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Budget presents 'tough choices among miserable options'

Date: 2/17/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

HOLYOKE -- The empty table at the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce luncheon had a sign denoting it was reserved for staff members of the Holyoke Geriatric Authority (HGA). It was still empty by the end of the program and Gov. Deval Patrick's speech.

In an otherwise welcoming appearance, the empty table was a mute criticism.

After a tour of the Peck Middle School, Patrick spoke about his state budget and the impact of the newly signed federal stimulus package on Massachusetts at the standing-room only luncheon at The Log Cabin.

Patrick didn't mince words about the current economic woes, which he called a "deep recession." He listed the symptoms of the problem: unemployment in the Bay State at 6.9 percent, decreasing tax revenues and banks that have resources but are not lending them.

He faces working on a final budget with the Legislature that will see reductions of aid to cities and towns.

"These are tough choices among miserable options," he said.

He believes, though, an upswing will come. "We will cycle out of this," he said.

The issue facing the state will be that the decisions it makes now will position it for that turn-around, he added.

Noting that he has not yet had the time to thoroughly analyze the 900-page-plus federal stimulus legislation, Patrick stumped for support for his legislative agenda, which includes eliminating the telephone pole tax exemption, passing the local option meal and hotel tax, and raising the statewide meals tax by one cent. These measures, he said, would offset most of the cuts he has made to local assistance.

He said the federal stimulus package would not be enough to support municipalities through the economic crisis.

He also said that municipalities should consider buying their employees' health insurance through the state to save money and that efforts to seek regional solutions between communities should be made.

Patrick asked for citizen involvement in government. "Policy has to stop being a spectator sport," he said.

After his speech, he took a few questions from the audience. Greenfield Mayor Christine Forgey wanted to know when the states gets the federal stimulus money what funding will be used first and in what way.

Patrick laughed and said, "That's so like a mayor." He then followed with a brief reply, "I don't know."

He noted that the federal emergency legislation to help the home foreclosure crisis has been passed last June, but the states have not yet received any of it to help homeowners. Patrick said he has been told Massachusetts will get its share of the money in April. He doesn't think, though, that kind of delay will accompany this bill.

Although no one at the luncheon mentioned the Associated Press (AP) report of earlier last week the state was considering a 27 cents hike to the gas tax, that was the first question asked by a posse of reporters in a brief media availability after the speech.

When asked, Patrick smiled a bit and said, "I smiled only because the AP saw before even I could see it." Patrick added he had asked for a range of scenarios ranging from increases to the gas tax from five cents to 27 cents.

His charge to transportation officials was to "show me what we can get for every penny." The governor is looking to fund regional transportation authorities, high-speed rail and commuter rail.

He is currently "working my way through them [the proposals]" and said once again any price increase would be accompanied by reform of the state's transportation bureaucracy.

Because the state has yet to release a $1 million bond it promised the HGA in August, 2008, the Authority's administration reported it will close and relocate its 65 residents. The facility also provides off-site services to an additional 65 elderly community members.

Concerning the HGA's closing, he said, "I heard about that today.I don't have answer for you. My team is working on it. We have many, many demands on state resources as you know and many worthy claims on that demand including the one from the geriatric facility. So we have to look at that."

Patrick added he believes there are other funding issues besides the $1 million in question.

Community organizations and members will be holding a protest over the closing, Feb. 18, at 12:30 p.m. in front of Patrick's Western Mass. Office, 436 Dwight St., Springfield.

John W, Bennett, president of Massachusetts Senior Action Council said, "I was born and brought up in Holyoke, and I am dismayed that the Holyoke Geriatric Authority facility is in danger of being shut down, For as long as I can remember, Holyoke has provided a place where the elderly could get affordable care when their families could no longer care for them. In these times when seniors are faced with rising costs for food, shelter and health care, it would be a mistake to shut down this important facility, especially if State funding which could keep the facility open has, in fact, been earmarked for the Authority.

"We must also consider the impact on the facility's workers and the Holyoke economy if 130 workers lose their jobs. In a time when the national focus is on a stimulus package to increase the number of good available jobs, it seems inappropriate to allow this facility to close."