Senate president vows to 'bend the curve' on opioids fight

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PITTSFIELD — The state Senate president heard pitches both subtle and overt Friday for her chamber to help the Berkshires tackle big problems.

In stops at the city's 1 Columbus Ave. transportation hub and then at a planning agency, Senate President Karen E. Spilka was briefed on steps being taken to plug gaps in public transit and to confront opioid addiction.

"I applaud you all for doing so much," Spilka told a group gathered around a conference table in the offices of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, after hearing of local projects to expand public transit.

"It just impacts all aspects of life. I promise you we'll be very conscious of this," she said.

A half-hour later, the Ashland Democrat mentioned her early career as a social worker and pledged to keep all options on the table in dealing with the opioid epidemic.

"It will be one of the hallmarks, or personal issues, that I want to tackle," Spilka said.

The president's visit was arranged by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to acquaint her with issues in the state's westernmost county.

As officials from around Berkshire County talked shop on transit, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, noted that attention from Boston can come up short geographically.

"It really does get stuck at I-91," she said.

Though Spilka represents the Senate district that includes Framingham, she said she, too, is asked at times just how far west her constituency lies.

"Is that near the New York border?" she said she is asked.

On the transit front, Spilka and her chief of staff heard that Berkshires employers struggle to secure workers who use public transit, due to scheduling and route gaps.

"Where we invest in transit, we invest in economic development," Farley-Bouvier said.

Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said that with 1,600 miles of local roads to care for, as well as aging "short span" bridges, small towns cannot keep up when half of them receive less than $200,000 a year in state highway grants.

"The funding issue is real for our communities," he said. "It really makes it tough."

Deanna Ruffer, director of Pittsfield's office of Community Development, said that without a 24-hour transit system, employers cannot scale up.

"They're all struggling to be able to find a workforce," Ruffer said.

Robert Malnati, the transit authority's administrator, said he would like to see public transit expand from six days to a full week, if funding can be found. Late evenings and Sundays remain problems for people who need to get to or from work.

From a rural perspective, Doug McNally, a Select Board member in Windsor and vice chair of the BRTA's board, said the county's public transit service imposed an urban system on a rural area. Pointing to a map, McNally described the lack of service outside the north-south corridor in the county's center.

"How do we get people from there," he asked, pointing at Windsor on the map, "to where they work and play?"

One transit project is moving ahead, Spilka learned: The creation of a one-seat seasonal train ride between Manhattan and Pittsfield. A pilot of the Berkshire Flyer, as it's known, is scheduled for 2020. Also, the state Department of Transportation is including Berkshire County in a study of ways to expand east-west passenger rail service.

"Not stopping at I-91," Hinds said. "DOT is committed to that. There is a lot to be optimistic about right now."

Jonathan Butler of 1Berkshire outlined research steps being taken to ensure that the pilot rail service to Manhattan is a success.

Countering opioids

In a second stop, at the planning commission, Spilka greeted another full table of local experts with her pledge to make the fight against opioid addiction the "hallmark" of her work as Senate president, a role she assumed in July.

Officials from Franklin County, including Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, described how they formed a community collaborative in response to growing opioid overdoses — through a program adopted and extended this year to the Berkshires.

Jennifer Kimball, a senior planner with the commission, outlined the work of the Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative, now in its sixth year. She cited the importance of building a collaborative approach to the problem, in a region that has experienced high numbers of overdose deaths.

"We have a lot more to do," she said.

Christine Macbeth, president and CEO of The Brien Center, spoke of her 500-employee agency's mission related to the opioid crisis. Like Kimball, she stressed the need for alliances.

"We do our best work when we do it together," she said.

Macbeth told Spilka that her agency can find it hard to compete for qualified employees because of funding levels.

Thomas Bernard, mayor of North Adams, told Spilka that the people around the table know how to "stretch the dollars."

"That is an asset, and it is also an opportunity for the commonwealth," Bernard said.

He urged Spilka to view the Berkshires as an ideal laboratory for human services programs.

"Give it to us in the Berkshires — we'll kick it around and hand you the model," he said.

Sheriff Thomas Bowler, who joined the conversation, said 90 percent of inmates at his Pittsfield facility are addicted to alcohol or other drugs.

He pitched Spilka on the need for staff able to provide outreach to people after their release from custody, offering help in adopting healthy lifestyles on the outside.

"That's where we lose our individuals," Bowler said.

Spilka said that, in future funding, she wants to link opioid prevention and treatment programs to mental health care.

"We really need to bend the curve on this," she said.

"It's the boots on the ground that really matter if we're going to get ahead of this," Hinds said.

As the meeting wrapped up, Bowler joked that the Berkshires will soon see funding go through the roof, thanks to the president's visit.

Not missing a beat, Spilka parried the comment, saying, "Attention will go through the roof, I can promise you that."

Also providing perspectives were Gina Armstrong, Pittsfield's director of public health; Amber Besaw of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition; Ananda Timpane of the Railroad Street Youth Project; Gwendolyn VanSant of Multicultural BRIDGE; and Ilana Steinhauer of Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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