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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: A first-in-the-county shared services proposal between Lee, Stockbridge is worth watching for all smaller towns

We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it on behalf of our rural neighbors: Regionalization is a smart move that more small towns should explore to get more bang for taxpayers’ bucks while preserving high-quality public services. It’s encouraging to see Lee and Stockbridge exploring an ambitious shared-services relationship that would be unique in Berkshire County but could inspire other municipalities to get similarly creative.

In this space, we have praised towns for teaming up on opportunities to serve their constituents more efficiently. Last year, we cheered Becket and Otis for sharing a police chief and Dalton and Hinsdale for considering a shared police department. Lee and Stockbridge, though, are weighing a bigger team-up. Officials from both towns are exploring an inter-municipal agreement to share fire and emergency-medical services — a plan that would include Stockbridge chipping in on a new public safety complex in Lee. The complex would be located on Route 102 near the towns’ shared border and serve both communities.

Stockbridge officials first proposed the joint operation as Lee officials continue to study plans for a new public safety building that would house the town’s fire and police departments — both of which are currently housed in cramped, outdated spaces. At a joint meeting between both towns’ Select Boards, leaders from both sides highlighted the benefits of working together: expanding emergency services for residents while significantly reducing long-term costs for both towns.

Those are some big upsides for smaller, more rural towns facing disproportionate difficulty in providing quality public services without overly burdening their budgets and, in turn, taxpayers. Lee desperately needs a bigger, more modern public safety HQ — but the estimated $25 million cost is tough for a small town to swallow. Meanwhile, towns like Stockbridge that rely on volunteer fire departments are finding it tougher and tougher to fill those ranks as its population grows grayer and consists more and more of second-home owners.

Going it together could elegantly address both towns’ concerns. Stockbridge would shoulder a minority share of Lee’s public safety costs, while both towns would get expanded service. That would include professional coverage around the clock in Stockbridge, a town with fewer people but just as many miles to cover — all in a way that makes both towns’ budgets more sustainable in the long run.

The details are not yet in stone for this preliminary proposal, and there are certainly challenges for ditching each town’s status quo for a new sharing paradigm. In reaction to the plan, members of each town’s fire departments rightly raised the sticky questions that will need answers: What will come of each town’s multiple fire stations, and how will equipment be shared and allocated?

Both towns have agreed to set up a working group to further study the sharing plan’s opportunities and challenges. That’s a wise move, and we wish its members luck. One potential obstacle we hope does not loom large is the all-too-common instinct amid regionalization discussions to devolve into parochialism. Yes, there are serious questions about how a plan like this might work, but those questions should be raised and answered in good faith, not in a spirit of unnecessary divisiveness that could undermine a reasonable and practical path to better, more sustainable services for the people of Lee and Stockbridge.

The two towns already have a working relationship when it comes to public safety; Lee provides EMS to most of Stockbridge. And Lee’s former longtime town manager, the late Bob Nason, smartly saw the potential for efficiency and cost-saving in sharing when he pushed for joint town manager and human resources positions between Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge. Unfortunately that plan unraveled, but it had the right idea: Tapping into a uniquely Berkshire sense of neighborly teamwork makes sense for small towns struggling to budget for basic services that their residents deserve.

Lee’s Central Fire Station is so outdated that it can’t fit modern fire trucks, forcing the town to custom order vehicles. Meanwhile, leaders in Stockbridge also face the growing struggles of a small town trying to provide modern public services. Said Stockbridge Select Board member Chuck Cardillo: “The Select Boards of both towns realize that alone it will be difficult to accomplish all that we need to do to provide robust fire and emergency medical services now and in the future.”

While it can be a difficult conversation, we are glad to see the leaders of Lee and Stockbridge are at least looking at preparing for that future by exploring an ambitious, creative shared services plan. We hope they’re successful — and if they are successful, we hope other rural Berkshire communities follow suit.

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