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State auditor says infrastructure spending can rescue western Massachusetts

A white woman with glasses stands behind a podium smiling
A new report from the office of Massachusetts State Auditor Suzanne Bump urges more state spending on infrastructure in the four western counties for the sake of regional equity.

Bump to urge use of some ARPA funds for western Massachusetts projects

The Massachusetts State Auditor is urging investment in what she calls a “rural community rescue plan."

In a newly-released report, State Auditor Suzanne Bump makes a case for the state to spend funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the state budget surplus, and other sources to repair crumbling roads, bridges, and culverts as well as renovate or replace outdated municipal buildings throughout western Massachusetts.

“Now we have this golden opportunity that we’ll never have again to finally invest in these communities,” said Bump speaking with reporters in advance of the release of the report Tuesday.

Speaking with reporters in advance of the release of the report Tuesday, Bump said as a consequence of decades of slow economic growth, declining population, demographic shifts, and state government policy that has focused on commercial centers communities in western Massachusetts have lacked the resources to take care of their public infrastructure.

Bump was scheduled to testify Tuesday at the last of the public hearings state legislators planned to hear from stakeholders on how to spend the state’s $5 billion share of the federal ARPA money.

“And if we don’t act right now, for those of us who care about the future of western Massachusetts, the picture is not a rosy one,” said Bump.

As a longtime former resident of western Massachusetts, Bump said she has seen firsthand the uneven economic development – the east-west divide – and the consequences of it.

“We need this kind of investment in order to reverse the trend of declining property values of declining populations and make it easier for commerce to be conducted,” Bump said.

While not making a specific recommendation on how much ARPA money should go for infrastructure projects in western Massachusetts, the auditor’s report endorses a proposal from the Massachusetts Municipal Association to increase the state’s annual appropriation for local road projects, known as Chapter 90, from $200 million to $300 million.

Bump said the Chapter 90 funding formula, which was put in place in the 1970s and is based on population, should be updated.

“As a matter of regional equity, this report advocates for this increased investment in our western region,” said Bump.

To prepare the report, the auditor’s Division of Local Mandates sent surveys to officials in 101 municipalities in the four western counties and received 45 replies, said Ben Tafoya, the head of the division.

The report includes several examples of deteriorating public buildings such as the police headquarters in Pittsfield and the Deerfield Regional Senior Center. To assist communities to repair or replace public buildings, the report recommends the legislature create an agency modeled after the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Additionally, the report urges the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to continue working at “all deliberate speed” to bring high-speed internet to nine rural communities where it does not yet exist and to work to improve the reliability of the network.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.