Proposed Lee gas tax faces uncertain future in Statehouse
LEE — The town apparently has a long road to hoe convincing the state Legislature that Lee should have a local gasoline tax to help pay for millions of dollars in repairs and maintenance to its bridges and roadways.
Both the municipality's home-rule petition and a proposed statewide local gas tax face an uphill battle, according to state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
"The language is exactly the same in both, but the Legislature is not going to do one without the other," he said. "I'm not sure either will pass."
Pignatelli noted lawmakers usually aren't keen on passing legislation that raises fees and taxes during an election year — even bills targeting a specific community.
"The fear is if we allow for one, we'll have to let them all in," he said.
Last fall, Pignatelli filed the home-rule petition on Beacon Hill that would allow Lee to charge up to an additional 3 cents per gallon of gasoline sold in town. In a parallel move, he proposed a municipal gas tax bill that would allow all 351 cities and towns across the commonwealth the option of enacting their own gas tax, forgoing the need for special legislation.
Unlike the rooms and meal tax, state law doesn't permit a municipality to enact a gasoline tax on its own.
In Lee, local gas tax revenue generated by the eight gas stations in town — including two on the Massachusetts Turnpike — would be put toward the nearly $40 million it could take within a 15-year period to overhaul the town's entire road and bridge infrastructure, according to local officials. The statewide legislation also requires all local gas tax revenue be spent only on roads and bridges.
If the home-rule petition is approved by the House and Senate, Lee voters would have the final say at the ballot box. Annual town meeting voters in May 2015 authorized the Board of Selectmen to seek legislative backing for the gas tax.
"I understand people might be upset by another tax," said Lee Selectmen Chairwoman Patricia Carlino, "but the roads and bridges and their problems won't go away and we have nine bridges we are responsible for."
According to local officials, Lee would have to spend $1.8 million for each of the next 15 years to complete all necessary road repairs and repaving — a $27 million price tag. In addition, Lee has four bridges in need of a serious upgrade or replacement at an estimated cost of $11.8 million.
Pignatelli formally defended the local revenue stream option, noting that Gov. Charlie Baker's proposed $200 million in Chapter 90 funds — municipal highway aid — falls short of the estimated $600 million needed just to properly maintain local roads and bridges, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
However, Marblehead-based Citizens for Limited Taxation has told Pignatelli that voters in the November 2014 statewide election feared a gas tax increase related to the Consumer Price Index.
"He would have discovered that Question 1, which tied gas tax increases to the CPI, was defeated 53 percent to 47 percent," the lobby group stated in a press release. "We know the representative is tone-deaf when it comes to the taxpayers ... however we at least thought he would accept the results of a statewide ballot."
However, Berkshire state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing says cities and towns have too much catching-up to do from years of deferred road and bridge work.
"One way or the other we have got to break out of a 20-year drought of under investing in our infrastructure," he said. "We've put off on the road work long enough."
Downing and Pignatelli realize the gas tax option isn't for every community, but with Mass Turnpike gas stations within their borders, Lee, along with Charlton also filing a home-rule petition, couldn't resist tapping into those cash-cows.
Charlton Town Administrator Robin Craver views the local gasoline tax as a supplement to — not in lieu of — Chapter 90 money.
"[The local gas tax] would help offset new EPA mandates for storm water management as well as help road and bridge repairs," Craver said in an email to The Eagle. "The local option gas tax will help put resources back into the budget for deferred maintenance."
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.
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