Sunday May 13, 2012

LENOX -- Town leaders have launched a frontal assault on long-term problems that need urgent solutions, including a costly wastewater treatment plant upgrade required by more stringent federal environmental standards.

The reconfigured Select Board, which plans to tackle the issues by assigning members to follow through on specific areas, is also looking at exploring shared services with Pittsfield and other nearby communities.

At its recent meeting -- featuring the debuts of new members Channing Gibson and Edward Lane -- newly chosen Chairman Kenneth Fowler set the stage for "moving forward in a positive way." He issued a challenge to the board and the community "to put our disagreements behind us Š it was a very difficult year or two, and it’s time to solve the bigger issues at hand."

Presenting the town’s long-term priorities, Selectman David Roche stated a solution to unfunded liabilities for municipal retirees -- banking the difference between retiring employees’ salaries and the lower pay scale for new hires. A memo of understanding would be drawn up with the School Department to put it on the same page. Over 10 years, the plan could accumulate up to $3 million to fund the town government’s obligations to its retirees.

The federal mandate to reduce wastewater phosphates would cost $15 to $20 million, according to town engineers. "The town of Lenox is faced with that tremendous burden, and it’s creeping up on us," Roche warned. The new standards will be imposed within 3 to 5 years, said Town Manager Gregory Federspiel.

The town manager cited a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission report advocating collaboration with Pitts field by Lenox and other communities since all cities and towns will face the same federal mandate.

The city already is acting as a semi-regional facility by accepting wastewater from Dalton, Lanesborough and Richmond, said Selectman John McNinch. He noted that Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi has been "very happy to talk us about it."

"We need to aggressively look at an agreement with Pittsfield to see what they can offer us," Roche stressed. "That’s one of our better options." Based on preliminary discussions, he noted that the city has the capacity to handle Lenox’s existing and potential future sewage-disposal needs. "We’re offering some significant dollars in a new long-term agreement," he explained.

"The funding could come from new bonding as the town’s debt on its school system expires, as well as from lodging-tax revenues, ac cording to Roche. The town currently gains about $1.6 million a year from local hotel-motel taxes.

"We’re answerable to the voters, many of whom are on fixed incomes and have lived here for a long time," Roche emphasized. "They can’t take a jolt of the magnitude of a $20 million hit for sewer. We have an obligation Š to make it as painless as possible and still conform to the regulations."

Lenox may also need to purchase water supplies from Pittsfield this summer, as it has in some previous years, because of the town’s limited reservoir capacity and rainfall that remains well below normal for the year so far.

"We spent the whole year and a lot of my tenure on this board putting out fires and not preventing them," McNinch observed, putting off long-term plans to confront major, ongoing challenges.

"You have a unique opportunity here to take that fresh start," Federspiel commented. "I encourage you to capitalize on that."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com.
or (413) 496-6247.