A recent report from the state auditor’s office lays bare what many here in the Berkshires already know: When it comes to investing in the commonwealth’s communities, Beacon Hill woefully overlooks Western Massachusetts.
This is particularly true for infrastructure needs, the focus of Auditor Suzanne Bump’s report. Even in communities with some of the highest tax rates in the state, paving projects remain unaffordable as roads and bridges crumble. In communities like North Adams and Pittsfield, critical public buildings like police departments and fire stations go without necessary upgrades because municipalities are on their own in securing funding.
We are glad that Ms. Bump is bringing long overdue statewide attention to these dire structural issues facing Berkshire communities and others. And, as she also points out, now is the time for long overdue state-level action. Between a budget surplus and a windfall of federal stimulus flowing into commonwealth coffers, there is a unique opportunity to shore up the brittle bones of oft-overlooked communities and reinvigorate the state’s investment in them.
Our county might not have as many people as those on the other end of the state, but we still have roads — many miles of them. Just because you live in a small town doesn’t mean driving to work or dropping your child at school should constitute a daily adventure of detouring around unsafe bridges and dodging axle-cracking potholes.
These communities need the state’s help to keep their roadways safe and clear. That’s what Chapter 90 is for, but it’s long past time for retooling the funding formula as well as augmenting the available funds. Ditto for the Small Town Road Assistance Program, which Ms. Bump called “woefully underfunded.”
Further, while the state aids communities with the cost of new schools, it notably does not with other buildings like public safety headquarters. Emergency services are critical everywhere. You shouldn’t be more worried about your local police department’s ability to function just because your town or city can’t scrape together project funding on its own. The state should recognize this, and give similar assistance to those building projects as it does to school construction.
These factors have consequences beyond residents’ quality of life. It also hamstrings economic development and growth in the region, furthering an East-West economic divide that will only make these matters worse for the people who call these communities home.
Many regional advocates and leaders have been sounding this alarm for a long time. That includes State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who has introduced a state House bill — An act promoting equitable distribution of Chapter 90 funds (H3572) — that seeks a fairer Chapter 90 funding formula and deserves serious attention.
This clear-cut report and the current unique funding availability means that lawmakers and officials on Beacon Hill must no longer dodge this issue.
You have constituents in Western Massachusetts, too. Heed the state auditor’s warning and stop ignoring them.