JPNC endorses tax boosts

March 6, 2009
By

John Ruch

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) last week endorsed proposals to let the City of Boston boost taxes as a way to fill budget gaps.

The JPNC also may endorse specific types of tax increases following a private meeting of its Executive Committee.

For Fiscal Year 2010, the state is projecting a budget shortfall of about $3.5 billion, and the City of Boston about $140 million—though a Gazette review recently found that the city cuts could be much steeper than that.

The looming budget cuts are “clearly something that affects all of our committee work as well as the council as a whole,” said JPNC member Mark Pedulla at the council’s Feb. 24 meeting. Pedulla previously suggested the JPNC tackle the budget issue.

For city budget information, the JPNC relied on media reports—particularly from the Gazette—after the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) was reportedly unavailable for a presentation. The MMA is a non-profit organization representing various municipalities.

On the state budget, the JPNC heard a presentation from One Massachusetts, a new network of non-profits, unions and similar organizations that aims to share resources and advocacy—particularly, advocacy for increasing the state budget. Much of its info came from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a budget-transparency organization.

The One Massachusetts presentation was given by project director Yawu Miller, who is also a journalist at the Boston Banner and a former JPNC member. Miller previously gave the same presentation to the Hyde Square Task Force, a local non-profit that employs Pedulla and JPNC chair Jesús Gerena.

Miller’s focus was on tax cuts as a problem and tax increases as a solution—especially a 1 percent boost to the state personal income tax rate.

Miller said that while it is “convenient” to focus on the current disastrous economy as the source of budget gaps, “We’ve also cut taxes in Massachusetts more than most states.” Massachusetts taxation rates are now below the median of state taxation rates nationwide.

Without an income tax boost, Miller said, “Quite frankly…I don’t know how they’re going to plug that hole in the budget.”

He noted that many proposed solutions are short-term, such as federal economic recovery assistance and dipping into the state’s rainy day funds. Program and staffing cuts could be devastating, including to Boston Public Schools.

There are also proposals for new revenues, Miller noted, but most of them are “regressive”—meaning flat taxes or fees that disproportionately affect lower-income residents. Another state initiative is hiring more tax auditors. “So watch your backs, guys,” Miller joked.

The City of Boston has its own tax-raising proposals, including 1 percent restaurant-meal and hotel taxes and a tax on telecommunications company property, such as utility poles. These are so-called local-option proposals because, under a system widely criticized as out-of-date, Massachusetts municipalities need state permission to institute their own taxes.

The idea of an income tax increase appeared to raise some interest on the council. But it was also viewed as a long-term policy change, especially since the most recent income tax reduction was mandated by a successful statewide ballot question.

Miller said One Massachusetts also advocates for easy-to-understand budget information and a more positive view of government. “Good government is often invisible to folks,” he said.

The JPNC agreed to endorse giving the City of Boston the ability to implement local-option taxes of some sort. “Local option” means that the government has the ability to institute the tax, but is not required to. “The state has to give us the right to raise those revenues,” said Pedulla. The endorsement, which will be sent to all members of the Boston legislative delegation, passed with no opposing votes and one abstention.

Another motion to endorse any or all of the specific local-option tax proposals drew questions and opposition. In practice, however, the motion was not much different from the first, because local-option taxation is tied to specific proposals.

“It’s a regressive tax,” said JPNC member David Baron, chair of the council’s Zoning Committee, of the meals tax idea. “It’s also a cowardly tax for exactly that reason. It affects people who are not organized to fight and resist it.” He added that the JPNC should avoid creating an “economic manifesto.”

The JPNC eventually agreed that the Executive Committee will consider endorsing some of those specific tax-boosting ideas, but that it would require a unanimous committee vote. Baron, who sits on the Executive Committee, abstained from the JPNC approval vote for the idea.
Election and other business

The JPNC decided that its election will be held sometime in June and that it will last two days as usual. A proposal for holding the election in May to coincide with the popular Wake Up the Earth Festival was shot down in a close vote as not offering enough preparation time.

The JPNC continues to have two membership vacancies—one in Area A (Hyde/Jackson/Egleston squares) and Area B (central JP). No candidates presented themselves at the meeting.

Michael Reiskind, chair of the Public Service Committee (PSC), said the PSC will name a nominee to the citizens advisory committee being formed by the city for the Centre and South streets redesign project. He expressed displeasure over receiving a nomination notice from the Boston Redevelopment on Feb. 23, though it was dated Feb. 6.