Stockbridge bids a fond farewell to local government stalwart
STOCKBRIDGE — For 31 years serving in town government, her smile has brightened the day for residents and visitors, reflecting the spirit of Norman Rockwell's legacy to the town he put on the map.
Now Town Administrator Jorja-Ann P. Marsden is about to retire after 20 years in that position with some strong feelings about the future direction of the community she has called home all her life.
"I feel very appreciated," said Marsden on Friday morning at the Town Offices. "I'm going out on a high note."
Her colleagues have organized a retirement celebration and open house for Marsden from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Town Offices on Main Street. "After years of hard work and dedication, it's time for a permanent vacation," the announcement to the public stated.
"I think Stockbridge has remained the same, the people are still the people, but municipal government has become much more complex," she said. "That's where the change is, people don't realize what it takes to run the town, a really higher level of management responsibilities now."
Marsden, who reports to the Select Board described her biggest challenge has been keeping up with rapidly changing regulations, laws and mandates. "The Selectmen have to think about, if you do X, what happens with Y and Z, the consequences intended and unintended."
Looking to the future, she emphasized her firm belief in shared services among Stockbridge, Lee and Lenox as they actively explore the possibilities with help from the state Department of Revenue.
"It's time we do a collaboration," Marsden said, "and I'm looking forward to a shared administrator, maybe for all three or just two of the towns." Expertise in the twists and turns of municipal finance is sorely needed, she suggested.
"I'm excited about the potential benefits for every community in the Berkshires," Marsden continued, quoting from her letter of resignation to the Select Board.
"Regionalization is really, I think, going to be a salvation for all of the towns, and maybe even the cities in Berkshire County," she stressed in an Eagle interview. "That is the future. I know change is hard, but I think this change is the best for us right now, and the best for our neighboring towns, for efficiency and eventual cost-savings."
At the same time, she acknowledged that the presence of a town administrator available to the public at all hours of the business day may be a luxury whose time has passed.
"But we have always said that each town would have their own identity," Marsden said. "I definitely feel that can happen."
Buy-in for shared services from town residents is essential, she added. "We all need to accept change, and that's very hard for some people. They want everything the way it always has been. But the 'has been' has become much more complex."
"You want to keep Stockbridge the small town that it is," she said. "I walk down the street and I know a lot of people, though we have a lot of visitors because Rockwell made us famous. There are still the people I know through sitting here, and some of them I've known all my life."
Asked what she'll miss most after her final day on July 15, Marsden replied: "The people that I've met and worked with, the residents I've helped, interacting with people. We always find an amicable solution."
But she's looking forward to relief from "thinking about 2,000 people that I feel I need to take care of."
Marsden, married for 37 years to her husband Robert, grew up on East Main Street, the daughter of the late Francis J. Pilling, an esteemed town official and plumber by trade, and Anna Pilling, a homemaker who kept the books for her busy husband and volunteered for the town.
One of Marsden's happiest days, a proud moment and great honor for her and for the town, was a Statehouse ceremony in April 2010 installing an official town flag in the Hall of Flags more than a decade after her father had been honored there for his longtime service on the Board of Health.
Among the worst days: Costly problems with a disappointing geothermal unit for the retro-fitted Town Offices building, formerly the Plain School, which was finally replaced by an effective heating-air conditioning system.
Another ongoing headache has been the frequent flooding that has afflicted several neighborhoods as well as the Town Offices building.
"All of our floods have been very, very big," Marsden noted, citing the "100-year flooding that keeps coming every year. The town will be looking at all of the stormwater runoff, drainage systems and deferred maintenance of infrastructure."
The cost of the deferred maintenance looms large as part of the budget challenges Marsden's successor and other town leaders will have to confront, she said.
"We've been putting Band-Aids on a lot of items over the years, and now it's coming home to roost," she said. "Sometimes, you have to spend money to save money."
As Marsden sees it, "we've been trying to control our expenses but sometimes it's difficult when you've deferred so much for so many years."
She also cited mandates such as the need to fund OPEB — other post-employment benefits such as health insurance for municipal retirees. So far, the town has set aside $1,409,000 toward a $4 million liability.
Soaring health-insurance costs for current employees also adds to the spending burden, though the town's tax rate is the eighth-lowest among the county's 32 communities.
In Marsden's view, the harsh critics of town spending may not be aware of all the budget challenges.
"Our town employees work very hard to stay with what they have within their budgets," she said. "We tell them every year to level-fund, but after so many years of that, sometimes budgets have to go up, and for a good reason. They don't do anything frivolous. Every department head is very frugal."
Marsden will not be on hand to help train her successor, describing her departure as "a clean break."
But the newcomer will be able to lean on town employees, she said, "since we're such a great team here that they will definitely help the next person."
Marsden has no plans to return to town government but will focus on her service on the Board of Trustees at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
"I'm looking forward to just taking care of myself, enjoying my home and enjoying Stockbridge on a different level," she said with a broad smile.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
A life in Stockbridge . . .
Town Administrator Jorja-Ann P. Marsden is retiring on July 15. Here's a timeline of her service to the town:
1967: Jorja-Ann Pilling, the daughter of Francis J. and Anna Pilling, graduates from Williams High School, a member of the last class before the high schoolers are relocated to Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington. The elementary school, Stockbridge Plain School, continues in the same building on Main Street.
1968: She begins work at her first employer, the Red Lion Inn, holding a variety of front-desk jobs, having attended Berkshire Business College.
1976: Pilling is employed as head of the costing department at the former Lenox Machine, later Beloit-Lenox and now GL&V USA. The company manufactures equipment for the paper-mill industry.
1979: She marries Robert Marsden and takes time off to begin raising their son, Chris.
1985: Marsden is elected unopposed as town clerk, succeeding Lillian Rathbun at Procter Hall on West Main Street, which housed the town offices. Simultaneously, she served as assistant treasurer, assistant tax collector and secretary of the Planning Board.
1996: She is appointed executive secretary, with town-administrator duties, gaining the official title through a voter-approved statute.
2007: Following the shutdown of the Stockbridge Plain School, the building is retrofitted for use as the new Town Offices, Senior Center, Berkshire Hills Regional School District central office and several private professional spaces.
Jan. 13, 2016: The Select Board announces Marsden plans to retire on July 15.
June 2016: Following a review of 27 applications for her position, a screening committee of local residents narrows the list down to nine. Three current or former town managers - Robert Nason of Lee, Kenneth Walto of Dalton and Peter Fohlin, retired from Williamstown - will sift through the names, producing five semi-finalists for interviews and a potential appointment by the Select Board.