Plenty of cause for taxpayer outrage these days
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, March 11, 2010

As a taxpayer activist, I often get calls from reporters who are looking for comment on various issues. My favorites are those from investigative reporters who have discovered something that no one else yet knows, because I get to be outraged before anyone else.

Last month a crew from FOX25 News came to tell me about the recent increase in state spending on food. The "FOX Undercover" report had found that since 2007, the state's food bill has jumped to nearly $22 million, including "close to $2 million in catering bills alone in 2009."

Since many of us are paying closer attention than ever to food costs, we might understand how the Department of Corrections spends a lot to feed its prisoners. Less defensible, on the other hand, is the half-million dollars spent on catered food for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education which has nothing to do with school lunches "for the children."

After the FOX report, a memo was sent from the Patrick administration to all cabinet secretaries, telling them to "refrain from purchasing non-essential goods and services until further notice ..."

What shocked me, though, was the fact that the governor's office itself spent $4,500 last year on catered food that included "more than 100 cookies, danishes and other sweets," and that "Massachusetts spent close to a half-million dollars on bottled water." What? Our state government is spending taxpayer dollars on fat, sugar and dangerous, plastic-encased liquids?

President and Mrs. Obama, make them stop, before they drive up the cost of health care!

My televised statement was to the effect that I thought the state had gotten over "the bottled water thing." Didn't we ratepayers fund all those improvements in the Quabbin-to-city delivery system so that we could drink water from our faucets?

A government spokesman responded that "we don't have tap water in the Statehouse." What?!

The government responses are always the best part of these investigative reports.

The next reporter who came to interview me was from WCVB-TV, which was investigating state mosquito-control commissions. The station was meeting resistance, however, from officials who said this was a Homeland Security matter.

What? Terrorist mosquitoes?

I had always thought that mosquito spraying, in communities that do this, was the responsibility of local boards of health, perhaps with some financial assistance from the state. Who knew that there are nine mosquito control projects in Massachusetts, none of which answer directly to the cities and towns they work for, and, according to Channel 5, "can spend in virtual secrecy."

And how much do they spend. Well, according to the TV report, it amounts to $10 million a year, including over $96,000 on trips to conferences in mosquito-ridden places like Reno, Atlantic City, and, of course, Orlando (checking out Mickey Mosquito?). Workers at Plymouth County Mosquito Control attended eight conferences in a two-year period; as many as 18 workers went to one of them.

The Plymouth County mosquito superintendent told Team 5 that the trip was necessary for licensing, but later said that was not correct.

When they are not at conferences, project employees work full-time in Massachusetts, where mosquitoes are a problem for maybe four months.

The Northeast Mosquito Control's nine workers, based in Newburyport, can occupy their time driving their 23 trucks. But Bristol Country Mosquito Control workers are keeping busy suing the state for trying to stop their pay raise.

The Legislature recently passed a law, according to Team 5, giving these projects "the right to hire and fire whoever they choose and increase their salaries whenever they want."

Gov. Patrick vetoed this legislation, but legislators overrode his veto. Don't we have a state budget crisis?

These investigative teams and others report news items about state waste every week. Before those about the catered lunches and expensive mosquito trappers, I was asked to comment on legislators' per diems and federal tax breaks that double-cover their travels to and from the Statehouse. Beacon Hill Roll Call discovered that for several decades, "the W-2 tax forms received by thousands of former and current legislators have not included millions of dollars" in state money used to pay their daily travel expenses.

A reporter called to ask about proposed local-option income taxes in Lexington. Had to object to that: Taxpayers in Lexington may be masochists, but something like this could spread to other communities like the local meals tax has.

Speaking of which, I've been asked to comment on the increase in the statewide, 6.25 percent meals tax to 7 percent as a matter of local option. All I can say is that I'm going to miss eating in Peabody and Beverly. Thanks to a Town Meeting voting rejecting the tax, however, I can still go to Papa Gino's and Brothers in Danvers.

I'm so used to this stuff that I sometimes tell reporters that if they can't reach me before deadline, just quote me as saying, "That's outrageous!"

But sometimes it's beyond outrageous; it's obscene.

Got a call from a reporter last week telling me that the state "fee" on self-paying nursing home patients has increased from its original $9.60 in 2002 to $19.17 per day. Yes, that's an almost $7,000-a-year penalty for not being on Medicaid and a burden to the commonwealth which, by the way, is cutting payments to nursing homes this year.

Maybe I should just stop answering the phone.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Lowell Sun, Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.

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