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Gov. Maura Healey’s creation of a rural affairs director is a welcome development for western Massachusetts, officials say

Gov. Healey stands at a podium (copy)

Gov. Maura Healey, center, recently announced the creation of a rural affairs director position.

Berkshire and Western Massachusetts officials are celebrating Democratic Gov. Maura Healey’s creation of the position of director of rural affairs.

Local governments on this side of the state for years have been insisting that such a department, or at least such a position, is necessary, Andy Hogeland, a Select Board member in Williamstown and president of the Massachusetts Select Board Association, told The Eagle in an interview.

“It’s always been on our agenda to speak out for rural towns whenever the opportunity came,” he added. “But somewhere in the back, there’s always been an interest in having a dedicated resource to talk to because historically, well-intentioned people at the state level would float programs but would not think about the way it affected rural towns.”

Healey last week announced the additional position at an event in Deerfield, a town of more than 5,000 just east of Interstate 91. Deerfield is celebrating its 350th anniversary.

Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, told The Eagle that rural governments have wanted a position like this “for decades.” Dunlavy attributes ultimate success in the effort to the Rural Policy Advisory Commission. In 2019, the commission pinpointed an office of rural policy as a top priority.

Dunlavy cited studies from the commission, as well as from the state auditor’s office, that detailed inequities in state spending formulas for roads and schools.

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“It isn’t just rural municipalities saying, ‘Hey, this doesn’t really feel fair,’” Dunlavy said. “There’s been a whole bunch of studies that say, ‘We’ve been telling you this doesn’t feel fair for 30 years, here’s the documentation that shows it’s not fair.’”

Healey’s administration has acknowledged that Western Massachusetts feels forgotten in state politics, whether in spending levels or simply a disconnect from the power center in Boston.

“For the first time in state history, we will have a dedicated staff member committed to coordinating across state government to support economic development in rural communities,” Healey said last week. “We want to send a clear message to every single person who calls rural Massachusetts home: We see you, we value you, and we’re going to work every day to ensure you have the representation and support you deserve.”

Problems such as housing should be handled with rural communities in mind, Hogeland said.

“It’s hard for us to build 40-60 person units,” he explained. “If there are housing programs that can be modified to be more attractive to five units for example, that would be great.”

Hogeland said much of state aid is handed out according to formulas, “and a lot of these formulas disadvantage towns with small populations.”

Chapter 90 funding is local aid for transportation, and PILOT money allows municipalities to recover lost tax revenue due to property tax exemptions.

“For the Chapter 90 road money, some of that has to do with the number of jobs and populations, and those numbers have gotten bigger in the eastern part of the state and smaller in the western part,” Hogeland said. “Something similar has happened with PILOT money as the eastern part of the state’s real estate value has gone up faster.”

Healey’s office told The Eagle a job description will be posted in the coming weeks before interviewing to find the best candidate.

The rural affairs director’s first responsibility, the governor’s office said, will be to conduct a review of state grant opportunities and to mitigate any barriers to rural and small towns. The director will also hold office hours and provide technical help for rural towns to take advantage of grants.

The director of rural affairs will be housed in the Executive Office of Economic Development, led by economic secretary Yvonne Hao. The director will look to foster economic development and will work with state agencies “to ensure that state government is attuned to the unique needs of rural communities,” according to Healey’s office.

“Our economy needs to work for everyone, including the 181 rural communities and small towns across our state,” Hao, who has Berkshire ties, said last week.

Hogeland said having that direct line to Boston would be an essential function of a rural affairs director.

“Before,” Hogeland said, “you had to go and make your case to the Department of Transportation or Housing or Economic Development. They’re all busy doing a lot of other things. It’s one of those issues where, if it’s anybody’s job, it’s nobody’s job. Now it’s somebody’s job.”

Sten Spinella can be reached at sspinella@berkshireeagle.com or 860-853-0085.

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