By Seth Daniel
With the Mystic/Tobin Bridge and the Boston skyline in full view, the Everett High School (EHS) Library provided a tremendous backdrop on Monday for a serious discussion of the state’s economic development prospects and State Budget outlooks as State Sen. Sal DiDomenico and State Rep. Joe McGonagle co-hosted a State Budget hearing at EHS for the second straight year.
As the chair of the Joint Committee on Ways & Means, DiDomenico is charged with hearing numerous state officials and cabinet secretaries outline their yearly budget requests – as well as give legislators a report on the progress made in the previous budget.
For the past two years, DiDomenico has acted with Rep. McGonagle and Supt. Fred Foresteire to make Everett High a temporary State House hearing room – engaging EHS as a site to host one of several budget hearings. This past Monday, State Housing Secretary Jay Ash – formerly the city manager in neighboring Chelsea – reported to EHS to talk about his proposed budget.
With more than 20 senators and representatives in attendance, DiDomenico inquired chiefly about whether any funds for his department were in jeopardy due to the new administration in Washington, D.C.
One of the biggest questions, Ash said, was affordable housing tax credits – a common incentive tool used by the state to help affordable developers get financially tricky projects off the ground. Ash said he would be going to Washington this week to make an official inquiry.
“We are encouraged to hear there will be a major infrastructure package put out,” he said. “We are certainly concerned about tax reform and how that might affect tax credits to support affordable housing is uncertain. I am going down Sunday to meet with the Commerce Secretary.”
He said they have heard reports that some people who invest in such tax credits are now paying more than the credits are worth. He said there is uncertainty in the air around that very productive tool, and so investors could begin to shy away.
In other areas, Ash reported that they are looking to spread out more major development outside the core of Boston. He said Gov. Charlie Baker has prioritized spreading out development from Boston, and that might be happening more and more.
“There are big developers expressing interest all the time about Boston and Cambridge – about 75 percent of my conversations with big businesses are about those two places,” he said. “We are also introducing those businesses to other places around the state…I can say there are three or four major, major entities right now looking outside the core of Boston, which to me is very good news. From day one, the governor has said we need to stretch out economic development across the state. I’m optimistic we will be able to deliver on that.”
Ash’s overall budget, he said, was up about 4 percent, to $525 million. He highlighted that the state was just named the No.1 state in the nation by US News and World Report.
A major success, he added, was that his department was saving money on things like placing homeless families into hotels and motels, and putting that money to better use on services to support those families.
He said when he came into his position two years ago, there were more than 1,500 families sheltered in 47 hotels and motels across the state.
“We are now down to using just two hotels and motels and there are under 70 families housed in them,” he said. “By the end of fiscal year 2017, we expect to be out of the hotel and motel business for good.”
Instead, they have been able to use state funding to move those families into permanent housing. The $14 million in money formerly used on hotels and motels, he said, has been re-directed to services to help support those families.
“We’re taking money we’re saving on homelessness and re-directing it to provide additional supports to families who need housing,” he said.
One of the most noted requests in Ash’s budget was lowering the average median income (AMI) for those in state housing voucher programs from 80 percent of AMI to 50 percent.
Ash said doing that would help those on vouchers be able to work more steady jobs without fearing the loss of their housing assistance.
“This is an effort by the administration to help families on (the voucher program) to go out and earn more money and not worry about losing their housing benefit,” he said.
State Rep. Joe McGonagle said he felt that was a very good request.
“I want to thank you for that request because that is something that is really going to help a lot of people,” he said.
Budget hearings will continue throughout the spring, with a final adjusted budget usually coming out of the Joint Committee in the summer.
Everett students ambassadors were ready to assist lawmakers and others attending the hearing. (L-R) Kiana Alexis, Kelvin Vasquez, Marcus Fonseca, Ana Resinos, Alyssa Rocha, and Jessica Carbalho.
Jim Henry from Sen. Sal DiDomenico’s Office, Court Officer Paul Dooley and Matt Laidlaw during a break in the action.
With state cabinets officials testifying about their budget request, State Sen. Sal DiDomenico and State Rep. Joe McGonagle played gracious hosts in the Everett High Library. Supt. Fred Foresteire gladly welcomed back the state budget hearing to Everett High once again.
State Sen. Sal DiDomenico jokes with Housing Secretary Jay Ash during Monday’s meeting. When Ash was the former city manager of Chelsea, he and Sen. DiDomenico often worked closely and carry on that collegial relationship.
State Housing Secretary Jay Ash (right) and Deputy Secretary Carolyn Kirk outline the successes they’ve had in no longer using hotels and motels throughout the state for emergency housing shelter for families. By the end of fiscal year 2017, Ash predicted the state would be out of the business of housing homeless families in hotels and motels.