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An Ode to Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
April 22, 2024

Over the past decade, I have written dozens of essays for PA Times, typically about a policy issue confronting the public administration field. This time, I am asking the readers’ indulgence to allow me something more personal as I recently retired from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts service. For the past seven years, I have been the Director of a research group called the Division of Local Mandates (DLM) within the Office of the State Auditor. In this position, I have worked with amazingly talented leaders and colleagues who helped make the Division shine with legislators, stakeholders and the public.

The Division was created by the voters when they passed the state’s property tax restrictions in 1980. Since 1983, the Division has been involved in a wide range of issues related to the relationship between the state and local governments. I joined DLM after completing nine years as a local elected official and having studied and taught state and local government. Coming from academia and moving into a research group was a small leap, but it offered a new way to impact public policy.

I chose to do this because of the opportunity to serve. Previously, I was honored to be locally elected by my neighbors in a community of over 20,000 people to help guide the town as part of a five-member board. While my town work was strictly volunteer, the opportunity to direct DLM came as a management job.

Public service can come about in various ways, and each position has opportunities and challenges. In this case, I had a chance to examine public policy opportunities in-depth and to expand my knowledge of issues and budgeting. My expertise deepened, and among the emotional rewards of the job was being called by legislators and staff to comment on pending legislation or budget estimates. Stakeholder groups contacted our office and colleagues to determine what DLM thought about a particular issue or how we could help them resolve some challenges. This work frequently involved commenting on how the state needed to live up to its commitment to provide financial support to cities, towns and school districts.

As a manager, I felt responsible for sharing these opportunities with a talented staff that I could bring together to participate in the work. One takeaway from the experience is that if things go well, there is plenty of credit to go around, and there is no reason to try to dominate the spotlight. Being more than a generation older than my team members, I felt the need to make sure they developed their skills to assume management roles sooner rather than later, as I knew my time to serve would be limited.

A frequent focus of our work was the unique structure of state-local relationships in Massachusetts. With a few minor exceptions, counties do not exist in Massachusetts, so service delivery is either at the state or local level. Our group did an award-winning report on municipal police training, which explored the financial impact of the long-standing requirement for in-service training for veteran officers and the lack of accountability if that training did not occur. We earned a voice as the state passed a policing reform bill in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

There are some, but only a few, incentives for communities to regionalize services. However, because only some regional entities have government power, these regional agreements are primarily done on a one-off basis. Massachusetts requires communities to provide services and funding for needy veterans, which lends itself to regional cooperation. There are health districts that cooperate on inspections, licensing and enforcement, but these arrangements do not neatly follow the same lines and can shift as the desires of local officials change.

Addressing these issues in a state of seven million people and 351 cities and towns is challenging. Laws governing local operations and structures vary because of home rule petitions (including charters) that have evolved over decades. Funding for schools, public safety, libraries, building inspections and public works comes from local property taxes and state assistance. Every time we could coax the state to give more for aid or cost reimbursement, it meant the hope of another teacher, librarian or firefighter and better service for the people in our communities.

This is the legacy of our work: making things better, easier and more efficient for our neighbors, whether across the street or on the other side of the state. The rewards are great for those considering a career in state or local service. While not financial, they allow you to work with many committed public servants in a shared mission to improve the community’s quality of life. There is no better way to serve; my only regret is that I did not do it sooner.

Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member teaching economics at Northeastern University in Boston. Ben is the author of a chapter on social equity and public Administration in the volume from Birkdale, Public Affairs Practicum. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Threads at bentafoya . All opinions and mistakes are his alone.

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