A bunch of maps about property taxes

There was a post recently on a Facebook group, Hello Holyoke!!! [sic] where someone complained that the city’s taxes are the highest in the state (spoiler – they’re not, though they are relatively high). Many others bemoaned the high tax rate, and blamed it for failing businesses, empty storefronts, and blighted mill buildings. This post inspired a lot of passion, vitriol, and bile from those who commented (pro-tip: once the number of comments on a post exceeds 20, it’s best not to read them).

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Facebook post on taxes. 

I don’t know too much about tax policy, and especially about municipal tax policy. That post got me interested in looking to see what tax rates are like across the valley, and how the various communities fall. Fortunately, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue has a really handy table showing all municipal tax rates, and so of course I made some maps.

Taxes Across the State

First, a comparison of taxes across the state. Property taxes are based on what’s called the “Mill Rate,” or taxes per $1,000 of assessed value. For example, Holyoke has a residential mill rate of 19.17. That means that our tax rate is 0.01917% of the assessed value of our house.

Res_rate_statewide
Residential Mill Rate
comm_rate_statewide
Commercial Mill Rate

Interestingly, most communities have just one property tax rate. A handful, including Holyoke, have a split property tax rate, where commercial property is taxed at a higher rate than residential. I’m not really sure why that is, except that perhaps the thought is that commercial and industrial property is less easily movable? I don’t know but would be interested in finding out.

Anyway, you can see that residential tax rates are lower inside Route 128, near Boston, and higher in the rest of the state. Commercial tax rates, on the other hand, are all over the place, though they do seem to be higher in the higher-population urban areas.

Those two maps, of course, are only showing the tax rate – not the actual amount of money being paid in taxes. Property values are WAY higher in the Boston area, so even though the rates are relatively low, the tax bills are still relatively high.

tax_bill_statewide
Average Residential Tax Bill. Some communities, like Boston and Cambridge, are missing. That’s just a quirk in the dataset I was using. 

Taxes in the Pioneer Valley

I also got curious about how Holyoke compares to our immediate neighbors. So let’s take a look.

res_rate_pv
Residential Mill Rate
comm_rate_PV
Commercial Mill Rate

The two maps above confirm that Holyoke’s tax rates are relatively high – though generally on par with Westfield and Springfield, two of the other largest communities in the Pioneer Valley. But property values in these communities are pretty low.

PV_Med_home values
Median Residential Property Value. Source: 2016 American Community Survey

So, with low property values, even a high rate doesn’t translate into especially high property tax bills. You can see this in the average residential tax bill.

PV_ave_tax_bill
Average Residential Tax Bill

Of course, this is just the residential tax bill. As shown above, Holyoke has a very high commercial tax rate – actually, the third highest in the state after Holbrook and Pittsfield (side note – where is Holbrook?). Regardless, commercial property values in Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield are also relatively low, meaning that the relatively higher rates probably still don’t translate into a disproportionately high tax bill compared to surrounding communities.

Thoughts on Economic Development

Now for the policy deep dive. The real question, of course, has to do with tax rates and economic development – that’s what the guy who posted was really complaining about. I don’t pretend to be an expert on economic development or tax policy, but it does seem to me that there are a lot of places in Massachusetts that are expensive to do business, and yet business is booming.

Kendall Square in Cambridge has some of the most expensive property in the world, but is a power-house commercial district nonetheless. Despite the sky-high cost of developing or renting property, Fortune 500 companies locate there because they have Harvard and MIT a stone’s throw away to pull talent from. They have ample high-end housing and restaurants and bars. And they have bike paths and the Red Line and the Charles River Basin. The cost of doing business, including local taxes, doesn’t seem to be a major impediment.

Indeed, the Urban Institute wrote about taxes:

Taxes are a consideration in business decisions about location, but they are not the only one. Although firms welcome tax incentives, availability of transportation and low labor costs more often drive business decisions about expansion or relocation. Corporate site selection professionals rank the availability of skilled labor and adequate land and infrastructure higher than they rank tax policy.

At a macro-scale, taxes appear to have a fairly tenuous connection to broader economic performance. The Brookings Institution put together this chart during the most recent debate on slashing the corporate tax rate:

brookings tax chart
Federal tax revenue (left) seems fairly unrelated to per capita GDP (right).  

Yes, taxes shouldn’t be any higher than they need to be (of course!). But economic success depends on so much more than the mill rate – Holyoke and the rest of the greater Rust Belt would be well served to remember that quality of schools, quality of life, and quality infrastructure are all crucial ingredients to effective, sustained economic development.

PS –  That’s where high-tax Holbrook is.

holbrook

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Upcoming Panel Discussion: Two Pieces of Advice for Graduating Seniors

Tomorrow (Thursday, 3/1), I am going to be speaking at a panel discussion at Hampshire College, How to Be Div Free: Building a Career as Unique as Your Education. This panel will focus on perspectives and advice for the transition between college and professional life. Since I was thinking about what advice I am going to give to these college students, I thought I would go ahead and write a blog post.

3.24_smallPoster2018
Instead of Freshman, Sophomore, etc., Hampshire has three “Divisions.” The term “Div Free” is slang for post-graduation. Also, my name should read “Price Armstrong, AICP.” Oh well.

 Keep Learning

The motto of Hampshire College is Non Satis Scire, which means “To know is not enough.” The whole concept of the school is that the process of pursuing knowledge is just as important as attaining the knowledge itself. The leaders of tomorrow aren’t made by memorizing multiplication tables; the leaders of tomorrow ask the difficult questions and dedicate themselves to finding answers.

My first and most important piece of advice is to push yourself to continue learning. Read blogs, twitter feeds, magazines, books – read a lot, especially on subjects related to your field. Just keep reading. Fluency in your domain is crucial to nailing a job interview, a happy hour with colleagues, or being able to string together a coherent memo.

Just as important, perhaps even moreso early in your career, is to continue learning the crunchy technical skills that are valued in your field. After I graduated from Hampshire, I took time to learn several computer skills which are relevant to the planning profession (Excel, Word, GIS, Adobe Acrobat Pro) and then some which are less common in planning but still useful to know (R Statistical Software, python, SQL, Adobe Illustrator and InDesign).

Periodically I’ve had down time at work to dedicate to this type of learning. More often, I’m squeezing these online classes into my nights and weekends. Even though it’s not the most exciting use of a Wednesday evening, I’ve found it essential to making myself professionally competitive.

Sell Yourself

The second piece of advice is to sell yourself. My dad once told me, all of life is buying and selling. When you’re at a job interview, you’re selling your skill set, your knowledge, your dependability, your affability. When you make a pitch for a promotion or raise, you are selling why you are an essential part of your company and why they should work to keep you on board. If you are an entrepreneur or free-lancer, then the need to sell yourself is even more obvious.

To that end, a few notes on how to sell yourself:

  1. Don’t be bashful – In your resume, cover letter, and job interview you need to be assertive about why you are the best candidate for the job. Because humility is a virtue that is drilled into us from a young age, doing this is really uncomfortable, so I suggest practice interviews.
  2. Be specific – Reference specific work products, projects, or programs you’ve worked on. Start a personal blog or volunteer for programs related to your job. Whatever you reference should demonstrate the great work you could be doing for that firm. Specific stories about these experiences are even better.
  3. Look the part – The first interview I ever had, a housemate thankfully told me that I should wear a tie and slacks. Thank God she did, because I would have looked like a total schmuck otherwise in my flannel and cargo pants. Presentation and first impressions are important.

A key skill in selling anything is haggling. If you get to the point that they offer you a job and salary, you should always try to negotiate up. I remember one time I got the call after an interview, “We would like to offer you the job, at a salary of $XXXXX.” I remember writing on my notepad, “OMG $XXXXX!!!!” and, at the exact same moment, saying, “This is great, but is there any wiggle room on the salary?” Just by asking the question, I was able to negotiate the pay up by almost 5% more than what they originally offered.

Salary negotiations are uncomfortable, especially when you’re just starting a career. Again, this is something you should practice if you’re worried about it. A good place to do that is at a flea market, where you can do actual haggling. Just like in salary negotiations, a market seller expects to go back and forth on a price. I usually get 10% – 15% off my flea market finds just by asking the question, “Is there any wiggle room on this price?” Remember – whether on the phone with a potential employer or at the flea market, the worst they can ever say is, “No, final offer.”

Upcoming Panel Discussion: 3 Ways to Take It to The Man

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As some of you may know, I’m pretty engaged in the bicyclist community. I serve as the Vice Chair of the Holyoke Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Co-Chair the Steering Committee for the River Roll and Stroll (a very cool open streets event in its second year) and also volunteer as a Bicycle Maintenance Instructor at the Holyoke Urban Bike School.

A general effort woven throughout my life is trying to improve biking conditions, certainly a consequence of being an almost-daily rider since I was 18. I even did it professionally as the Programs Director for the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike) from 2011 to 2014. Since then, I’ve worked in the public sector, first for MassDOT and now for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority. So I’ve seen both the nonprofit and the governmental sides of transportation planning.

This Saturday, I am going to be putting that decade-plus of experience to use at the MassBike 2018 Advocacy Boot Camp, an event where bicycle boosters from around the state can learn and network with other folks who want to improve bicycling. The title of my panel discussion is “Mass Mobilization: Working Within the System,” and I’ll be talking about how advocates can engage with public sector staff to further better biking conditions.

Here are three points I plan on making at the panel on Saturday.

1. Throw Their Own Policies in Their Faces

Bike advocates should feel like they have the wind at their backs in Massachusetts. That’s not to say that all fights will be easy, but there are many things going in our favor. For example, MassDOT released a Project Development and Design Guide in 2006 that prioritizes biking and walking facilities in roadway design. One of the most powerful arguments an advocate can make is that, for state roadway projects, MassDOT engineers need to stick to their own design guidance. Many municipalities also have Complete Streets policies – hold municipal staff accountable to the policies their own town/city has adopted.

Be polite. But don’t let them off easy if they are violating their own guidance.

2. Get Letterhead

Public sector professionals, especially those who engage the public frequently, have to deal with what I will generously call “zealots.” These are people who have a pet cause and, at every opportunity, speak at length to that cause. They will corner public employees, electeds, and anyone else to discuss their issue for extended lengths of time.

They undermine their own credibility by being so fanatically focused on their one issue, when public employees have to balance a number of competing issues at the same time. One way to avoid this pitfall is to instill the sense that, when you are advocating for better biking, it’s not because of a personal obsession, it’s because you represent a movement.

As one advocate put it (I’m paraphrasing), “I thought one day, ‘Hey, it’d be cool to have a bike path on this old railroad right of way. So I put together a website, Friends of the Community Path. Next thing I knew, a local newspaper picked up the story of a new grassroots movement that had formed and was demanding a new community path. And I got an email from a local elected official who wanted to talk to the group’s president.”

So get letterhead, a logo, business cards, a website, and anything else that will help to legitimize your cause when you talk to decision makers.

3. Don’t Wear Stinky Day-Glo

The stereotypical image of a bicyclist usually involves a lot of day-glo and lycra. I have been to so many public meetings where at least one attendee is a dude wearing his bike clothes, freshly sweaty from his 15 mile bike ride to get to said meeting. It may not be fair, but that first impression is probably not a good one. And then, after assaulting the olfactory senses of the planner or engineer running the meeting, you make your pitch for why bike facilities should be included.

It’s an uphill fight.

Instead, an advocate should consider taking the bus to the meeting, or maybe arrive early with a change of clothes and a stick of deodorant. You want these planners and designers to see you as a peer, to see themselves in your shoes. And, believe it or not, most people will go their whole lives without donning day-glo for an hour-long bike ride to get to a semi-professional meeting.

Public Employees Count on Advocates

In the end, any public sector employee who cares about the work they’re doing really depends on advocates to help them do their jobs. Even though civil servants should be apolitical, their work is still directly impacted by elected leadership. Mayors and City Councilors give policy direction which the staff is carrying out. So we depend on advocates to make the phone calls, write the letters, and show up to public meetings to demand that we do the right thing.

Without effective advocacy, we’ll keep getting the broken post-war urban development model that has failed our cities in so many ways. The most enlightened and dedicated civil service won’t change that without advocates backing them up.

Mapping Generation Screwed

An article recently came out from the Brookings Institution, The new economics of jobs is bad news for working-class Americans – and maybe for Trump. In the first paragraph, the article points out two startling facts:

  1. “Americans with college degrees can account for all of the net new jobs created over the last decade.”
  2. “[The number of] Americans with high school degrees or less who are employed, in this ninth year of economic expansion, has fallen by 2,995,000.”

Using household employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they put together this useful, jaw-dropping, table of employment statistics.

job losses_gains

If you look in the first red square, you will see that people with a high school diploma or less lost nearly 4.5 million jobs during the recession, whereas people with a college degree gained over 4.3 million jobs.

During the recovery, people with a high school diploma only gained back 1.4 million jobs. Those with a college degree gained an additional 7.5 million jobs on top of the 4.3 million gained during the recession.

For those without a college degree (there are about 38 million of you, and more every day), there are actually 3 million fewer jobs available to you today than in 2008. For those with a college degree, there are about 12 million more jobs for you today than ten years ago.

So what does this mean for those young people entering the workforce without a college degree today? Unfortunately, they are Generation Screwed.

Graduation Rates and Advancement to College in Holyoke and Springfield

The chart from Brookings shook me to the bones. I volunteer at an after-school program in Holyoke, working largely with kids from low-income households and who attend Holyoke Public Schools (which are so underperforming that the state took them over). A lot of these kids are smart, motivated, and energetic – but it’s impossible not to see the huge structural obstacles they face to graduating and attending college.

For example, I can think of two teenagers I’ve worked with who have shown a shockingly low level of literacy, struggling to spell basic words. If you make it to the 9th grade but can’t spell the word “bike,” then can you image trying to write college essays in just two or three years?

It is impossible to overstate how heartbreaking it is to see these talented young people struggling against such a fierce headwind. School only gets harder as you get older – low literacy turns from something you can bluff your way through into a crippling liability. Inability to do basic math (like order of operations) keeps you from ever advancing to Algebra II, let alone into the STEM fields we so desperately need more students in.

And if, through some miracle, these young people make it to a 2- or 4-year institution after graduation, the academic and social support needed to navigate this even more intense academic setting is daunting. Academics expect you to be able to write a coherent essay, to be able to type and email and print out assignments, to be able to present yourself appropriately (e.g. wear a tie) when you’re supposed to (and they expect you to know when you’re supposed to wear a tie).

To put an exclamation mark after the obstacles these kids face, let’s look at some maps:

graduation Rate
2016 Graduation Rates. Data Source: Mass Department of Education

Above is a map of school districts. Some school district data is missing, but you can clearly see a pattern here – Holyoke and Springfield have graduation rates under 80%. Holyoke’s graduation rate is an embarrassing 62%, while Springfield’s isn’t much better at 69%.

Of those who graduate from high school, let’s take a look at how many go on to a 2- or 4-year college program.

college attendance
2016 College Attendance Rates. Source: Mass Department of Education

Holyoke and Springfield are no longer at the bottom of the list; about 65% of high school graduates from both school districts attend college. But when taken as a whole, only two-thirds of high schoolers graduate, and only two-thirds of them go to college – that is less than 45% of high school students in Springfield and Holyoke who will successfully make it through high school to attend college.

The other 55% of kids in Holyoke and Springfield? They are the ones entering the cohort of Americans struggling to deal with 3 million lost jobs since 2008. They are Generation Screwed.

The Other Side of the Coin – Longmeadow and Amherst

In contrast, two of the wealthiest school districts in the valley are Longmeadow and Amherst (Amherst shares its school district with Pelham).

  • In Longmeadow, which has a median household income of over $110,000 per year, 97% of all high school students graduate. Of those, 92% go on to college.
  • In Amherst, which has a median family income of over $92,000 per year, 89% of high schoolers graduate. Of those, 83% go on to college.

About 90% of kids in Longmeadow and 75% of kids in Amherst are entering the cross-section of Americans where employment is booming (college educated), while only 45% of kids only a few miles away in Springfield and Holyoke are doing the same.

This is not to say that everyone in these two communities has an idyllic, perfect life. And it’s not to say that students in these schools don’t work hard to graduate and go to college. But it does demonstrate the last point that I want to make – today, your ZIP code predicts a lot about your economic success in life.

The Geography of Escaping Poverty

I just read an article on CityLab about the different things we as a society should do to help people escape poverty. In that article, they published this map from the Urban Institute showing rates of upward mobility. While economic mobility is bad in this country, it’s really bad in some regions.

upward mobility
Source: The Urban Institute, via CityLab

If you look closely, the Pioneer Valley can be seen in western Mass as a bright orange blob, indicating the worst upward economic mobility in the state.

So what can we do?

Well, the CityLab article highlights these things:

  1. Get families with young kids out of impoverished neighborhoods
  2. Humanize poverty
  3. Give the poor better information on available resources

There’s a lot more good insight on this issue which I don’t have room to go into here, but I highly recommend checking out the article.

Political and Social Consequences

 

In the end, it’s clear that the American economy has left behind whole swaths of our fellow Americans. Education is a key factor, but wrapped up in all of that is class and race. Inequality and poverty are pressing problems, and ones that are only going to grow until we get serious about addressing them.

Until then, as the Brookings article suggests, we should continue to expect political turmoil and growing resentment and social divisions. People vowing to tear down the status quo – a status quo which is terribly broken for so many Americans – will gain ever more traction.

And this isn’t something happening in far-off corners of the country like Appalachia or Detroit – you can find it right here in the Pioneer Valley. And so we can and must begin to fix it, right here, in the Pioneer Valley.

Two Keys To Getting Bus Riders

The other day, I was at a meeting in Springfield, MA and a city planner asked me the question, “What are you [the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority] doing to attract new bus riders?”

His question was spurred on by a lot of things happening in Springfield that would benefit from having more people ride the bus – the development of the MGM Casino in downtown, bringing thousands of more people in the congested city daily; the recent adoption of the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan; increased interest in transit from the local Pedestrian and Bicycle Committee; the pain of the last round of cuts to the bus system, and the looming threat of yet more.

ghg reduction targets
Springfield GHG Emissions Reduction Targets. Source: PVPC

As I formulated an answer, I was reminded of something that David Block-Schachter, Chief Technology Officer at the MBTA said on a panel a few months ago. In response to the question of, “How do you improve the customer experience for bus riders?”, he responded with something like (I’m paraphrasing):

“You know, riding the bus is pretty unpleasant. You get to the bus stop and maybe it’s too hot or too cold out, or raining. You stand there waiting for the bus to come and hope it’s not locked in standing traffic. You get on the bus and you’re shoulder to shoulder with strangers, some of whom might be coughing or sneezing or smelly.”

Since then, Elon Musk has raised the ire of many transit professionals for voicing largely the same points. At a tech conference earlier this month, he said (via Wired):

“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”

“It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

While Elon Musk was using this criticism as a basis for dismantling public transportation, Block-Schachter used it as a launching pad for ways to improve the customer experience. He explained ways that transit agencies can reduce the bad parts about transit and enhance those reasons why, despite the “pain in the ass” of doing so, millions of Americans take transit every day.

Toward Better Buses

Despite the obvious problems and annoyances that come with riding transit, people still do so, and indeed do so every day. Why? Well, here is why I ride the bus:

  1. I save a bunch of money by taking the bus or biking (I wrote about that here – roughly $5,000 per year)
  2. I help the environment by not driving.
  3. I get to read on the way to work.
  4. Occasionally I get to chat with a coworker who also rides the bus.
  5. I hate driving.
  6. I hate parking.

I’d like to think that those reasons are enough to convince most people to bike, walk, or take the bus to get where they’re going, but alas, 88% of workers drive to work in the Pioneer Valley. So how can we make the bus more attractive?

The Livable Streets Alliance out of Boston has a campaign called the “Better Buses” initiative, which states that a better bus:

  • Provides consistent, reliable service on a network of streets where buses are given dedicated right of way.
  • Improves safety for bicyclists and pedestrians by traveling in specific, predictable lanes with platform-level boarding.
  • Stops at enclosed bus stations that welcome riders with real-time data and device-charging stations.
  • Appeals to all commuters because of its reliability, speed, comfort, and cost.

These are all great suggestions. But I have two other thoughts.

Transit Needs Density (and Vice Versa)

The way we build our cities dictates the level of transit use. Elon Musk is right that most people will always choose to drive themselves because of all the annoying things about using transit. Cities should be designed, from the building density to the roadway layout, to encourage transit if you want people to use it.

Cars are fundamentally incompatible with cities due to simple geometry: cities exist so that people can be closer together to share ideas, and pool resources for things like infrastructure, stores, workplaces, etc. Cars, on the other hand, require that things be spread out so that they can easily navigate at high speeds, and will have a place to be stored (i.e. parking). Cars and people have fundamentally opposite needs, and it’s a simple matter of geometry, not values or opinions.

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A chart showing transit mode share correlated to population density. Source: Greater Greater Washington

Transit Must Be Sexy

 

It’s no coincidence that car companies have ads all over the place showing rugged men in trucks, or attractive Millennials in crossovers, or whatever. Car companies have invested a huge amount of money selling cars as a lifestyle, not just a way to get where you’re going.

I’ve always thought that things like T: The MBTA Musical, or the Twitter account @OptimistMBTA are doing a great marketing job of normalizing the MBTA as the default way of getting around Boston. Sadly, the PVTA doesn’t have any similar level of cultural presence, though could benefit greatly from that kind of media exposure. People need to be reminded of why they should ride transit, because otherwise they’re being hit over the head constantly of why they should be driving.

optimist mbta
@OptimistMBTA Tweets

Of course, cultural cache and urban design aren’t really within the control of a transit agency. I at least have hope for Springfield, however, that some of the issues that are within their control can be engineered to the benefit of the bus service. So many goals, from the economic to the environmental, will be furthered by doing so.

 

**Note: These views are my own and in no way reflect the opinions of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.

A Local Option for Net Neutrality?

There are so many regulatory and legislative overhauls going on right now that it’s pretty hard to keep up. A big one that has gotten a little lost in the shuffle of tax legislation and Russian collusion is the overturning of Net Neutrality rules instituted by the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama Administration.

I’ve been concerned about this because the internet is so crucial to so much of my life. Like basically everyone else, I stream Netflix and have social media accounts and check my email. But so many other devices are network enabled, including our lamps and our thermostat. I download GIS files, Census files, and all kinds of other information for work. It shakes me to the bones to think that my access to these resources could be compromised.

One of the more interesting proposals I’ve seen floating around is that municipalities should create their own locally developed and controlled broadband internet infrastructure. To quote an article from Vice:

Net neutrality as a principle of the federal government will soon be dead, but the protections are wildly popular among the American people and are integral to the internet as we know it. Rather than putting such a core tenet of the internet in the hands of politicians, whose whims and interests change with their donors, net neutrality must be protected by a populist revolution in the ownership of internet infrastructure and networks.

This idea appeals to me a great deal, even if the technical feasibility is unclear. Greenfield already has a non-profit, community-owned broadband provider called GCET. A group in Holyoke has been trying to get the municipal utility provider to invest in “Fiber to the Home” (FTTH) for years now, though the Greenfield model is a mix of fiber and community-wide wifi.

I think like a lot of people, I feel mostly helpless when dealing with federal-level issues. When something is happening that I disagree with, my ability to influence those issues is minuscule. But if there is a solution at the local level, then that inspires a bit of hope.

The GOP Tax Plan Would Hit Massachusetts Hard

There have been so many articles about the ways in which the tax plan coming out of the GOP-controlled Congress is bad for America. To briefly recap:

  1. It raises taxes on the poor and lowers taxes on the rich (here);
  2. It actually raises the federal deficit, which conservatives generally consider the biggest long-term threat to America today (here);
  3. It will do nothing to spur employment growth, but will increase dividends and corporate profits (here);
  4. It raises taxes on the poor and lowers taxes on the rich (here).

I’m sure I left some things out.

Aside from being a Robin Hood in reverse, this tax plan would have probably derailed my education and, thus, my life had it been in effect in 2009. That is for one simple change – tuition benefits for graduate students would no longer be tax exempt. This sounds like not a big deal, but it is.

NPR wrote a story showing exactly what that would mean for an example PhD student. In 2016 this student earned a $30,000 stipend, on which she paid taxes – about $2,500. But under the new tax plan, she would be taxed on both her stipend and the value of her tuition (which is paid for through grants) – about $60,000 total. Her tax bill would then be about $7,500, a $5,000 increase. 

The Massachusetts Angle

This particular change in the tax code is appalling for me on a lot of different levels. Pragmatically, it discourages people to go into the very fields where we need a lot more people – those which require advanced training, such as scientists, engineers, doctors, etc. Philosophically, it punishes low-income graduate students, while people who fly in private jets will get a tax break.

Without going off on a tangent, I do think that issues of free speech and tolerance of a wide range of ideas needs to be addressed on college campuses – specifically liberal tolerance of conservative speakers and events. Richard Reeves published an article through Brookings pointing out that small liberal arts colleges (like my alma mater) are especially bad at allowing conservative speakers to go on stage.

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In red are colleges that have disinvited conservative speakers since 2014. You can see that it tends to skew toward wealthier institutions. Source: Brookings Institute

 

Even more troubling, a recent Brookings Institute poll showed that 20% of college students think it’s acceptable to use violence to silence objectionable speakers. To re-emphasize, 1 out of 5 college students are OK with cracking some skulls if they don’t like what the people have to say.

I suppose it’s unsurprising then when our president said, “I love the poorly educated,” at a campaign rally. And maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a conservative congress is trying to stick it to all those (presumably liberal) graduate students seeking advanced degrees. But from the Mayflower to the US Geological Survey to the Space Race, The United States has historically been a place that values and supports the pursuit of knowledge. This tax plan is a distressing departure from that tradition.

A big reason I chose Massachusetts is precisely because it is a state that is defined by the presence of higher education institutions. Thought leaders from around the country and around the world come here to learn, discuss, and dream. That makes this element of the tax plan that much more dangerous to the state.

Boston colleges
Boston-Area Colleges and Universities. Harvard gets four stars because it’s Harvard, I suppose. Source: MassGIS

The Boston area alone has 52 institutions of higher education. The Pioneer Valley has at least 15 (not counting some of the less prestigious institutions – sorry Baystate Medical Center Midwifery Program!). And, of course, some of the most august institutions in the country – with some of the most robust graduate programs – are located in the state, including Harvard, MIT, Amherst, and Williams.

PV Colleges
Pioneer Valley Colleges and Universities. Source: MassGIS

Universities as Anchor Institutions

Unlike the heavy industry which left the Pioneer Valley in the 1950s through 1980s, higher ed has been in the region for hundreds of years and is unlikely to go anywhere. Universities serve as “Anchor Institutions,” engines of economic development that aren’t easily transferable elsewhere (similar to medical institutions).

As this article from CityLab points out, “General Motors in Flint, Michigan, picked up and left. And with it went all of these jobs, and that really decimated the economy. Wayne State University in Detroit? They’re not going to be picking up and leaving.”

It doesn’t take an expert to see the economic impact that these institutions have on the region. Amherst, home to three post-secondary educational institutions, boasts among the highest real estate values in the region. The areas around Smith and Mount Holyoke are home to thriving cultural districts and numerous small businesses. What would Westfield be without Westfield State University?

This tax plan is going to hit the Bay State, and the Pioneer Valley, hard. An assault on learning is an assault on Massachusetts. I know that my life would have been irreversibly harmed if I’d had to pay taxes on the grants I received while earning $12,000 per year pursuing my master’s degree (it would have gobbled up virtually all of my stipend).

Unfortunately there are thousands of others in the same boat today, many of them our neighbors. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that at least that part of the plan, if not the whole thing, doesn’t pass.

 

Immigration Saved the Pioneer Valley

Hampden County is a region historically shaped by waves of immigration and migration. Springfield, the largest city in the county, has historically been a magnet for immigrants looking for economic opportunity. Holyoke, where I live, was founded as an industrial city right around the same time that waves of Irish immigrants were looking for work. And during The Great Migration, the Valley became a destination for thousands of black migrants fleeing the Jim Crow south and looking for a better life .

So I wasn’t surprised to see that immigration and migration still play a crucial role in the health of the region. I recently came upon an interesting Brookings report looking at the impact of immigration on population growth. What was striking was that for many US cities, without immigrants they would have seen a net loss of people.

migration
Source: Brookings Institute

Dark blue dots represent cities where US citizens are leaving, but new immigrants are at least partially offsetting their departure. Unsurprisingly, in areas where the cost of housing is high (northeast and California), or where job opportunities limited (the Rust Belt), Americans are increasingly deciding to go somewhere else. 

This is certainly true in Springfield:

migration_springfield
Source: Brookings Institute

In the Springfield metropolitan area, if it weren’t for immigration, the population would have declined between 2010 and 2016, presenting a few different challenges:

  1. Economic stagnation – The populations of Springfield and Holyoke have plummeted since the 1950s, leaving many buildings of all kinds (residential, commercial, industrial) abandoned and blighted. Without new residents opening businesses, occupying housing units, and shopping, the urban stagnation and blight of the two cities would have been even worse.
  2. Struggling city services – As the cost of doing business goes up, cities depend on an expanding economic base in order to pay for basic services (the most costly of which is running the public schools). Especially since Prop 2 1/2 tied the hands of cities to raise revenues, an expanding tax base is the best way to keep up with the cost of these services.
  3. Political irrelevance – Large populations bring political clout. The fact that Springfield is the third largest city in Massachusetts matters when the state is looking at new investments. A declining population means declining relevance.

The Immigration Controversy

Given the multiple studies on immigration showing the overall economic benefit immigrants confer (not just well-educated immigrants), it has baffled me that it’s such a contentious issue. But then I read an article in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart about immigration which put things into perspective.

Beinart argued that the tenor of immigration debates has polarized over the past decade (then again, what hasn’t?); today, liberals tend to deny any downsides of immigration, while conservatives reject any of the upsides (more on that here). If the large-scale, long-run impacts of immigration are mostly positive, Beinart contends, then there are many short-term problems associated with immigration.

According to Beinart, the biggest immediate impact is in the low-skill employment market. Immigrants without specialized skills coming into a region are competing, at least to some extent, with low-skilled workers already there. This could be in construction, custodial services, food preparation, farm labor, etc. A large, low-skilled immigrant presence is going to depress wages in these sectors (already low to begin with) for everyone.

The economist and policy wonk might point out that, in the long run, everyone is better off for having those immigrants (they are more likely to start small businesses, they occupy hard-to-fill jobs, etc.). But try telling that to an underpaid roofer; as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, “in the long run we’re all dead.” 

The Pioneer Valley Twist

The next big wave we can expect in the Valley is Puerto Rican climate refugees leaving the island after Hurrican Maria. Holyoke is already half Puerto Rican, and Springfield is a third. This is an interesting twist, because these folks are not immigrants – they are American citizens. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t reflective of every wave of immigrants in the past: desperately poor, leaving their lives, families, friends far behind them, and hoping for new opportunity.

I have substantial concerns about the capacity of Holyoke and Springfield to support a new group of transplants who will undoubtedly need a lot of services. State and federal authorities will be crucial to ensure that these two cities, already supporting large high-need populations, are able to effectively accommodate the education, healthcare, nutritional, and other needs of our new neighbors.

What I have no doubt about is that, in the long run, the Pioneer Valley will be healthier for welcoming these folks into our communities. There will be bumps along the way, for sure. But the newcomers of today sow the seeds of economic, political, and cultural vibrancy for tomorrow.

Building Highways, Cutting Transit

As you might have read, the FY18 state budget reduced funding for transit (resulting in service cuts) and cut the Springfield-to-Boston rail study entirely. Adding insult to injury, the legislature decided in the same budget to fund a study on building a new exit on the Mass. Pike somewhere between Westfield and Lee, probably around Blandford. As the MassLive article puts it, “[State Representative] Pignatelli argued that a turnpike exit could spark economic development in the hill towns, as well as provide convenience to residents who must currently travel to Lee or Westfield to access I-90.”

blandford exit
Proposed area for a new exit

Cutting funding to transit and rail while funding a study for a new highway exit is a terrible move by the commonwealth for the following reasons:

  1. Environmental Goals: It runs totally counter to well-established state goals. For example, MassDOT went through an intensive process to create a sustainability plan (“GreenDOT”) and established mode shift goals of tripling the amount of biking, walking and transit by 2030. Also, the state has passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Adding a Mass. Pike exit promotes driving and undermines both goals. 
  2. Land Use Goals: Just like building the highways in the first place resulted in the suburban boom that dominates our metro areas, building this new exit in the Hill Towns is indeed going to “spark economic development.” Land values will go up near the exit, farmers will subdivide and develop new single-family housing, and businesses will follow that new growth into what was once green fields. This runs totally contrary to the land use program goals of the state, which seeks to encourage Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development. 

    suburban development
    Big box stores, chain restaurants, and post-war suburban housing around Mass. Pike Exit 7
  3. Economic Goals: The same processes that sucked the Springfield and Holyoke economies dry in the post-war period will still be at work today if an exit is built. When our “Gateway Cities” (smaller regional hubs like Springfield, Holyoke, Fitchburg, etc., that have struggled economically over the past few decades) are finally starting to see a turnaround, it makes no sense for the state to facilitate businesses locating into rural areas.
  4. Equity Goals: And perhaps the most egregious of all, this highway exit is going to overwhelmingly benefit relatively well-to-do white families living in the Hill Towns, while the cuts to transit service disproportionately impacts low-income people of color. This is counter to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to multiple programs run by the MassDOT Office of Diversity and Civil Rights.
Poverty map
Map of poverty in Hampden and Hampshire Counties by Block Group. Note the dark blue of Springfield and Holyoke, and the light blue of Blandford. 

The political argument for the exit is that it will better serve people who live in Blandford, Chester, Russell, etc. And that’s true, it will (at least those who drive). But the people who live in these communities moved there knowing that highway access is not very good. And while their convenience would probably increase, their private benefit is outweighed by the cost to the public.

Not only would the new exit promote more driving, more destruction of farmland and open space, and the relocation of business activity from Springfield to Blandford, but there is also the opportunity cost of building the exit – what else could that money have been used for? (I have a suggestion – fully funding PVTA.)

If the state and the region are serious about climate change, about downtown revitalization, about smart growth, then PVPC and MassDOT must make crystal clear in this legislatively mandated study that the project hurts the public and conflicts with myriad state policy goals.

They say that actions speak louder than words. Massachusetts has some excellent policies on the books regarding climate change, active living, equity, and urban revitalization. Building this new exit would show that those policies are nothing more than just words.

The Strange Politics of Weed

Back in November, Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana through Ballot Question 4. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the state which still outlaws happy hours dragged its feet on passing a recreational weed law for long enough to force voters to take it to the ballot.

Question 4 passed with 53.7% of the statewide vote. The legislature immediately took to revising the legislation, but then talks stalled for some time. My understanding is that the House wanted to significantly raise taxes on marijuana, and give a lot more flexibility to towns to ban marijuana dispensaries – two measures which supporters of Question 4 claimed would undermine the will of the state’s voters. It seems the Senate agreed with that sentiment, and fought hard against these measures from the House.

I found the aspect of local control over dispensaries especially interesting, since Question 4 as passed by the voters required that communities have a direct election to ban marijuana dispensaries, as opposed to allowing the city council or the planning board exercise that authority. To my knowledge, this would be the only land use which requires a community referendum to ban.

Ultimately, the House and Senate agreed on a middle path. The compromise bill that came out of the legislature stated that, “if a community voted against the ballot question last November and local officials want to implement the expressed will of their community by imposing a ban on marijuana establishments, they can do so between now and 2019 without going to the voters a second time.” (I cribbed this from my former State Senator Will Brownsberger, who gave an excellent overview of the legislation).

So I took a look at the communities that voted for and against Question 4. Here’s the map:

question_4

The pattern to my eye, if there is one, is that a lot of suburban cities and towns did not vote to legalize. In the Pioneer Valley, almost all of the communities surrounding Springfield voted against legalization. But, then, to be fair, a lot of suburban communities did vote to legalize. So I ran a few correlations.

correlations
Source: 2015 American Community Survey

As you can see, the strongest correlation to Question 4 vote was the Trump vote, but even that wasn’t a very strong relationship (generally 0.7 or higher indicates a strong relationship). This was really unexpected. I was assuming that communities with older, whiter voters would certainly be the ones the vote against Question 4; these correlations suggest otherwise.

Sure, I only checked a few variables, and it’s important to note that correlation is not causation. However, I was really surprised that the Question 4 vote doesn’t appear to line up much with political leanings, age, ethnicity, or educational level. Who knows, maybe recreational marijuana can be a great political unifyer in these tumultuous times? At the very least, it appears that weed has strange politics indeed.