and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

A CLT Work-In-Progress

The Brockton Enterprise
June 16, 2004

An Enterprise editorial
More workers for corrupt court system

The Massachusetts court system has just hired 130 new court officers to beef up security around the state.

If people think this is a good move, they don't know anything about how the patronage system works in Massachusetts. But maybe this fact will help: More than half of the 1,300 applicants for the jobs had recommendations from politicians or judges.

The man in charge of the hiring, Robert A. Mulligan, said all the new employees would be hired on merit ó but we would like to know how many applicants with recommendations from Senate President Robert Travaglini or House Speaker Thomas Finneran did not get jobs. We also would like to know how many of the officers will be sent to Springfield and other courts that can actually use the help and how many will be sent to the Boston Municipal Court to gather cobwebs and watch the pensions grow.

If there is a true need for more court officers, no one has proven it to us. A report issued two years ago revealed that court caseloads had not increased in eight years, yet costs had soared by 79 percent.

These new court officers will not come cheap. Mulligan said it will cost $5.2 million, yet there is no money budgeted for them. Mulligan said he is confident (wink, wink) that the Legislature will come through with the cash.

Of course it will. The job of court officer, while vaguely necessary, has always been known as a patronage post. It is a hangout for a senator's unemployable brother-in-law or a rep's layabout cousin. These are not positions that do much to improve the quality of life for residents in Massachusetts or for anyone who spends time in a courthouse.

The problem is that, unlike in most other states, the Legislature has too much control over the court system. Every now and then, the Legislature makes budget cuts ó or at least threatens to make cuts ó to show the judges who is boss. That leads to the hiring of legislators' relatives, buddies and hangers-on to ensure the money keeps flowing. It is a poor system that Gov. Mitt Romney has tried to change, so far with little success.

There is not much doubt the Legislature will approve the $5.2 million for the new hires. How can the pols go home and explain to their wives or husbands that Cousin Jimmy will have to get a real job instead of doing crossword puzzles at the courthouse? The way the system is set up, the politicians, judges and court workers all win. The only people who lose are the millions of taxpayers who support this corrupt system.

The Boston Globe
December 21, 2004

Price tag $150m for top court makeover
By Andrea Estes, Globe Staff

With some court buildings around the state crumbling, the Commonwealth is spending $150 million or more to reconstruct the Old Suffolk County Courthouse, with lavish quarters for the Supreme Judicial Court and Appeals Court, including all new furnishings amid marble, mahogany, and meticulously restored millwork.

The 1894 building, which was renamed the John Adams Courthouse in 2002, is set to open for court business next month, and a gala dedication ceremony to be attended by Adams biographer David McCullough and US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is scheduled for March 31.

No expense was spared in renovating the building, which is on the state and federal registers of historic buildings. Architects had to extensively rework the spectacular Victorian, classical, and French Empire building in Pemberton Square to meet modern construction standards. Already the project's huge price tag and the building's limited use have sparked criticism from some lawmakers and court insiders.

"It's completely shocking that the tremendous expenditure of money on one spot could be done at the expense and need for adequate facilities for people in the outlying counties, such as mine in Bristol County," said state Representative James H. Fagan, a Taunton Democrat and chairman of the House Post Audit and Oversight Committee.

"I don't begrudge them fixing the old courthouse, but it seems to me the price they're doing is so extravagant and extraordinary to at least raise some concerns that projects that need to be done to deliver service to people who need them are not getting done," said Fagan, who said the Taunton courts are the most run-down in the state.

The project, overseen by the Supreme Judicial Court, has defenders who say that rescuing a once-grand building that had fallen into a grim and dank disrepair was more than worth the cost

"The building was neglected for many years," said court spokeswoman Joan Kenney.

It was "woefully outdated and lacked any technology," she said. "Now the John Adams Courthouse is once again a Massachusetts treasure, historically preserved, restored, equipped and fully accessible for the public of this generation and future generations."

Critics complain about the spiraling cost and gleaming offices of SJC judges, which were refurbished, refurnished, and outfitted in marble, granite, mahogany, and leather. Since the renovation was first funded in the early 1990s, its price has snowballed. Originally estimated at $40 million, construction costs increased to $96 million by the time the project was put out to bid in 2001, said officials of the state Division of Capital Asset Management.

In the past four years, the total cost has jumped from $124 to $146.6 million. That number could grow higher still when outstanding disputes with the contractor are resolved, officials said.

The rehab of the granite Adams Courthouse, the facade of which appeared as a backdrop in the television series "The Practice," was supposed to be completed more than a year ago, but extensive structural repairs delayed construction, according to project engineer Stephen Needham.

The slate roof leaked, for example, and had to be extensively reconstructed. In addition, the front sidewalk had to be cut to accommodate a handicapped-accessible entrance. Outside the building's many balconies, a network of mesh wire was installed to keep away pigeons.

Inside, the 350,000-square-foot building was gutted and then rebuilt. The elaborately painted ceiling in the lobby's atrium was cleaned, repaired, and restored by artisans working atop staging and scaffolding nearly 75 feet high. The cleaning alone took six months, officials said.

Fourteen layers of paint were stripped and the walls repainted in colors that matched the originals. Decorative borders were exposed and recreated. Throughout the building, original oak woodwork was refinished.

Justices were each given an office or office suite, with their choice of furnishings, a small kitchen, and individual bathrooms.

In the deliberation room, where the SJC justices will decide their cases, a conference table faces one of the building's many fireplaces. An original nickel chandelier hangs over the table, matching sconces that encircle the room.

The spectacular main SJC courtroom is entirely new. Panels of makore, a reddish mahogany, line the walls, and a colored glass skylight overhangs the chamber.

The state also paid for the Social Law Library, a private nonprofit that previously had been housed next door. It opened earlier this month on two floors, with 77,000 linear feet of book space, twice its previous size. Its bookcases, many of them lit, are new, and the librarian's counter is travertine, a marble prized for its beauty.

In addition to restoring the building, the state spent millions updating systems and wiring the building for computers. Some court proceedings will be digitally recorded with built-in cameras and can be broadcast over the Internet via streaming video.

Some court officials say the state is spending too much on a building that will be used by the SJC and the Appeals Court, while most of the public have more contact with probate and district courts, relocated to a new building on New Chardon Street.

"It's an absolute disgrace," said Suffolk County Register of Probate Richard Iannella. "When the state budget has been cut by millions, why do they need to build a museum? We need courthouses where people can work in every day. As president of the Mass. Registers Association, I'm very concerned. My colleagues are working out of rundown buildings across the state. I don't understand why we need to build such an elaborate building for such a small group of people."

Kenney said the building is designed to be more than a courthouse. It will open for tours, displays, and special events, with a focus on Adams, who wrote the Massachusetts Constitution.

"The John Adams Courthouse will be a vibrant, living monument to John Adams," she said. "Working with education organizations, such as Discovering Justice and the Freedom Trail Foundations, we are inviting teachers and students, and visitors of all ages, to observe the appellate courts in action and to learn about the role of the judicial branch and the rich legal history of Massachusetts."

State House News Service
January 4, 2005

Cities and towns not shopping for bank service values,
IG report says
By Michael P. Norton

Massachusetts cities and towns often establish bank services agreements without written contracts, leaving them with higher fees and without protections afforded to larger customers, according to the results of a survey conducted by the state inspector general.

Based on information obtained in the survey of municipal treasurers, Inspector General Gregory Sullivan has also determined that many cities and towns do not regularly review the cost and quality of banking services arrangements or put the services out to bid with the hope of securing more favorable terms.

"While municipalities have remained loyal bank customers, it is questionable whether they have been receiving the best value in return," according to the report. "Based on our survey, it appears that municipalities assume they are, but do not know for sure."

The December 2004 report is based on results of surveys sent by Sullivan's office in November 2003 to all of the state's 351 cities and towns. According to the report, all municipalities responded in some form.

Based on the survey, roughly one third of the state's cities and towns are not complying with the state's Uniform Procurement Act, or Chapter 30B, which requires all municipalities with more than $5,000 in banking contracts to seek multiple bids for their services, Sullivan said. But the majority of local treasurers were unaware of the law's requirements, according to Sullivan. "This was an education problem more than anything else," said deputy inspector general Neil Cohen, who helped write the report.

In response to the findings, which draw parallels to a 1985 inspector general's report that cited poor bank account management practices by municipal treasurers, Sullivan is offering a new set of guidelines as well as detailed summaries of the state laws governing municipal banking services and procurement. The report also offers municipal treasurers a sample banking services request for proposal.

According to the report, the state treasurer's office has saved $1.5 million on fees since it re-bid its $35 billion of business with the former Fleet Bank when the bank merged with Bank of America last year. Sovereign Bank now handles that portion of the state's business. By contrast, an unnamed municipality claims it maintains more than 150 accounts, raising questions about excessive fees.

And the city of Somerville cut its fees by half, or $35,000, after recently putting its banking services out to bid. "A lack of competition, more than any other single factor, may promote and perpetuate waste and abuse in procurement," the report says.

"Any time you provide competition you're going to save money," said Jack McCarthy, senior assistant inspector general.

Nils Nordberg, executive director of the Massachusetts Collectors' and Treasurers' Association, which worked with Sullivan's office to conduct the survey, disagreed with some of the findings. He said "one of the most popular misconceptions" is that cities and towns have long-standing relationships with banks, preventing them from testing the market.

"People respond to the market," Nordberg said. "By far the majority are out there doing a good job shopping around and finding a good deal for their city or town."

Nordberg said he is concerned with the costs and benefits associated with switching banks and making other changes to a municipality's order of business, recommended in the report. "How much time, energy and staff do you expend in order to save money?" he said. "If you do every single thing, it may cost more money than what you could save."

The survey also found that many treasurers were not able to locate their procurement files, raising questions about inadequate record keeping and the potential for audit problems. The report recommends that municipalities always establish written contracts for banking services, review banking service agreements regularly and put banking services out to bid every three years.

Nordberg said the association conducted three education forums for local treasurers and collectors during the last year to help officials learn better banking practices. And while he said many local treasurers have been "eagerly looking forward" to the inspector general's guide, he predicted "a very small number" will be concerned with the survey's findings.

The Boston Business Journal
January 14, 2005

Can 'conservative' stimulus plan make a difference?
As state's $100M package rolls out,
diffuse investing strategy may offer minor returns 
By Craig M. Douglas and Alexander Soule

Officials this fall began distributing funding from a $100 million bill to stimulate the commonwealth's technology sector, but admit they are still formulating details on how the kitty will ultimately be apportioned -- even as Beacon Hill lawmakers prepare for a follow-up package in the coming months.

The money was set aside in late 2003 to counter the economic downturn, as well as fend off other states clamoring for Massachusetts businesses. But unlike tech stimulus packages in New York and California, the commonwealth has chosen a conservative approach to recharging its economy, distributing small grants and loans to a wide number of researchers and programs.

The strategy and measured pace of investment has raised questions about the stimulus bill's impact on the local economy. As state officials ponder how to spend the stimulus funding, the questions emerge: Has the state been too cautious and diffuse in devising its plan, especially when compared to some other states? And is it trying to do too much with too little?

Moreover, some voice doubts about the state's ability to successfully operate in an arena historically dominated by seasoned investment professionals.

To date, two agencies have been tapped to disburse the funds, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and MassDevelopment. A $20 million "university" fund was created to spur local research clusters and matching federal grants, while another $15 million was set aside for "regional" investments across Massachusetts' diverse landscape. Another $25 million was earmarked for equipment and facilities loans to growing businesses. The bill's remaining $40 million price tag comprises several smaller technology initiatives and tax savings passed on to businesses, plus administrative costs.

Advocates say the state has added a critical "toolbox" to help spur the economy, and the availability of the funds will drive the discovery of new technologies. To date, however, the state's fund managers appear to be gently dipping their toes in the fiscal waters.

"The nature of public innovation investment is fraught with all sorts of issues," said Donald Dubendorf, chairman of the John Adams Innovation Institute, which was created to disburse funds under the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative in Westborough. "Any time you think about innovation, you are trying to make judgments about a mystery. You can make safe bets, or drive outcomes and take chances."

The MTC oversees two of the stimulus bill's investment funds, a total of $35 million that will be dispersed over the next five years.

The JAII committed its first major investment last month -- a $5 million matching grant to a nanotechnology program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

UMass Lowell researchers, however, had already accomplished an impressive cluster-building campaign on their own -- securing $12.5 million in federal grants with Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire, and forging partnerships with the private sector. MTC, however, says it played a critical role in attracting those funds.

Another $4.2 million in equipment and facilities loans have supported expansion plans at two publicly traded companies: Watertown-based Acusphere Inc. (Nasdaq: ACUS) and Needham's Avant Immunotherepeutics Inc. (Nasdaq: AVAN). Those funds flowed from a $25 million Emerging Technology Fund managed by MassDevelopment Corp., a quasi-public promoter of economic growth.

When the $100 million stimulus package was passed in late 2003, lawmakers rallied around the need to improve Massachusetts' sluggish economy. But in the months since its passage, the vast majority of funding has yet to be doled out.

And some support could be headed toward longer-term projects that have little to do with delivering an immediate life raft to local businesses. In a business plan published in September, JAII outlined potential projects far afield from direct economic stimulus, including a program to distribute laptop computers to middle-school students in Berkshire County.

Such talk raises the hackles of the state's watchdogs.

"You are seeing lots of weird stuff in this bill -- this was a political project from the beginning," said Stephen Adams, chief executive of the Boston think tank Pioneer Institute, a supporter of the Romney administration's veto of the bill in 2003, which was subsequently overridden. "Remember, this was not a long-term bill -- this was an emergency spending bill. It is supposed to be creating jobs immediately that would not have otherwise been created."

Tough competition

Rather than diffusing state dollars and focus, New York officials chose in 2001 to create six so-called centers of excellence throughout the state, and after a few years can point to tangible results.

The Pataki administration committed $50 million to a Buffalo center for bioinformatics, creating computers and software capable of analyzing massive amounts of information produced in human genome research. The center locked in $150 million more from other sources, including $13 million from Dell Inc. to create what was at the time the world's third-largest computer.

And an equivalent state commitment in Albany for a "nano-electronics" center won a $100 million commitment from IBM Corp. The Albany center later lured a Japanese company to site a chip research plant in Albany, and influenced U.S. chip consortium Sematech Inc. to also open a facility there.

"That was a very different attempt to do something with public money than what we are trying to do here," Dubendorf said. "New York got lots of very concrete outcomes -- new bricks and mortar, new labs, new jobs -- they bought new capabilities. It was not so much risks on technologies -- they took risks on business plans."

California boasts success with an investment strategy that seems to parallel the Massachusetts stimulus bill. California has distributed 250 technology innovation grants since 1999 averaging nearly $300,000 each, and for its $72 million spent to date, the state says it has created or kept 19,000 jobs.

But California has also shown a willingness to throw all of its weight behind major initiatives, such as a centers of excellence program similar to New York's and the recently passed $3 billion stem cell research bond bill.

And Florida officials recently dangled $300 million to lure the Scripps Research Institute in California to open a Florida life sciences campus.

With a $1.5 million investment set to close in Worcester and another 14 projects valued at $9.5 million in the pipeline, MassDevelopment says its $25 million Emerging Technology Fund, or ETF, will support successful business that are ready to move from the "workbench to the manufacturing floor." The deliberate investment strategy offers the state a low-risk investment vehicle that will immediately trigger job growth and economic activity within the state -- precisely the stimulus bill's objective, says Robert Culver, MassDevelopment's president and CEO.

"The way to think about it is that the Legislature and the governor viewed this to be a responsible response. It didn't burden the commonwealth with additional debt and it comes with the invitation to be reassessed within a few years' time," he said. "The strategy, it seems to me, was to cooperatively develop a tool box we could apply to emerging technologies."

However, the ETF's two official announcements -- a $2 million facilities loan to drug maker Acusphere and a similar $2.2 million loan to vaccine maker Avant -- went to publicly held companies with immediate access to capital. In fact, shortly after securing its MassDevelopment loan to renovate a new facility in Tewksbury, Acusphere notified the Securities and Exchange Commission of its intent to register and possibly sell $100 million in debt and equity securities.

Culver said MassDevelopment has created an advisory committee of technology and public policy experts to review each investment, both before it is made and several months after it has taken effect. Likewise, MTC has established a 23-member board to govern its two funds and establish measurable goals for each investment, but the board met for the first time only in December.

Supporters say the feedback they have been getting has been positive, despite the fact that little money as been allocated. And lawmakers have taken notice.

A spokeswoman for state Sen. Jack Hart, a Democrat from South Boston, said the senator is orchestrating a "listening tour" among local technology firms and universities to collect ideas for a possible follow-up to the original stimulus bill, which he co-authored. As chair of the Senate's Science and Technology Caucus and a member of the Commerce and Labor Committee, Hart has heard "good things" from the field and is considering ways to "recapitalize" some or all of the funds in the first package, the spokeswoman added.

Hart's follow-up plan is expected to be formalized in the late spring or in the fall.

But not everyone is on board. Critics say the first round of funds should be invested and the results tallied before the state makes additional forays into these unchartered waters.

"Why don't they finish that process before they come back to the taxpayers?" said Barbara Anderson, who heads Citizens for Limited Taxation in Marblehead. "Harvard degrees can't figure out the direction the economy's headed, but the Legislature does. They're going to pick the winners and losers in technology. It's hilarious. The only thing you can do is laugh."

The $5 million UMass Lowell grant satisfies one component of the original law -- that JAII commit a major grant to the northeastern region of Massachusetts. It must do the same for the southeastern part of the state, and Dubendorf said the group would make a decision in less than six months.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has already attracted a significant ecosystem of ocean science organizations, and would be an obvious target for funding to help those groups chase federal funding, said William Guenther, president of Boston-based Mass Insight Corp.

Other cluster-support grants can be made at JAII's discretion. Guenther speculated they might be used to support attempts in Worcester or Springfield to create health technology clusters, or expand the University of Massachusetts Amherst's new Security, Emergency Preparedness, and Response Institute.

"Establishing a state match fund was our No. 1 legislative priority over the past three years," Guenther said. "We are very optimistic based on MTC's work in setting up the fund and their careful way of approaching this. We would have been concerned if all the money was spent in the first 12 months. ... These kinds of new collaborations won't happen overnight. Just the fact these funds are out there has encouraged all sorts of conversations that weren't happening before."

The Boston Globe
Monday, February 14, 2005

Staffing problem in courts is cited
Study pinpoints many disparities
By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff

Plagued by years of mismanagement and patronage hiring that resulted in wild disparities in court staffing throughout the Commonwealth, state trial court leaders say they finally have a tool to help end an era of waste, inefficiency, and cronyism.

A new nine-month staffing study, led by the nonprofit National Center for State Courts, appears to back what critics have said for years: that even with a significant personnel shortage in the court system overall, major disparities exist in the staffing levels of individual courts.

Despite years of reform attempts, the study indicates, some courts have as little as 60 percent of the assistant clerks, secretaries, and other support staff they need, while others -- including some of the most politically connected -- are overstaffed by nearly 50 percent.

"It's a major breakthrough," said retired Dorchester District Court Judge James Dolan, who coauthored a 2002 study that indicated that the courts spent more than $50 million on unnecessary patronage hires over a four-year period. "Everybody claims they need staff -- it's a universal. Now, for the first time, this says objectively who does and who doesn't."

Overall, the new report suggests that, given the current total caseload, the system needs 387 more full-time staff members.

Yet it also found that the courts' existing resources are poorly distributed: Franklin Superior Court, for example, had 187 percent of the staff necessary for its caseload, while a busy court such as Holyoke District had just 61 percent of its necessary staff.

Dolan said the new study backs up a 2003 report by a blue-ribbon panel headed by Boston College's chancellor, the Rev. J. Donald Monan, which recommended that the courts be run more like a business.

If Dunkin' Donuts knows exactly how many employees it takes to bake a day's worth of doughnuts, Dolan said, why can't the probate courts know exactly how many workers it takes to process a divorce?

"Everybody, in one form or another, is trying to bake doughnuts," Dolan said.

The chief justice for administration and management, Robert A. Mulligan, who commissioned the study, said he would immediately put the results to work by diverting funds from other areas of the judiciary's budget to hire 100 staff members to work in courts where they are most needed.

Three of those new workers, Mulligan said, will go to Holyoke District Court, which has 11 full-time support employees but needs 18, according to the report. The other positions will bring the court up to 78 percent of its optimal staffing, Mulligan said, as a start.

"Prior to this model, our decisions were based on anecdotes and on perceived needs," he said. "Now we have a rational basis on which to make these decisions."

But Mulligan said that he would not use the report to transfer unwilling workers from overstaffed courts to understaffed ones, saying he would instead use attrition and hiring to gradually even staffing levels.

A spokeswoman for Governor Mitt Romney, who has been critical of patronage in the courts, said the administration was studying the report.

"The governor is always looking for areas to achieve efficiencies in state government, including in our courts," said spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman. "We look forward to reviewing this report."

The study authors broke down the functions of workers in 116 individual courts into thousands of individual tasks, determined the time it would take a trained employee to complete them, and applied the results to the current caseload of each court.

They then compared the optimal staffing level of each court to the current level.

Mulligan also said he would use the results to bolster the judiciary's budget request for fiscal year 2006 when he appears later this year before the Legislature's joint Ways and Means Committee.

In the past, lawmakers have blunted criticism of their patronage hiring and micromanaging of individual court budgets by contending that court administrators could not be trusted to spend their money wisely or efficiently.

Court reform proponents said yesterday that lawmakers will now be hard-pressed to justify adding staff in their districts if it's not needed.

"Under the old system, individual courts could come in [to the Legislature] and make a case for more staff in the abstract, without any standards," Dolan said. "And in the absence of standards, whoever could make the best case to the most influential party would get the resources."

State Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty, chairman of the Legislature's joint Committee on the Judiciary, said he expects lawmakers to continue to have a voice in court staffing decisions, despite the new report.

"It's not going to be the answer to everything -- there is going to be some latitude and some flexibility to make individual decisions," said O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat.

"There has always been good communication between local courts and local representatives, and that is going to continue," he added. "It's an important aspect of our government, and at the end of the day we decide where the resources go."

The Boston Herald
Monday, March 14, 2005

MBTA workers take taxpayers for a ride
By Charles D. Chieppo

The MBTA has been back in the headlines lately, with outgoing General Manager Michael Mulhern announcing the layoffs of 33 managers and administrative staff, elimination of weekend Night Owl bus service, and proposing rate increases at some of the Tís commuter parking lots. The cuts are in response to a $16 million budget shortfall this year and a projected $10 million deficit for next year.

Mulhern blames the budget problems on rising health care and fuel costs, and lower than anticipated revenues from the state sales tax. Under legislation enacted in 2000, the T gets 20 percent of the commonwealthís sales tax revenues.

There isnít much we can do about fuel costs and sales tax revenues, but health care costs are a different story. MBTA retirees pay no health insurance co-pay. The result of such generosity is that the T spent more than $41 million on retiree health care last year.

Before you accuse me of being hard hearted, remember that MBTA employees can retire with a generous pension package after 23 years of service. Not only are taxpayers and riders paying the full cost of health insurance for a number of healthy retirees, but weíre likely to continue doing so for a very long time, since many of them are in their 40s. If the T could charge retirees a reasonable 15 percent co-pay, it would save $4.9 million Ė nearly a third of this yearís budget deficit and about half of next yearís proposed shortfall.

Active MBTA employees donít have it so bad either. Union workers only pay a 15 percent health insurance co-pay. State (as opposed to authority) employees pay on a sliding scale ranging from 15-25 percent depending on salary level. The 25 percent co-pay that is standard in the private sector would save the T $4.8 million.

The Tís overall health care budget for the coming year is expected to be a staggering $103 million. I guess it could be worse; at Massport, both active employees and retirees have no co-pay.

Sadly, health care is just the beginning of the story. Legislation passed in 1995 took away the Tís control over employee assignments. Schedules, work locations, and often promotions are based solely on seniority. It is a system that values showing up (sometimes) rather than excellence.

As Iíve noted in the past, MBTA efficiency also falls victim to the commonwealthís anti-privatization law, which all but eliminates the Tís ability to open any of its operations to private competition. More than 11 years after its passage, Massachusetts remains the only state in the nation with such a law.

This most recent budget crisis is yet another reminder of the need to stop expanding the system until fiscal stability is achieved. The T has seen more expansion than any other major American transit system over the last 15 years. Since revenues only cover about 30 percent of costs, itís no surprise that we face a sea of red ink.

Parking rate increases are the one bright spot in the recent announcements. Though usually a T rider, I recently found myself forced to park in downtown Boston lots twice in the same week. Each stay was for three-and-a-half hours or less, and the tabs came to $30 and $31, respectively. Iím still recovering.

While I donít wish that experience on anyone, it is reasonable to expect commuters to ease the Tís financial burden by paying more than the $2.50 per day charged at some lots.

Recent layoffs and cuts are just tinkering at the margins, but itís all the MBTA can do. The one thing free health care, lack of control over employee assignments, and the inability to utilize competition to get the best service for the lowest price have in common is that theyíre all mandated by statute. Itís time to free T management from these shackles and give them the ability to manage.

The Cape Cod Times
Friday, March 25, 2005

Pension reform call revived
By Kevin Dennehy, Staff writer

After former University of Massachusetts president and political lightning rod William Bulger tried to fatten his $200,000 state pension in 2003, Gov. Mitt Romney seized the moment to push state pension reform.

It went nowhere.

In 2004, state lawmakers didn't even consider a proposed reform package included in Romney's budget, and a year later the governor has seemingly given up on the pension reform fight.

And now, even as several Cape lawmakers slam a system that allowed a retired colleague to parlay his part-time elected position into a richer state pension, no one is doing anything to close the loophole.

Former state Rep. Thomas George, a Republican who retired in January after eight years in the Statehouse, boosted his annual pension from $11,000 to $35,741 because of his three decades as Yarmouth moderator, a town job that requires just a few days' work a year.

Barbara Anderson, executive director of the Citizens for Limited Taxation, said the issue is simple: Legislators won't touch it because it's their pension.

And it won't happen now, she said, because lawmakers are feeling a post-election strength given that many of Romney's "team reform" candidates failed in the November elections.

"The voters had the chance to give him the tools he wanted," she said. "And they didn't."

Sweetening retirement pie

George is hardly an isolated case. Across the state, an untold number of workers are eligible to use part-time elected offices to sweeten their retirement pensions.
The state does not calculate how many people are eligible for such benefits or how much it costs the state, but each year taxpayers cover shortfalls to the retirement system - this year to the tune of $1.2 billion.

The entire state budget this year is about $22.5 billion.

Some Democrats say Romney's push to change the pension system fell flat because he politicized the controversy over Bulger, the former Senate president and influential Democrat. Others say Romney's people simply knew there wasn't political will out there to make it happen.

State Rep. Jeffrey Perry, R-Sandwich, said Romney's pension reform proposal never even reached the floor.

"The governor proposed it and we never got to vote on it," he said. "And that's not uncommon. ... I think that does us all a disservice.

"I think it's worth exploring, maybe speaking to members of my caucus and see whether it's worth another crack."

Most Cape lawmakers contacted this week, in fact, said the George story exposes an expensive problem for the state.

On top of his eight years on Beacon Hill, George was credited with another 26 years of service because of his tenure as moderator, a job that essentially includes running town meeting and making a handful of appointments.

That service - which has earned George from $115 to $500 per year since 1973 - boosted his annual pension from about $11,000 to $41,968, though he opted not to take that much. The three decades of employment, regardless of what he earned, pushed George into the highest pension bracket. His pension equals 80 percent of the average of his three highest earning years.

George opted for a smaller pension to assure survivor benefits for his wife, who would receive about $22,000 annually if she survives him.

It's legal. According to state law, retirees are allowed to count their years on part-time municipal boards, as long as the positions include a salary, no matter how small the sum.

That includes town moderators, selectmen, aldermen, city councilors and school committee members. Each part-time year is considered a full year when it comes time to figure state pension benefits.

Highest salary counts

Regardless of one's earnings through a career, the only salary that counts at retirement is the average salary of the earner's three highest-earning years.

For instance, George's pension is based on an average salary of $52,456, even though the majority of his service was a job that paid no more than $500 annually.

In the meantime, George also had a career as a lawyer and real estate broker.

While state officials don't track how often this happens, there are numerous other scenarios.

In another high-profile case, for instance, William Monahan of Belmont was appointed by Romney to chair the Civil Service Commission, an $80,000 position. While Monahan eventually resigned from the job, he would have been eligible for a $54,000 pension had he lasted three years, as he'd already spent 24 years as a Belmont selectman.

In fact, the Legislature is populated by dozens of former town selectmen, including five state representatives from Cape Cod alone, all of whom also have or had full-time jobs in their chosen fields.

State Rep. Matthew Patrick, D-Falmouth, knows there are some taxpayers who'd oppose giving full-time credit for those serving on a part-time board of selectmen.

But he defends that aspect of the law, since the office of selectman requires untold hours of work year-round, including weekly meetings, weekend cramming and phone calls at all hours.

He knows because he was a Falmouth selectman for seven years. He plans to include that on his state service.

"If we do any revisions, I would make it a point that some of these part-time positions wouldn't qualify," Patrick said. "Maybe for selectman, a year would qualify as a half-year (of service). But town moderators? That's a long shot."

Tinkering supported

Ralph White, president of the Retired State, County and Municipal Association of Massachusetts, said any reform to the state pension system is up to the governor and the Legislature.

But at the same time, he said, "I'm not sure, on a prospective basis, we would be opposed to changing it. Because it has been an issue and people have taken advantage of it."

George admitted this week the system probably could use some tinkering. He said he'd even support some of the efforts floated by Romney last year.

Romney pushed for specific changes to the pension system, including:

l  Not allowing employment "perks" such as state cars and housing allowances to be counted as income when calculating pension benefits.

l  Eliminating a loophole that allows a retiree who worked only one day during a calendar year to claim a year of service.

l  Creating a pension cap that more fairly reflects an employee's earnings, and not just the three highest-earning years.

"The governor filed a proposal and the Legislature did not act on it," said Shawn Feddeman, a spokeswoman for the Romney administration.

State Rep. Shirley Gomes, R-Harwich, remembers Romney's pension reform being mentioned during a meeting of Republican lawmakers early last year. But then, she said, she never saw it again.

As for filing a bill herself, "I think I might if I hear interest from my constituents."

Gomes was a Harwich selectman from 1987 to 1994, when she was elected to the Legislature.

Taking the long view

State Sen. Robert O'Leary, D-Barnstable, said it's worth examining, but added, "It's not my focus. I'm chairman of Higher Ed."

O'Leary served on the Barnstable County Commission for 14 years, but also worked as full-time professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay for many years.

Rep. Demetrius Atsalis, D-Hyannis, said problems with the pension system should be considered, but not if it guts the whole system, including the pensions for full-time workers.

But he said it's tough for a representative to take up the cause when there are other issues, and they've only got a couple of staff people. He was elected to the Legislature in 1998.

Perry, a Romney supporter, says he'd look at pension reform, but worries that he'll be wasting his time.

If it's not even going to come up for a vote, he said, what's the point? "I don't know if we'd be spinning our wheels or not. I don't like to do things just to do them."

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