Lenox leader aims to expand shared services in new year

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LENOX >> Exploring new ways of sharing services with the towns of Lee and Stockbridge is among the top goals for 2016 at Town Hall.

In a year-end conversation, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen declared that the recently ratified tri-town collaboration agreement was "the biggest story with the longest-term implications in terms of what matters most to what we do here."

The joint venture already has yielded a single building commissioner, Don W. Fitzgerald, shared by Lenox and Lee as of Jan. 1, along with an inspector/zoning enforcement officer for the two towns.

In order to pursue other ideas, the tri-town Administrative Review Committee will meet in early January, Ketchen said. Sharing of public works and public safety equipment would be a high-priority for consideration, he predicted, noting that an aging Lenox fire engine recently went out of service.

"It's a good time for the three towns to look at what we've got for our total assets and see if something might mix or match well," Ketchen said. Mutual aid agreements also could be reviewed, he added, citing ambulance services already provided to Stockbridge by Lee and Lenox.

The three towns will be seeking "opportunities around further consolidation," Ketchen pointed out. "Ultimately that's where you save money, build efficiencies and attract the kind of qualified professionals who are specialists in their fields."

"Human resources would be the top priority if there were to be an added service for administration, at least for Lenox," he said. "HR is the most glaring omission, we have finance and land use people but managing and staying up to date with all the personnel stuff is hard. It takes a special focus. We could do that in a number of different ways."

Asked to list positive accomplishments in 2015, Ketchen cited stable town finances, municipal services and a modest increase in property tax rates as the products of a team effort.

But he called for vigilance — "we'll have to address some challenges over the next two years in order to keep it that way."

Among the major disappointments of the past year, the town manager mentioned slow progress on solar development, despite a deal with Lee for a joint project that includes Lenox Dale, served by Eversource.

But most of Lenox is supplied by National Grid, and a separate proposal for a solar array on the former Lenox landfill has been stalled because the utility has reached the state cap on net metering, which allows projects to gain a financial credit for energy generated but not used. The cap applies to large-scale arrays but not individual homes.

Ketchen also listed among disappointments the recent failure to win a highly competitive $170,000 state grant to help finance a Lenox Beach improvement project at Laurel Lake.

"We intend to plow ahead both on solar and the beach improvements," he said, "though it would have been nicer to have them resolved going into the new calendar year."

As another setback, he also cited the delayed Elm Court resort project along the Lenox-Stockbridge town line, which is tied up in Massachusetts Land Court because of an appeal by an opposition group of neighbors.

"It's disappointing because I felt we did such a thorough job on that project," he said, in terms of supporting the Zoning Board of Appeal's decision-making, which yielded an approval of the resort.

"If the ZBA had elected to not grant the special permit, I would have been perfectly fine with that," said Ketchen, "because I would have felt they reached that conclusion as a result of having staff able to support their decision-making. As it was, they approved it and I'm very proud of the job the staff did, making sure the board members had the information they needed."

Looking ahead, the town manager hopes to submit a proposal to streamline townwide zoning bylaws at the annual town meeting in May. "It's all an attempt to clarify what's allowed," he said.

Creation of a more vibrant, off-season level of downtown business activity remains a challenge, but Ketchen foresees a drive to brand the community as a year-round recreational and wellness destination.

The town's partnership with the Berkshire Visitors Bureau to promote shoulder-season attractions is a key factor, he said, as well as cooperative efforts with the Chamber of Commerce as well as the 34-member Lenox Merchants Group formed in September 2014. Town meeting voters have approved $65,000 for a year's worth of economic development promotion to support events, the chamber and the Merchants Group.

"The Merchants Group has done a terrific job and has been most effective in its early going to create events and to promote the commercial area as a destination," Ketchen said, "and the town government should be supportive of those efforts."

As for the low level of citizen participation in town meetings, with less than 10 percent of registered voters often making key decisions, Ketchen voiced a "self-serving" view that citizens may be "generally satisfied" with town services and tend to be "less engaged unless there's a particular issue or threat."

However, since democracy is "advanced citizenship, not a spectator sport," it requires people to be "not cynical, to be engaged, but people are busy," he said.

The town manager described his greatest concern — "voter apathy has been such a long-standing issue that sometimes I fear that folks who do want to engage in the process don't understand it enough because they've fallen out of practice. Democracy is a discipline that needs to be practiced constantly in order to be effective."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

In his own words ...

Some additional thoughts voiced by Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen in a year-end discussion:

"If you're not attending town meetings, if you're not engaged, you lose your ability to understand what's happening and then you stop going, or if there's an issue you care about or you're passionate about, you don't know how to engage in a way that your interests will be represented because the process has become foreign to you as opposed to native. I worry about that."

"I think it comes naturally to [School Superintendent] Tim Lee and I to work collaboratively and I think that feeling is mutual. He's smart and he has a vision for where he wants to take the school district. At the end of the day, we serve the same taxpayers, we send out one tax bill. It's one-town, one-solution."

"The 'Rest of River' [GE-EPA cleanup of the Housatonic] will be on our minds for generations, and we want to make sure that Lenox is in as strong a position to defend its interests as we possibly can be, keeping in mind that we're dealing with one of the biggest companies in the world and one of the biggest regulatory agencies in the world."

"We've got long-term capital needs, particularly in water and sewer, that are coming to the forefront. The town's relationship to the library is possibly becoming closer, that's something the town will be working through. Zoning bylaw changes and clarifications are going to be a big deal. It's all in an effort to bring the best product to the residents of the town."


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