Sandisfield candidates talk roads, broadband, economic development

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SANDISFIELD — In the last decade, the issues have revolved around roads, broadband, and of course, how get more money into town coffers.

This year is no different. Candidates for two Select Board positions in a town with 900 people and 94 miles of paved and dirt roads, all utter the same word again and again: infrastructure.

"We have a crumbling infrastructure — between our Town Hall and our town annex, which are not up to code, not in good shape and really should be replaced," said Brian O'Rourke, who runs a construction company. O'Rourke is running for a one-year seat.

"We have 43 miles of dirt roads, and to maintain them we need a lot of dirt to build them up," said incumbent John Skrip, 71, a semi-retired chemistry teacher who wants to retain his three-year seat. "The weather has worn them down over the last decades. We need thousands and thousands of tons of gravel."

Not to mention labor costs, he added.

"The two biggest issues: roads and town buildings are in pretty desperate condition," said George Riley, 70, a semiretired consultant to nonprofits, who is running for the one-year seat. "We have to attract businesses, young families. But the problem is a chicken and egg situation. People aren't going to want to come to a town where there's no broadband and the roads are a mess. It's a vicious cycle — we have to break out of that."

Charles Pease, running for the one-year position, could not be reached. But Pease, who works for heating contractor M.T. Cavanaugh in Sheffield, told The Sandisfield Times that he'd like to see the roads dealt with "sooner than later."

"This is critical for new growth within our town," he said, as is updating and making town buildings more energy efficient.

Not only is road upkeep a Sisyphean task here, but the highway department has taken a beating of late — a fire destroyed its garage and road equipment last winter, and rebuilding, covered by insurance will start soon. Also, pipeline trucks last year took a toll on a key artery and two dirt roads, for which the town is still in negotiations with pipeline company Kinder Morgan.

Like so many rural towns in the region, Sandisfield has come to a critical point of action, in which it needs to spend money to make money.

"We're getting grants," Skrip said of the dirt road work. "No small town can afford to do this on their own."

That's because, Skrip said, the tax base "is relatively stagnant." Town officials are working to increase that base so taxes don't have to be raised, something he said hasn't had to be done in the last two years, as the rate hovers at $13 per thousand, and the budget has remained "pretty stable."

Skrip said he and the two other board members have some ideas about how to do this, but he said he couldn't reveal them just yet. He's sure, however, that solar farms would be good.

But candidates say the roads are an ongoing threat to change.

O'Rourke, who was chairman of the committee to rebuild the highway garage, said he's also concerned about Route 57, which he said the state gave back to the towns about 20 years ago.

"It's in horrendous shape," he said. "At $1 million a mile, we can't afford to fix it."

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O'Rourke, 50, said this and the uncertain outcome of broadband negotiations are cause for a new approach to the chicken and egg problem. He said wants to do it differently — that cutting costs and budgets isn't enough.

"I'm all about building," he said, noting that he feels his expertise from running a construction company will be useful to the town. "We cannot survive on the tax base."

Efforts to negotiate with a company for broadband failed last fall — the town's road miles and low population make it unattractive as a profit center. So now O'Rourke is nervous about the town's current negotiations with Crocker Communications for a fiber-optic network, which the company plans to build with state money and federal grants for rural areas.

He said broadband is critical to everything else. "We need to attract homeowners and businesses. We're not going to do that without better roads, municipal services, broadband."

Riley thinks reforms in Town Hall will help with all this.

"I've been going house to house," he said. "I've talked to 150 or more people. I hear lots of complaints, but I think a lot of them boil down to one issue: that people don't feel that the town is running in a professional way."

Riley said after attending many meetings and talking to town officials, he agrees on this point. He said there aren't always policies in place, nor job descriptions or performance evaluations.

"It's fuzzy," he said, noting this is often the root of workplace conflict. "As a result, there are a lot of misunderstandings, things get poorly done and money is wasted."

Riley said not only would he like to find more non-tax sources of income like grants, but to fix the professionalism problem with skill honed working for nonprofits as a CEO, treasurer, fundraiser, and his current work on several boards in the larger Berkshires area. He said an infusion of professionalism may iron things out — even the roads.

"Our physical infrastructure is an outward symptom of our lack of organizational infrastructure," Riley said. "To run effectively and plan for the future, we need the organizational infrastructure to support that."

Jeffrey Gray, who served on the Select Board for seven years, is now vying with Skrip for the three-year seat. Gray could not be reached, but had also told The Sandisfield Times that the board needs to be "fair and equitable in its decisions" and about how to spend taxpayer money.

"Whether our initiatives advance public safety, economic development or education, equity must be served," he said, adding that decisions cannot be made that only advance "a small group's interests."

Gray said using the town's master plan as a guide is advisable.

Pease, who said he'd like to see better communication from town officials, also said the town should align with that document.

"I believe it is time to act and follow through with our town's master plan and to start updating and rebuilding our community," he said.

Polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday Old Town Hall, 3 Silverbrook Road.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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