solder at pipe joints) in drinking water, so we have to adjust the pH so that we’re not corroding the copper,” Laskey said.

Overall, the mood of plant employees is upbeat, and they are enthusiastic to share information about their work.

“One of the things that’s clear is that for the folks who work here, it’s not only a job, it’s a passion,” Laskey said. “The need to guarantee the quality of drinking water is very, very important.”

Read more: MWRA: Clean water is their business, passion – Framingham, MA – The MetroWest Daily News http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x945639000/MWRA-Clean-water-is-their-business-passion#ixzz1FGlSO665

Elder-abuse cases on the rise in Massachusetts

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

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BOSTON – Social workers, senior care advocates and lawyers are warning that incidents of abuse are outpacing state programs and funding aimed at protecting the elderly.

“The protective services agencies have to use other funds to supplement what they get from the (Legislature) to make this program work,” Alan Norman, executive director at Massachusetts Home Care, said at a State House forum this week.

Since 2008, Norman said he has seen a 31 percent increase in elder abuse – to 20,000 reported cases last year. Over those three years funding for protective service increased by 1.6 percent.

He said the $15.25 million budgeted for prevention programs this year will likely fall $3 million short.

That money funds services such as an elder abuse hotline, which fields up to 15,000 calls per year, 189 care managers to investigate and help protect seniors and a program to help elders at risk for financial exploitation keep track of finances, Norman said.

Those attending Wednesday’s forum, hosted by state Sen. Catherine Clark and state Rep. Paul Brodeur, both Melrose Democrats, warned that there are many more unreported cases of elder abuse – which can include assault, denial of basic needs and self-neglect.

They cited a study from Cornell University’s Weill Medical College that there are an estimated 24 unreported cases for every one that is brought forward.

Middlesex District Attorney Gerald Leone said while more people report cases of elder abuse to his office, he wants to raise awareness through social programs to prevent abuse before it happens.

“It’s the reported instances we hear about, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “If we can intervene and prevent before the abuse or before it becomes tragic, that’s really what I want to focus on.”

Marian Ryan, senior counsel to the Middlesex district attorney office’s family protection bureau, said adult children who return to the parental home are the number one source of abuse, but are the hardest to prosecute because their parents are unwilling to report their actions.

“For all the reasons we love our children, that doesn’t change when you’re 85 and your 46-year-old son with a substance abuse problem is causing a problem and abusing you,” Ryan said.

Ryan also said that seniors do not report abusers for fear of being taken out of their home.

In an interview, Westborough Police Chief Alan Gordon said he periodically receives reports of senior abuse, especially family members taking money from their relatives. Many cases require extended follow-through by police and social service agencies.

“It turns into a big family fight when (the perpetrators) should be concerned about the elder person’s health and well-being, but they’re more interested in what they can get out of it,” he said.

A challenge the police face is determining if victim-reported abuse is real or possibly imagined because of a mental issue such as Alzheimer’s.

“We’ll get a complaint from the actual person claiming that they’re being denied access to medicine or food or other parts of the house, but when we go over there, everything is right there,” Gordon said. “We take every complaint seriously, but we have to look at all things.”

Senior caregivers also face enormous challenges working in a frustrating environment, said Scott Plumb, senior vice president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which trains caregivers to exercise patience with seniors in assisted living and nursing homes.

“It can be a stressful place because the patients get sicker and sicker, and most caregivers have multiple jobs and can be tired and short-tempered,” Plumb said. “What we focus on is running training programs for direct care workers.”

Plumb said that Massachusetts is the first state to establish an elder abuse offender registry with the Department of Public Health, and requires all geriatric organizations to cross-reference this registry before hiring new employees.

“Elder abuse in the community and economic recessions are usually carefully linked together,” Plumb said. “From our perspective, we take this very seriously.”

Read more: Elder-abuse cases on the rise in Massachusetts – Framingham, MA – The MetroWest Daily News http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x268608620/Elder-abuse-cases-on-the-rise-in-Massachusetts#ixzz1EucXiCIO

State aid to help pay for cleanup of lake milfoil

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

Matching funds from the state and local conservation groups will go toward ridding Lake Cochituate of the invasive aquatic weed milfoil, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation said yesterday.

The $41,000 in grants for the project is part of $1 million in matching funds to improve 32 parks and facilities statewide.The Department of Conservation and Recreation awarded $16,000 to match the joint contribution of $8,000 from the Wayland Surface Water Quality Committee and the Framingham Conservation Committee. The state also allocated $25,000 to the Natick Conservation Commission.

Matthew Gardner, chairman of the Natick commission, said the money will allow Framingham, Natick and Wayland to work toward a common goal.

“It’s been known for a while that invasive weeds in the lakes have been a major issue and we’ve tried to find solutions to it,” Gardner said.

“What the DCR has done is given us the resources to explore some technologies and techniques for removing the weeds.” The groups said the funding will go toward ridding Lake Cochituate of milfoil, an invasive and rapidly growing aquatic weed. Both the Wayland and Framingham organizations will concentrate on removing the milfoil from the North Pond.

Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said the rapidly growing aquatic weed would disrupt recreation – unless more steps are taken.

“So many people enjoy the lake and we want to keep that happening for many years and generations to come,” Spilka said. “If we don’t do anything about the milfoil, eventually the invasive weed will take over the lake and we’ll lose the recreational use, the beauty, and the enjoyment of it.” Carole Berkowitz, clerk of the Lake Cochituate Watershed Council, said that since Natick gets drinking water from the aquifer in the lake, the town supports decimating the weeds without toxic herbicides.

“This remains our focus, but we’re delighted now that we’re working together to find the solutions because it’s one lake for all three towns,” she said.

Mike Lowery, a member of the Wayland group, said numerous commissions and interest groups are dedicated to the lake’s health.
“Lake Cochituate doesn’t know what town it’s in,” he said. “We’re trying to keep all the programs coordinated and working together.”

Communities face billions in debt for workers’ health costs

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

Over the next 30 years, cities and towns in MetroWest will face up to $400 million in unfunded liabilities for retired public employee health benefits, according to a report released yesterday by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

The foundation’s study found that the state’s 50 largest towns and cities carry a total of $20 billion in today’s dollars for unfunded liabilities, which is $5 billion more than had been estimated.

With the other 301 municipalities added into the mix, that number doubles to $10 billion more than estimated.

Framingham, ranked as the state’s 14th largest municipality, has almost $400 million in unfunded liabilities. Marlborough and Natick carry $111 million in debt each, while Shrewsbury is listed as $85 million in the red.

“The Legislature and municipalities face a clear and critical choice: cut back retiree health care benefits to an affordable and sustainable level or see cities and towns sink farther and farther into debt while decimating local services,” the report states.

Each of the municipalities’ unfunded health care benefits are two-and-a-half times more than their unfunded pension liabilities, according to the report.

“With pension obligations already weighing down municipal budgets, communities cannot realistically expect to satisfy both their retiree health care and pension liabilities,” the report states.

The report recommends that those 50 municipalities set aside $1.2 billion annually for 30 years to cover the $20 billion they owe in health care liabilities. The report said all 50 cities and towns are following a pay-as-they-go model, paying current retirees without planning for the future.

“They’re not pre-funding the obligation that they have,” Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said in an interview. “It’s not like it’s just some future hypothetical obligation. These are benefits earned already.”

In order to meet unfunded liability obligations in Framingham, the average homeowner would have to pay an additional $32,282 in taxes over a 30-year period – a 22 percent tax bill increase. Natick families would have to pay $28,059 over 30 years – an 18 percent increase.

Widmer said that to preserve services and to keep towns from going bankrupt, legislation is needed to require retirees over 65 years old to principally rely on Medicare. He also said retirees should be asked to pay larger co-pays for medical treatment.

“We’re not picking on public employees,” Widmer said. “In fact, these recommendations will help preserve the jobs of public employees.”

Framingham Selectman Dennis Giombetti said the report was no surprise.

“We’ve been fighting for health care reform for several years now,” Giombetti said. “It’s been very frustrating to local officials.”

Framingham faces a different hurdle than most towns because of its coalition bargaining, which calls for a separate negotiation of health care benefit packages with a coalition of unions weighted by the number of employees in the union.

Giombetti said Framingham would be in a better position if it could bargain collectively with each union like most other municipalities in the state.

“Right now, the town picks up a large percentage of the health care costs, like about 87/13,” Giombetti said. “Most cities and towns are 80/20 or 75/25.”

Audrey Hall, a Town Meeting member, said Framingham needs the Legislature to act on a petition give the town more power in bargaining with unions.

“I think Framingham has been proactive, but our hands are tied until we have more freedom with negotiating and designing health care packages for all municipal employees,” she said.

Hall supports the report’s recommendation that municipalities be more aggressive in dealing with future obligations.

“If we know increased costs are coming, then we have to plan for them,” she said.

“When the operating budget is talked about and additional spending is considered, the fact that there’s a long looming liability is swept under the carpet,” said Doug Freeman, a Framingham Taxpayers Association executive committee member. “The possibility of this ticking time bomb of long-term health liability could be something that completely throws the budget out of whack.”

Freeman said there was an inevitability that this would happen.

“This is a bill that will eventually come due, regardless of what the state Legislature will do,” he said.

State rep pushes technology with new bills

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

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An area legislator is getting good reviews from medical and technology leaders for a set of proposals that would require electronic medical records and allow corporate meetings and business filings to happen online.

Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, has filed a handful of bills that he hopes will save money and boost the state’s economy by using technology to improve health care and to conduct more business online.

“People do lots of transactions online,” Sannicandro said. “Delaware is attempting to create an industry over this notarization, and people all over the nation use it. I want Massachusetts to get part of that action.”

One of Sannicandro’s bills would require care providers to use electronic medical records, storing a patient’s medical history in one virtual place.

He also wants the state Department of Public Health to come up with a plan to give GPS cell phones to the elderly and the disabled. The phones would have a button to push in case of emergency, in hopes of keeping people out of costly nursing homes.

“If someone needs to go to a nursing home or care institution, that costs about $8,000 or $9,000 per month,” he said. “All the studies show the longer you keep someone living in their own home, the cheaper it is for the government.”

Sannicandro pointed to a similar idea in India, where the government provides the SOS cell phone for $50 per month.

“Each month, (the government or insurance companies) could give 160 people a cell phone for every one person that is kept out of a nursing home,” he said.

Dr. Alice Coombs, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said using electronic charts would help streamline care-giving and reduce the costs of unnecessary tests.

“If I have that information from beforehand, I won’t have to repeat tests,” she said. “I might do another test in lieu of that.”

Coombs said the electronic system has countless benefits, such as eliminating fatal prescription drug combinations and saving money on unnecessary or repeated tests.

“It’s optimal to have electronic health care records to summarize history that’s portable,” she said. “There’s no dependency on the patient to recall every single detail.”

But Coombs warned that there may be issues with confidentiality and accuracy with a Web-based system.

Karen Nelson, senior vice president of clinical affairs at the Massachusetts Hospital Association, said she could talk about the benefits of electronic charts for hours.

“In my view, as a nurse and my role in clinical affairs, it benefits the patients by giving safer patient care, safer patient transitions from site to site and safer medication ordering,” she said.

Nelson said the biggest task with electronic medical records would be the process of connecting hospitals to a central system.

“The current challenge is to make sure each organization develops these mandated systems so that they can speak to each other,” she said.

Sannicandro also wants to improve business and stimulate revenue in the state economy by rewriting corporation law to allow companies to file state forms and hold meetings online. His legislation would also allow documents to be notarized online.

Sannicandro said the state would see an increase in revenue by charging fees for notarizing and collecting taxes from online corporations registered in Massachusetts.

“Corporations would locate in Massachusetts because it would be easier to do instead of existing somewhere else, which would generate revenue and jobs,” he said.

James Rooney, vice president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, said he looks forward to taking a closer look at Sannicandro’s bills.

“Massachusetts has certainly been on the cutting edge of technology application in many sectors, and there is certainly an ongoing need to determine how the government can be more responsive to technology developments,” he said.

Property owners urged to help treat water

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

By Jaclyn ReissMetroWest Daily News

Link to article

Businesses and homeowners can save money and help the environment by recycling the water they use instead of dumping it into sewers, say members of a special state panel.

“Not all the water used in a business has to be treated,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, chairman of the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, after the meeting. “The water can stay in that business to water lawns or (for) use in creating or processing the company’s product.”

The 15-member commission established last year by Gov. Deval Patrick has been working on ways to deliver high-quality water in Massachusetts and improve sewer and water systems while saving communities money. The task is made more challenging by cuts in federal funding.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the commission discussed different options to deal with drinking water and sewage.

Tom Walsh, director-engineer and treasurer for the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District, who serves on the commission, stressed that water pollution control and conservation starts with property owners.

“One area that every individual homeowner and property owner can make a difference is in what they do to manage water on their property,” Walsh said.

He suggested using rainwater, personal irrigation systems and greener landscaping practices, using water that need not go through treatment plants.

“Do you really need to have a yard that looks like a putting green on a golf course?” Walsh said. “It would be better off to have native shrubbery and wild flowers.”

Money is a major problem.

Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, said federal funding for water infrastructure projects has decreased dramatically since the 1970s, when federal grants made up about 75 percent of funding.

A treatment plant upgrade in Westborough is costing $64 million. Upgrades to two plants in Marlborough will cost $100 million.

All three plants needs upgrades to reduce the level of phosphorous dumped into the Assabet River.

“It’s absolutely an important environmental need,” she said after the meeting.

Although Westborough received $7 million from federal stimulus grants to help fund the upgrade, Eldridge said the rest of the money will come from property taxes and the state’s revolving fund, which provides loans to towns and cities.

The commission is also looking to offset costs associated with treating polluted runoff from water that cannot be absorbed naturally by the ground.

“If you are a commercial developer…and you’re paving over certain space, all the water coming down on that pavement runs off into a grate, river or stream, and is not absorbed naturally,” Eldridge said. “One of the questions we asked is, should we figure out a way to charge a fee if you’re paving, that would help pay for the cleanup of that water?”

Eldridge said the commission also discussed technical details of towns borrowing money for upkeep of pipes. He said they also talked about decentralizing large sewage treatment plants and treating water directly on site.

Dykema said maintaining the state’s quality water will benefit more than the environment. Clean water could attract companies specializing in scientific research and products, creating jobs and boosting the Massachusetts economy.

“Those companies are water-dependent, and they require gold-standard, world-class, high-quality water,” she said. “We need to invest in these water systems and manage them, from an economic standpoint.”

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