LENOX >> After nearly a year of preparation, and just a few short months since 17 South Berkshire communities came together in an historic community compact signing, we are starting to see the successful work of so many coming together.
As community leaders we have to be willing to have a serious conversation about our regions financial stability, and sustainability, as well as how can we best streamline and enhance the services that our taxpayers have grown to expect with their hard-earned dollars.
Collective action will provide collective success.
When this conversation started I had three goals in mind.
1: Maintain each towns unique identity,
2: Enhance services for residents, provide greater efficiencies,
3: Provide taxpayer relief.
I still see these as laudable and achievable goals when leaders lead, not only for today but for the next generation.
Let's look at the facts. The Berkshires are shrinking in population while we are aging at the same time. Our economic base is changing. The paper industry of yesterday is a shell of its former self. General Electric, Sprague Electric, Rising Mill are no longer here and the 11 paper mills that once made up Mill River have long been gone.
Companies like the Chamberland Group, Iredale Cosmetics, Onyx Paper along with the creative economy have been, and will continue to, provide quality jobs for years to come. Sabic, sadly, has decided to relocate to Houston while General Dynamics continues to grow. Our travel and tourism, the economic engine, continues to grow with investments of 10s of millions of dollars into the area.
Much more work needs to be done to make our beautiful Berkshire region more of a year-round destination but we are seeing greater energy and collaboration across town lines to achieve that objective.
When skeptics tell me "talk is cheap" I'm quick to let them know that "it's cheap to talk," and when we at least have the conversation we realize that our concerns really are not that different and that by working together we can achieve great things.
In Southern Berkshire alone we are starting to have wonderful success with sharing a school Superintendent across districts and even more conversations ongoing for other services. When Lee and Lenox got together to share a building inspector's office some said that it wouldn't work. When the Selectmen from both of those communities agreed to give it a try and when the building inspector himself said it was the right thing to do it proved all the skeptics wrong. This has proven to be a huge success and services have been enhanced for both towns.
These conversations along with many others have lead to small towns floating the possibility of sharing clerks, financial managers, planners and public safety and others.
Numbers are revealing
Recently I have filed legislation that would clarify state ethics laws and pave the way for the possibility of a shared manager with the towns of Stockbridge, Lee and Lenox. For people who don't believe this makes sense let's look at the facts again.
The going rate to hire a qualified and experienced town manager/administrator is over $100,000 per year plus benefits. If we take a look at the town budgets of these three towns combined you will see a budget of over $60 million. If we don't look to enhance services and save taxpayer money we will be collectively spending nearly $400,000 on salaries and benefits across three towns totaling less that 14,000 citizens.
In an effort to put this in perspective all you have to do is look at the city of Pittsfield. The Berkshires' capital city with 42,000 residents and a total budget of $150 million pays its Mayor/CEO less than $90,000 per year. The governor of our commonwealth, with a budget of nearly $40 billion, is paid $150,000 per year.
Our towns' needs and expectations have grown to a point where we need to hire "CEOs" to run a our communities efficiently while leading the way to make the services we've come to expect more affordable. The time is now for the leaders of these three towns, and others, to continue the conversation.
Remember, though action, not just conversation, is what's needed now. The town administrator in Stockbridge has already retired, the town administrator in Lee has already given notice that he intends to retire next year.
When I read comments expressing concern that people won't see the "CEO" on a regular basis I feel that's just an excuse to maintain the status quo. When you see a policeman on the street do you feel less safe when it's not the chief? When you visit a local local hospital do you feel the services you received weren't adequate because the "CEO" didn't touch base with you? When you go into your local bank do you believe that your money is secure even though you didn't get to talk to the "CEO"?
Looking to the future will allow our beautiful area to grow, prosper and be attractive for the next generation of Berkshire residents. Our future, filled with enhanced services at affordable rates while maintaining our independence, is in our hands now. It's time to, not only think different, but act different.
Let's lead and not miss out.
William "Smitty" Pignatelli is the state representative from the 4th Berkshire District.