At Great Barrington forum, candidates talk about how to bring in more money and save it
GREAT BARRINGTON — Among those vying for seats on town boards in this changing South County hub, discussions inevitably boil down to one thing: money.
At a recent packed and lively candidates forum at the Claire Teague Senior Center, the town's need for economic expansion, which could lower taxes and create jobs, was high on the list of priorities.
So was the need for affordable and workforce housing, as housing costs continue to rise and push out middle-income residents, according to residents and candidates.
Transparency was another; one local longtime journalist is trying to unseat the Housing Authority chairwoman, suggesting that the board's affairs aren't completely in the light.
The Tuesday elections will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the town Fire Station on 37 State Road; Housatonic residents can vote from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Housatonic Community Center at 1064 Main St. North.
In the race for Select Board, three candidates — including two incumbents — are vying for two three-year seats.
Incumbent Daniel Bailly, vying for a third term, explained to one voter who had asked why more jobs can't be automated to eliminate costs, said targeting hiring of extra people can make modern and complex government more efficient.
"Government is more complicated since the 1960s," he said to Patrick Fennell, who said government continues to run like it is still in that decade.
A carpenter with a historic preservation background, Bailly is also a fiscal conservative but said he takes the middle road on issues. His elderly parents are struggling with their tax bills in Housatonic, he said, so he sees both sides. He suggested improving infrastructure that will attract investment might be worth paying for, including adding natural gas and broadband in Housatonic, which is loaded with decaying mills and an old school building.
Incumbent Stephen Bannon, a pharmacist and the current Select Board chairman, is running for a fourth term. He said it's tricky keeping taxes low while keeping robust town services flowing.
"Yes, we could cut the plowing and other things. ... On the one hand, they want the service, and on the other hand, they want things cut — it's a balancing act," he told a room of around 80 voters.
Bannon, who said he refuses to enter the self-serve checkout at the supermarket because it eliminates jobs, said cuts can cause other problems.
"I think cutting positions for the sake of cutting — you could do that but people would complain," he added, noting that the town has 17 police officers because it needs the manpower given all the use of services by visitors and residents from surrounding towns.
Challenger Leigh Davis said marketing the town would help expand the economy to lower these tax burdens.
Davis works for a mill redevelopment company and has a marketing background. She said marketing the town outside the community could bring in new families and businesses.
"We can't rely on tourists," she said.
Davis suggested sharing services with neighboring towns is something she'd like to make a push for. But Bailly said it's a "two-way street" with other towns, and "they've said no."
All three candidates said they supported tax-deferral programs for seniors to help them stay in their homes amid increasing costs. And all three said they support a strong effort toward creating more affordable housing.
Newcomer Meredith O'Connor said it might be time for some new blood on the Finance Committee, for which three people are running for two open seats.
"I think having a fresh set of eyes looking over the numbers might be beneficial, and you might be able to see some results," she told the audience.
O'Connor said her main financial experience comes from working with a multimillion dollar budget as a purchaser for a Boston-area orthopedic firm. She thinks supporting an expansion of business and attracting new residents is pivotal to growing what is a rural, tourist economy.
O'Connor would like to see what will likely be a healthy stream of marijuana revenue go into an interest-generating stabilization fund that can be tapped without raising taxes. All this, she said, will reduce the tax burden on residents, and can still be done without upsetting the local charm.
"We can have a thriving economy and also maintain the quaint, small town feeling that we have now," she said.
Walter "Buddy" Atwood III, a former member of the committee who is running again, agreed that marijuana revenue can help reduce taxes, but he doesn't like stabilization funds.
"It's not up to the town fathers to hold [money] and spend it the way they want to," he said. "It should be used to lower taxes. ... We don't want the money to sit and get eat up by inflation."
Both Atwood and O'Connor said they are in favor of senior tax-deferral programs.
"Supporting seniors is as important as supporting kids growing up here," O'Connor said.
Incumbent Thomas Blauvelt, who could not attend the forum, told The Eagle later that he is in favor of a stabilization fund to deal with capital spending.
And Blauvelt said supporting local business is the first step toward economic stability, and that the town should set this example.
"I work for a local insurance company, and the town doesn't do business with us, but one in Woburn," he said, noting that company doesn't support local organizations, like Boy Scout troops or Little League.
He said the same goes for auto supplies, which it purchases from a company in Canaan, Conn.
"We have two in town," he noted.
Longtime local journalist Eileen Mooney, who writes and publishes The Newsletter, said she is running against incumbent Karen Smith for her Housing Authority seat because she wants to address transparency problems on that board.
"As much as I like Karen, I'm concerned," she said, noting she's been covering meetings for the last six years. Mooney also lives at an authority property. "I think that the board needs to change."
Smith said she was recruited in October 2017 for the board to help clear up backlogged state reporting, among other issues. The authority oversees 112 units for senior, disabled and low-income residents at Flag Rock in Housatonic, Brookside in Great Barrington and Dewey Court in Sheffield.
Aside from resident complaints over the years, since 2017, turbulence includes the departure of two directors, several board members and an administrative assistant.
Smith said during her tenure she's helped organize the authority, create new systems and programs, and acquire a new property.
"We've made great strides in he last 17 months," she said, adding that she takes "umbrage with Ms. Mooney's statement about transparency."
"Everything we've done has been reviewed by the Attorney General's Office," she noted.
Mooney, however, noted she has filed five Open Meeting Law violations with the office, for which the office has not yet issued decisions.
"Until the decision is reached, I will stick to my guns that there hasn't been transparency," Mooney said.
Smith countered again that she has only helped untangle problems.
Uncontested seats for this election include: moderator (one year), Michael Owen Wise; Board of Health (three years), Michael Lanoue; library trustrees (one year), Margaret Heilbrun, Samara Klein; library trustees (three years), Lauren Clark, Jane Stanhope; Planning Board (three years), Jeremy Higa, Brandee Nelson; and Zoning Board of Appeals (three years), Carolyn Ivory.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871
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