"City schools remain on front burner"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle Online
Sunday, June 01, 2008
"To dream the impossible dream ... ." If he pondered the admirable but hugely expensive school-consolidation proposal presented to the public last month, even Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha who was so fond of tilting at windmills, would run the other way.
Pittsfield's hard-pressed taxpayers have seen a total increase exceeding 20 percent over the past five years. On Thursday, Mayor James M. Ruberto unveiled for City Council consideration a $126.9 million budget with a 4.1 percent residential property tax hike next year. If approved, the average taxpayer's bill would come in at $2,594, an increase of $102. The average tax bill for commercial property would soar by about $800, up nearly 5 percent.
And yet, the need to deal with Pittsfield's ailing high school buildings is ultra-urgent. A school accreditation agency has warned that the city must undertake "substantial infrastructure improvements" at its two campuses.
Trouble is, the recent study prepared by Dore & Whittier Architects and consultant Frank Locker showed that maintaining Pittsfield and Taconic high schools as separate campuses on their current sites would cost more than building the proposed new 2,000-student complex on the grounds of Taconic. The beauty of that plan, first unveiled May 19, is that both schools would maintain separate identities and students would be grouped into learning "clusters" of about 200 each.
The preferred option would cost up to $187 million, according to recent estimates that are surely outdated already, before the inevitable increases and overruns in a highly inflationary economy. How can the city possibly afford a 423,000-square-foot mega-campus? Even if the state eventually kicks in half the cost (by no means assured), the city's share by the end of the project would match or exceed the entire Pittsfield budget for next year! And this is touted as the "least expensive" option.
As architect Lee Dore has argued: "There's going to be a cost here, no matter what happens, to bring this infrastructure up. If we can level the playing field and get the direction we want to go in educationally over the next 40 to 50 years, this takes the cost issue somewhat off the table and allows you to focus on what's the best educational value going forward."
This will be a front-burner topic for many months, beginning with the next public meeting of the School Building Needs Commission at PHS tomorrow evening at 6.
There is certainly no consensus yet among School Committee and City Council members. Incoming School Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein foresees a "long marathon" and acknowledges that the study raises more questions than it answers.
During a brief conversation this past week, Mayor Ruberto said that he does not have those answers; he mentioned that the city has not reached its levy limit yet, and that means that more tax increases could help finance the project. The mayor wants to find out more about how the city funded the construction of Pittsfield High School in 1930 and 1931, the first two years of the Great Depression.
Whether or not Ruberto seeks a fourth term next year, a decision he told me will depend on the health of his wife, Ellen, it will take all of his considerable political skills and salesmanship to marshal support for a credible plan to map out how the city could pay for the school project.
We can all agree that the heart and soul of any community is its school system, and Pittsfield deserves the best. But in the real world, compromise is a given. A close examination of the report (available at www.pittsfield.net) finds little room for cost-cutting. That's the dilemma we all will have to wrestle with, and it will be so difficult and time-consuming to resolve that Pittsfield's other pressing problems will seem like child's play.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Quiet outrage at BCC hearing"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed
Friday, May 30, 2008
Where's the outrage? Well, it's all around us as Americans come to realize that they are being duped and victimized by big oil with its unconscionable profits and by market speculators who drive up prices in frenzied futures trading, brought to you by the Bush administration's deregulation and its devil-may-care attitude toward ordinary citizens.
Add to the mix certain retailers who jacked up prices at Berkshire gas pumps to as high as $4.09 a gallon over the Memorial Day weekend and then pulled them down below $4 once the work week resumed, and no wonder we're all seeing red.
All this surfaced, politely of course, at Berkshire Community College on Wednesday as Sen. John Kerry, accompanied by state Attorney General Martha Coakley, conducted a two-hour "field hearing" of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, which he chairs. Looking as aristocratic and Presidential as ever, Kerry channeled the anger into a measured, deliberate onslaught against the villains in our midst who are accomplices of the petro-dictatorships that are strangling the Western world.
The stars of the show at BCC were Mayor John W. Barrett III of North Adams, a kinder, gentler, mellower champion of the little guy whom Kerry praised as "an absolute warrior a one-man gas-price monitor," and a timid yet eloquent small-business owner from his city, Colleen Taylor Reinhard. Supporting-cast members who contributed valuable insights included a top executive from National Grid; the head of a small alternative-energy startup business, SunEthanol in Hadley; the state's energy undersecretary, and Berkshire County Chamber of Commerce chief Michael Supranowicz, who bemoaned the refusal of electricity suppliers to negotiate a favorable rate for a consortium of 50-plus local companies that he recently formed.
In his introductory remarks for the first U.S. Senate committee hearing ever held here, Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto cited reports indicating Berkshire energy costs are 37 percent above the national average — Massachusetts and its New England neighbors rank as the most expensive states in the nation. He also mentioned companies that have closed, cut back or canceled plans to locate in the county because of over-the-top electricity and fuel prices — notably the Canadian water-bottler Ice River Springs Water Co., which invested $5 million into a facility on West Housatonic Street in Pittsfield only to cancel its plans and site its new plant in Claremont, N.H., where electricity costs are much lower. Ice River could have created up to 250 new jobs here, according to Ruberto.
Kerry, ever the patrician but with barely-contained fury, mentioned nearby districts that have been forced to cut academic programs in order to fuel school buses, and explained how 10 percent of the Colonial Theatre's monthly budget is "sucked right down the drain" to pay the energy piper. The Massachusetts Democrat is on the warpath, promising an effort to galvanize Congress to authorize a Justice Department task-force investigation into potential market manipulation, corporate corruption and outright fraud.
He warned that there's no "silver-bullet solution" but took Republican senators to task for blocking a windfall-profits tax approved by the House as part of a broader energy bill. The only bright spot Kerry found was a growing awareness that the country must transition to alternative fuel supplies, as slow and painful as that may be. "There's a new future staring us in the face, folks," he declared.
Barrett, who has successfully dueled with the Time Warner cable behemoth, listed inexplicable price differentials at gas stations in the region, even in the same city or town, and he accused some of them of outright gouging. "It does not get more blatant than this," he fumed. While Barrett had some brief success in leveling North Adams pump prices after he threatened to involve the state attorney general a few weeks ago, he acknowledged that the gas-station owners soon caught on and realized that the state's longest-serving mayor, 25 years on the job, had no actual clout.
"People are scared," he testified, and they lack confidence in President Bush's leadership since he's totally out to lunch on gas prices. Citing historical precedent, Barrett came close to recommending that the government threaten to impose formal controls on the big oil companies. That could work wonders, as President Truman found out when he confronted the railroads and President Kennedy learned when he took on U.S. Steel.
Colleen Taylor Reinhard's two North Adams restaurants (the popular, "Cheers"-style Freight Yard Pub and the new, upscale Taylor's Fine Dining) are struggling to stem losses triggered by a 27 percent increase in the cost of energy, food (wheat flour up 50 percent since January, eggs up 50 percent in the past year, chicken up nearly 10 percent so far this year) and credit-card fees (up 14 percent). Loaded down by debt and behind on bills, Reinhard and some of her fellow restaurateurs face a bleak winter following the usual summer surge, and she hinted darkly that layoffs are likely, and that one of her eateries may not survive.
America is starting to go "green," but cutting the umbilical cord to oil will take decades. For the short haul, Kerry discouraged the notion of a "quick-hit" government solution, noting, "the fastest, cheapest, most effective grab is energy-efficiency." That means massive lifestyle changes — now happening in western Europe, where gas prices are as high as $12 per gallon.
It's difficult to do much driving at exorbitant prices, except perhaps to drive Republicans out of the White House in November.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Whistling past the graveyard"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle
Sunday, April 06, 2008
It was a scary week for shareholders in America, not only because the economy is collapsing but because those in charge seem preoccupied with talking their way out of what is becoming a desperate financial mess.
No surprise that four out of five Americans believe that the nation is headed down the wrong track, according to the latest CBS News-New York Times poll.
On Tuesday, corporate suits from the five big oil companies looked totally dumfounded when asked by outraged lawmakers on Capitol Hill why they can't reduce pump prices, since their total profits exceeded $125 billion last year — a nifty 11 percent profit margin. No, they said, we need the profits for research and development, and we surely need the $18 billion in tax breaks you want to take away.
Then, on Thursday, the airline industry and its snoozing watchdogs, the Federal Aviation Administration, were taking a well-deserved beating at another congressional hearing. Turns out that some of the inspectors who are supposed to blow the whistle on airlines that fail to inspect their aging aircraft were intimidated by supervisors, who threatened to fire them unless they stayed cozy with the airlines.
The inspectors charged that the FAA views the airlines as "customers" rather than as companies to be regulated.
"Malfeasance bordering on corruption," thundered U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn.
At the same time, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was trying to explain to skeptical senators why the Bear Stearns investment bank was rescued. "Was this a justified response to prevent a systemic collapse of financial markets or a $30 billion taxpayer bailout, as some have called it, while people on Main Street struggle to pay their mortgages?" demanded Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn.
Bernanke responded that a financial catastrophe threatening financial markets was averted by the Fed's support of the deal allowing JPMorgan Chase to take over Bear Stearns at a distress-sale price. Bernanke conceded that the bailout raised "difficult questions of public policy."
Closer to home, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a native of North Adams, was upbraiding the state's insurance commissioner; she argued that the state's new Web site rating auto-insurance deals is only 20 percent to 40 percent accurate. The hapless commissioner, Nonnie Burnes, seemed chastened, but defended the site as "a start."
Then we see Western Massachusetts Electric Co., which serves half of Berkshire County including Pittsfield, continuing its chokehold on area businesses and homeowners. The company charges for usage plus delivery, and the more you use, the higher your delivery charge. The exorbitant rates are responsible for Pittsfield's loss of a water-bottling manufacturing plant that could have created 100-plus jobs at the former KB Toys warehouse on West Housatonic Street. But the Canadian company, Ice River Springs, is putting that plant in Claremont, N.H., where utility rates are lower. The closing of three South County paper mills also is blamed, at least in part, on energy costs.
A frustrated Mayor James M. Ruberto told 400 people at last Monday's Berkshire Chamber of Commerce meeting: "I'm to the point that, if someone wanted to come in and put an energy company in Pittsfield ... I'd be glad to give them some acreage, free, on the PEDA site, and to do everything else to encourage an organization to consider us so that we could reduce the cost of energy."
The chamber, led by President Michael Supranowicz, represented hard-pressed local businesses at a meeting with WMECO officials and Coakley's office. The goal is to "decouple" the company's delivery charge from usage rates to reduce the bottom line on electricity bills.
But the state's energy commissioner, Philip Giudice, opposed the idea and warned that, if the state's businesses cut back their energy use by 10 percent to 20 percent, "we would actually bankrupt all the utilities in the state, which is not a good thing." Another public official standing up for a monopoly.
At that Berkshire Chamber meeting, Gov. Deval L. Patrick counseled against panic and blamed "the hyperbole of much of the media and the political class" for causing a more dire outlook than warranted. But he acknowledged that middle-class folks are "one paycheck away, one serious illness away, one layoff away from being poor, and are deeply anxious about it." We hope Patrick does not adopt President Bush's strategy of averting his eyes and whistling past the graveyard.
Last month's national job loss was the worst in five years, there's runaway inflation for food and energy, and our leaders remain reluctant to say the word "recession."
Sad to say, "It's a recession, stupid."
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
"Economy fracturing at all levels"
By Clarence Fanto, Columnist, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed
Sunday, March 30, 2008
The wheels are coming off the economy at breakneck speed. From Wall Street to Main Street to North Street and points between, potholes are becoming sinkholes.
The impact from the Berkshires to Boston is already severe. The state government has to pull out its credit card — short-term federal loans — to pay its bills. Local aid to communities in the Berkshires and statewide is drying up.
We're only seeing the prologue to this multi-act horror show. Nonprofits are challenged — The Mount, because of massive debt and mismanagement; HospiceCare of the Berkshires, because banks are wary of financing expensive new projects, even if they're especially worthy. More distress may well surface.
And the for-profit sector has its share of casualties. In a more robust economy, Spice might have survived longer. Pete's Motors, a fixture on Pittsfield's "auto mile" since 1929, is being sold to Haddad Motors.
Sad to say, other victims pf the worst downturn in recent memory are likely.
Total employment in Berkshire County is down by 1,780 people, or 2.5 percent, in the past year while the labor force has shrunk by more than 600. That means discouraged workers are giving up, the population exodus is probably accelerating, and one out of four residents between 15 and 24 flee the county each year! This is at a time when many Baby Boomer retirements are looming.
"I would say that 60 days ago, none of us thought it was going to be at the crisis level it's purported to be now," said Brian Fairbank, Jiminy Peak mogul and HospiceCare board member. "So it really did come on like a freight train."
You know it's no ordinary recession when the normally upbeat Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto acknowledges that "there's a harsh reality in the economic conditions that exist today."
Surveying the state's budget meltdown (a rapidly widening $1.3 billion deficit), state Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, told the Boston Globe: "Every taxpayer and tollpayer in Massachusetts is overburdened at the same time as our infrastructure is about to implode."
There are some quick-fix solutions under discussion — a $1 per pack increase in the cigarette tax, a tightening of corporate tax loopholes, a splash into the state's "rainy day" fund and, unfortunately, gas tax and highway toll increases, severe cuts in aid to cities and towns, and even some reductions in worthy social-service programs.
The state is at a financial "point of reckoning," according to the non-partisan public policy think tank, MassINC. Its just-released report points out that in other states, "new workers and new businesses provide revenue that insulates the effects of a budget out of balance. Massachusetts will have a tougher time growing out of the recession because our cost of living and anemic job growth continues to cause out-migration."
"We're just teetering on the precipice," says Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
It will take a profound evolution in our way of doing business nationally to emerge from this economic nightmare.
Barack Obama, still the Democratic front-runner despite the Clintonites' scorched-earth tactics, delivered a profound and timely speech on the economy Thursday morning — as compelling as his historic call-to-action on the racial divide.
"Too often we've excused and even embraced an ethic of greed, corner-cutting, insider dealing, things that have always threatened the long-term stability of our economic system," he declared. "Too often we've lost that common stake in each other's prosperity.
"We need policies that once again recognize that we are in this together. And we need the most powerful, the wealthiest among us ... to get behind that agenda.
"It's an agenda that starts with providing a stimulus that will reach the most vulnerable Americans, including immediate relief to areas hardest hit by the housing crisis, and a significant extension of unemployment insurance for those who are out of work.
"If we can extend a hand to banks on Wall Street when they get into trouble, we can extend a hand to Americans who are struggling, often through no fault of their own."
Obama's landmark speech is worth reading or viewing in full — the brief text-bytes here barely do it justice.
From this vantage point, an Obama presidency would be a balm for our deep economic wounds; a McCain presidency would only prolong the agony. Choices of historic proportions loom large in the months ahead.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Weep not for Spice
By Clarence Fanto
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Is Spice's closing a sign of trouble for downtown Pittsfield?
Total Votes = 491
Yes 57.23 %
No 37.27 %
I'm not sure 5.498 %
The sudden closing of the ultra-fancy Spice restaurant — or hiatus, as Mayor Ruberto prefers to call it — should not have caused shock and awe.
And, as only one piece of the downtown renaissance, its apparent failure should not be viewed as a major setback for the city.
Despite massive hype over the past 20 months, a slew of awards from trade associations, an 11-year tax break from the city for the $6 million-plus in improvements to the forlorn former Besse-Clarke site, the eatery just did not connect with enough year-round residents of Pittsfield and surrounding towns. And that was its fatal flaw.
How many times does it have to be repeated that a successful business cannot survive solely on the "carriage trade" — tourists, affluent second-homers and the relatively limited number of high-income local residents? On several recent weekend evenings, only a handful of tables were occupied at Spice. Just down the street, the recently relocated Bobby Hudpucker's was packed with families enjoying reasonably-priced meals. North Street and vicinity now offers as many as 40 choices, including Mexican, Brazilian, Indian, Chinese and Italian cuisine.
There was an elitist, arrogant atmosphere at Spice. The restaurant seemed too dandified for its own good — as if it had been transplanted from Manhattan's Upper East Side. Disturbing reports emerged of high staff turnover, always a sign of trouble; too many diners reported erratic service. The ever-changing menu seemed to be in search of an identity. Healthy cuisine was difficult to find.
And the prices! A basic salad cost $8; other starters ranged up to $14. The least-expensive entree — dumplings with vegetables — went for $19. Other choices were well up in the 20s, with a 12-ounce steak fetching a wallet-busting $44. Side dishes ranged from $6 to $9. Dessert? Figure on $7 (for a plate of cookies) to $10. Tea would set you back $3.50. Drinks from the bar? Don't ask. Children's menu? $10 for a multi-course meal that no child could possibly finish.
From time to time, three-course $30 specials were offered on weekdays. Apparently, they found few takers. Lunch service was abandoned some time ago, a strange decision.
Certainly, there's room for fine dining in Pittsfield. On McKay Street, Trattoria Rustica has built up a faithful year-round following by offering quality Italian cuisine at entree prices ranging from $12 to $28. At Brix on West Street, billed as a classic European bistro and wine bar, one can choose main courses within the same price range; sandwiches, salads and sides are reasonably priced.
No doubt, the deep recession is hurting some restaurants but, in our experience, affordable spots with family-friendly menus are holding their own — some of them have folks spilling out the doors on weekend evenings. It's not fair for Spice co-owner Joyce Bernstein — who has been known to greet diners with a faux-cheery "how come we haven't seen you here lately?" — to blame the "economic climate" of Pittsfield. She and her partner, Laurence Rosenthal, deserve credit for their vision and their risk-taking, but execution is everything. And the execution was lacking, to say the least.
With nearly $8 million owed to Berkshire Bank for the improvements and expansion of the site, one has to wonder about the economic model. Remember that the purchase price of the then-decrepit building was a fire-sale priced $270,000. Legitimate questions have been raised about the costly improvements to the second-floor banquet facilities, given the massive escalation of bank debt.
Hard-pressed city taxpayers deserve answers from City Hall about those tax breaks, and why they should continue. The long-delayed Beacon Cinema project on North Street, which may finally break ground this summer, also has benefited from a massive infusion of economic development funding. Let's hope that the business model for that crucial private enterprise has been carefully vetted.
With all that said, we have to hope that Spice can reopen in a few weeks with a retooled menu and perhaps a new name, since its image has been badly tarnished.
Carrie Saldo reported yesterday on WAMC that Rosenthal and Bernstein intend to re-open in late May or early June with a different business model, citing Mayor Ruberto, cultural czarina Megan Whilden and Berkshire Chamber of Commerce head Michael Supranowicz as sources. Most of all, there has to be a welcoming attitude and appropriate pricing for Berkshire County residents.
Meanwhile, it's encouraging that the adjoining Burger will remain open, though with shortened hours.
The city administration, the media and the business community oversold the significance of Spice to the revival of downtown. Whatever the restaurant's fate, much more important is the success of Barrington Stage (off to a very strong start), the Colonial Theatre (financially challenged but a Mecca for populist-oriented entertainment), the eagerly awaited cinema complex and the most-welcome diversity of dining options downtown.
Pittsfield's momentum is likely to continue despite the stressed economy and a setback or two along the way. Condos are selling, people are moving in, and many businesses are thriving against tough odds.
Mainstays of North Street — Steven Valenti's clothing store and Paul Rich's home furnishings complex, just to mention two — succeed with excellent, personalized service.
So, weep no more for Spice. With some luck and wisdom gained from experience, a successful, reconfigured restaurant may yet emerge from the ashes of disappointment and disillusion.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Fairbanks are genuine visionaries"
By Clarence Fanto
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed
Sunday, March 09, 2008
More power to the Fairbanks, father and son, and partners in their ambitious new wind-power venture — the development and marketing of turbines such as the $4 million Zephyr that already helps power up their Jiminy Peak resort. The scenically appealing turbine churning atop Jiminy symbolizes the breeze of the future — perhaps a gale — that could provide relief from the crushing burden of energy costs now choking homeowners and businesses.
The bright early-March sun, illuminating Jiminy's ski slopes like a Currier & Ives print, seemed to be a positive omen as media types, politicians and interested observers gathered there Thursday for the launch of EOS — in Greek mythology, the Goddess of the New Dawn. Tyler Fairbank, in his final weeks as president of the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation, is the CEO of EOS Ventures; his father, Brian, half-owner of Jiminy Peak Resort, is a partner and adviser, as is the resort's co-owner, Boston business mogul Joseph O'Donnell.
Brian Fairbank is a genuine visionary, having expanded Jiminy from what was a simple ski slope in 1970 to a massive four-season resort that generates $20 million in annual revenue and rivals the leading ski areas of southern Vermont.
Four years ago, he gambled on wind-turbine energy, a risk that has paid off handsomely.
"We embarked on a journey, and we didn't know where it was going to take us," said Fairbank of the decision to pursue the Zephyr wind project. The turbine supplies most of the power Jiminy needs for snow-making and at least one-third of the resort's total electricity needs. It has helped fuel a statewide demand for similar installations.
Enter Tyler Fairbank, touting Jiminy as "a steward of the environment." Seizing a well-timed opportunity to create a profitable new business while "doing the right thing" in the burgeoning field of renewable energy, the newly crowned CEO described EOS Ventures as a "one-stop resource" for development and management of wind turbines that it will lease to a growing list of eager customers. The new company — in a "strategic relationship" with the Zephyr's developer and general contractor, Sustainable Energy Developments (SED) — will engineer, install, maintain and own the wind turbines; solar photovoltaic, biomass and biofuel projects are expected to come online down the road.
EOS will be based at Jiminy and, at first, will share staff. "This is a business venture with a social conscience," the younger Fairbank declared. "Sustainability and energy independence is the crux of the matter. There's no doubt in my mind ... that EOS will make its mark on the world."
Sustainable Energy will bring projects to EOS, explained Kevin Schulte, a partner in the Ontario, N.Y.-based wind-project company. Schulte formed the company six years ago with his friends and college roommates.
Now, with energy costs helping sink the economy, Schulte has at least 10 wind projects under development across Massachusetts for water companies, communities, schools and private businesses.
"For the first time, we have not only the experience and the energy but, most importantly, the passion behind us to get these projects in the ground," Schulte declared, referring to the "strategic partnership" with EOS.
State Rep. Denis Guyer predicted that new ventures such as EOS would generate jobs and help the nation develop alternative energy sources.
Adding to the political show of support, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing depicted the new venture as a statewide and national model. He asserted that "the only way we're going to be able to grow jobs in this region ... is to provide energy in a more cost-effective and sustainable manner, and that's exactly what EOS Ventures allows us to do. In an election season, it's no longer, 'It's the economy, stupid.' Now, 'It's the energy, stupid,' because if we don't deal with our energy issues, we're never going to be able to provide the economic opportunity that we can and should here in the Berkshires in a way that attracts employers and builds up the institutions that we already have. "
EOS still must work out a deal with GE Energy to supply the turbines; that division of the corporate behemoth has just announced a new $1 billion deal to supply 750 megawatts of wind turbines to Chicago-based Invenergy Wind, enough to meet the power needs of more than 200,000 North American households beginning in 2010.
Although there is no simple solution for our current woes, this homegrown effort should help harness the massive effort needed for progress toward energy independence.
"Struggling Mount in need of an angel"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle
Thursday, February 28, 2008
It may take a miracle to save Edith Wharton's estate, The Mount, from foreclosure by Berkshire Bank. The national landmark — listed as a project of the public-private partnership Save America's Treasures — is drowning in a geyser of red ink totaling about $9 million — substantially more than previously reported.
The crushing burden includes $4.3 million owed to the bank, $2.5 million to donor Robert Wilmers, who helped fund the acquisition of the famed author's 2,600-volume library in 2005, $885,000 to George Ramsden, previous owner of that collection, $1 million to Webster Bank (described as a "friendly" loan secured by a major supporter), and the rest to miscellaneous creditors.
A scheduled $30,000 mortgage payment to Berkshire Bank was missed on Feb. 11; the Edith Wharton Restoration's annual operating expenses have been $2 million and its earned income was nearly $1 million last year, a 20 percent increase from 2006. The gap was closed by borrowing from an additional line of bank credit.
Only Stephanie Copeland, the president, and four of the 11 full-time staff members remain at the gate-house offices of the 50-acre property; the six others, plus two part-timers, were laid off last Friday. Two of the survivors are in charge of property maintenance and security — "after $13 million has been invested in the property, you need to take care of the investment," she reminded this interviewer on Monday. (Copeland maintains a one-room studio office-apartment in New York City to connect with the organization's base of supporters; the facility is sublet during the summer months.)
Unless $3 million can be raised by March 24 — an amount that would be matched by an anonymous donor waiting in the wings — The Mount eventually will be padlocked and put on the market by the bank. Copeland hopes for a major gift of up to $1 million, followed by smaller but still significant contributions.
Acknowledging that The Mount is perpetually underfunded and lacks an endowment, she declared: "We're not going to make it unless we find donors who are going to be enormously generous and make the difference." About 30,000 people visited the site last year.
Copeland maintained that "the bank would be very happy and would do everything it could to prevent foreclosure if we are able to demonstrate that we have the power and the ability to raise substantial funds because it will be able to convince shareholders and regulators that 'this is not a poor investment, this is a company that can make it.' "
"We will always be looking for an angel," Copeland admitted. "A non-profit is always hand-to-mouth until that angel comes in and put up adequate funding." She and her five-member board are seeking a group of "passionate citizens" to float a lifeboat. But even if that happens, she cautioned, "there isn't the funding to keep it running. Now, if you've got it saved, you have to run it, take care of it."
Any regrets or second thoughts? The organization's president acknowledged that the campaign to pay the debts for the acquisition of the library collection "stumbled and faltered. . . .But it was so seductive to borrow the money to buy the books; that was going to bail us out."
"I think that would be my one regret," she suggested. "When someone offers you two-and-a-half million dollars, you might have said you're not ready to receive it. That didn't enter my head, but I wish it had because I didn't have the infrastructure in place to mount the campaign."
She pointed out that, after much discussion, the board agreed that the collection should be acquired for the author's home — "it's her soul, it belongs here."
But she rejected the notion that the imminent foreclosure threat could have been averted if only the organization had come up with the relatively modest $30,000 mortgage payment. "We had no money left!" she insisted. "It's not just paying the bank. . . . We have a lot of other creditors and debt. Just to raise money to pay the bank — it can see you're starving to death. . . you're a non-performing loan because you're going to go under, even if you pay us."
Why the public secrecy until the bank lowered the boom?
"Up until the weekend before the payment was due, we were trying to raise the money, to make that payment, to keep the lights and the phone on, paying insurance, meeting the payroll," Copeland responded.
She was amused by the suggestion that the Mount's chances of a savior compare to Mike Huckabee's chances of becoming the Republican presidential nominee.
"We have a much greater chance, let me tell you," she laughed. "That's because I know people who have the capacity to help, who want to help — there are enough people out there who would not want this monument to pass into private hands. . . . When I came here in 1993, people were saying to me, 'Edith Wharton, why save that place?' A lot's happened since then."
She is counting on potential supporters' recollections of Hillary Clinton's 1998 visit to jump-start the restoration effort and Laura Bush's appearance to celebrate the arrival of the library collection in 2006 — "we were the darling of the press."
Copeland stressed that pledged contributions will not be collected unless and until The Mount can successfully restructure its debt to the bank. "It's a marvelous opportunity for somebody who has the kind of money it takes to make a difference, to save a major American monument to a major American. And to put their name on it if they want, to get recognized!"
Not naming rights, she hastened to add, then chuckling at the interviewer's mention of Donald Trump
— "he could put his name on it if he gave enough. . . but he would probably develop it into a gambling casino."
Despite that note of levity, it's a not-so-wonderful life right now, unless there's an angel waiting in the wings. Make no mistake; Copeland and other Wharton devotees are counting on a Hollywood happy ending.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"American dream fades to nightmare"
By Clarence Fanto
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed
Sunday, February 24, 2008
For too many homeowners, the American dream has turned into a nightmare. Although some of the same turbulent headwinds that have caused a national real estate tsunami have buffeted the Berkshires, the local damage has been relatively limited, according to data from the Berkshire County Board of Realtors.
There has been a sales decline for single-family homes countywide, with a 9 percent drop in the number of properties sold in 2007 compared with the previous year. But that compares with a statewide decline of 20 percent. There is no glut of Berkshire homes for sale now; the "inventory" dropped by 2 percent in January, with 1,275 homes for sale compared with 1,307 in January 2007. Some would-be sellers are waiting it out on the sidelines. The median sales price for single-family homes in the county was $224,950 as this year began, an increase of 5 percent from a year ago even as prices statewide dropped by nearly 4 percent.
No question, the market favors buyers now, according to Bob Romeo, whose Century 21 Franklin Street firm has 55 agents staffing offices in Pittsfield, Lenox, Great Barrington and Otis as well as Easthampton in the Pioneer Valley. In a recent interview, he pointed out that, from 2002 to 2005, a wave of buyers outnumbered sellers, and "that created a frenzy."
Romeo recommends a reality check for unsold realty — "many sellers have set a pace that may not be realistic. We have no shortage of overpriced properties. But we are not in the same quicksand as other parts of the country because we are fortunate here; the Berkshires are a cultural and scenic destination, so we are not affected by some of the national trends."
Although the number of transactions is "substantially less than in 2005, it's a decent number," said Romeo, acknowledging that "the only part that is a little disturbing is that median and average prices are higher than a few years ago. That tends to give sellers the idea that if a property was worth $300,000 in 2005, then it's worth $375,000 now, when it may actually may be $275,000."
Although foreclosures have spiked, it's not as sharp as elsewhere; there are about 40 properties in various stages of foreclosure countywide this month, compared with about 25 last February, according to online databases.
Romeo, whose firm has a department handling foreclosed properties, finds it disturbing that some of those homes are overvalued, compared with city and town assessments, and he bemoans the widespread practice of "remortgaging our houses to pay down credit-card debt or to take a cruise. It becomes a big problem when you reach retirement age and you still have a mortgage without the income to support it."
"Taking out home-equity loans is the most damaging bullet for homeowners today," he said.
Romeo reported that it now takes about 200 days on average to sell a home here, compared with 100 days three years ago.
How can a potential seller determine a realistic price? A licensed Berkshire appraiser is needed, and adjustments are made based on recent price trends.
"We've lost the vision of what homeownership really means," Romeo insisted. "Where the blame lies is that we aren't evaluating the ability of a buyer to pay off a mortgage. But if you're qualified now, you'll get one."
Several decades ago, 20 percent down payments were the norm for a typical 20- to 30-year mortgage — remember mortgage-burning parties? Buyers set aside about one-third of their monthly gross income for housing costs. Now, if nearly fully financed, even a $200,000 home can soak up as much as $24,000 a year in mortgage and tax costs in some towns, requiring a $75,000 annual income.
"A person who has a son or daughter living in Lenox cannot expect them to live here once they're out of school because we don't have the careers or salaries that would support a $300,000 or $400,000 home," according to Romeo. "Our biggest problem for a local is that we do not have the industrial base to generate salaries necessary to support these kinds of properties.
"While the drop in interest rates does not significantly impact the mortgage market, it has a psychological effect."
The hope is that a reality check by sellers may breathe renewed life into the housing market nationally, with positive effects locally. If buyers understand what they can actually afford, and if sellers resist the understandable temptation to try to make a killing on their properties, sanity should prevail, and equilibrium can be restored.
Next Sunday: A look at the second-home market.
"City must face school violence"
By Clarence Fanto
Sunday, February 17, 2008
What is it going to take for the city's school and public officials to confront the violence at Pittsfield High? Despite the courageous letter from a concerned student and follow-up reporting in The Eagle this past week, an apparent cover-up continues.
An award-winning Eagle series last July raised red flags — since November 2006, the Police Department had stationed a marked cruiser outside PHS during lunchtime to deter possible gang activity outside the campus. Students downplayed the gangs, citing posers and wannabes. But the Police Department's armed PHS resource officer, Russell Quetti, acknowledged an upsurge in gang-related activity among 30 students beyond anything he had witnessed during his four years in the post. From all available evidence, most of it anecdotal, the atmosphere at PHS is poisonous now. There are reports of frequent violent incidents, including bloodshed, in the basement, where black and Hispanic students battle for turf.
A former substitute teacher wrote in The Eagle Friday that many students confront "a hostile and threatening environment" every day where about 15 percent of the students are to blame for a "blend of anarchy and obnoxiousness." As Jim Norchi put it: "Too many students saw each day as another gauntlet they had to run, more concerned with making it through a day unharmed physically and emotionally rather than academic content. Who can study knowing the reign of the mob prevails?"
A PHS junior on the student council who prefers to remain unidentified assured me Friday that "students aren't scared about going to school" and that about 50 out of nearly 1,000 students are involved in the fights.
"It's not true that it's an unsafe environment," this student insisted, adding that the origin of the fights is a mystery and that any racial problem in the school is confined to "the very small group of students involved in the incidents."
The student council member denied being targeted by prejudice or threats and blamed the problem on intensified "teenage drama — people are taking it to an extreme, bringing racial comments into it, making it worse."
For this student, who took exception to the wording in senior Victoria Simon's letter, difficulties at PHS reflect the changes engulfing the city — "maybe new ideas are clashing within the city, a community problem surfacing as a high-school problem. I wouldn't call it a gang situation."
"Some say the changes in our city are scary," the student added. "Teenagers see things from a child's perspective as well as an adult's perspective."
Michael Wynn, the Police Department's captain-in-charge, professed that he does not know whether the schools are more violent. He told The Eagle that reported cases involving disturbances, disorderly conduct, drug offenses and assaults are up slightly. Tellingly, Quetti is now avoiding public comment.
It took Simon's letter to smoke out basic facts about last week's incident that sent two young ladies to BMC's emergency room. Simon deserves a medal for her willingness to come forward. Some students have thanked her for speaking out and for criticizing the school administration for trying to "pretend the problem isn't there."
But the acting principal, Anne Beauregard, was displeased and described Simon's comments as "inaccurate." She then acknowledged an upsurge in PHS violence in November and described last week's confrontation between black and white students as an "isolated incident."
After praising the administration for doing "a darn good job of responding quickly and aggressively," she depicted the school as a "safe place." To be sure, she has her supporters, and she has been cited for doing her best to contain a problem that preceded her appointment as acting principal.
For his part, former PHS Principal Howard J. Eberwein III, now assistant superintendent of schools, described the outside world's perception of the school as "not accurate." Mayor James M. Ruberto has forthrightly acknowledged the problem, urged the police to compile more detailed reports and declared that the city is taking the personal-safety issue seriously. It's strange that the Police Department's offer of additional presence was turned aside by the acting principal, who deemed it unnecessary.
Let's hope the mayor acts quickly and convenes a public forum for a full, frank discussion of the facts. Ruberto's commitment to improving education in this city is among the many admirable aspects of his tenure. We eagerly anticipate his firm leadership in confronting this deeply disturbing problem; a solution is of the highest urgency.
2/17/2008, By rapaint, Pittsfield, Massachusetts:
I THINK IT IS ABOUT TIME THAT THE TEACHERS STOP BLAMING THE PARENTS AND PARENTS TO STOP BLAMING THE SCHOOLS. INSTEAD THEY SHOULD START WORKING TOGETHER. ONE THING THAT IS NEEDED IS TO GIVE THE SCHOOLS BACK THE POWER TO ENFORCE DISCIPLINE. AND THEN CONTACT THE PARENTS OF THE STUDENTS THAT ARE CAUSING TROUBLE AND LET THEM KNOW THAT THIS KIND OF CONDUCT WILL NO LONGER BE TOLERATED AND IF IT CONTINUES THEY WILL BE PUT IN A SCHOOL THAT HAS ENOUGH POLICE TO ENSURE THEY WILL BEHAVE. THIS MAY SOUND DRASTIC BUT IF SOMETHING ISN'T DONE WE WILL PAY THE PRICE WHEN THEY GET OUT IN SOCIETY. AND IF THERE IS ANY UNCERTAINTY ABOUT IT ONE ONLY HAS TO GO BY THE COURT ON NORTH ST AND SEE HOW MANY YOUNG PEOPLE ARE IN THAT SYSTEM.
2/17/2008, By Laura Collins, Wallingford, PA
School Safety Planning without Assessment: Guessing is not planning
You go to the doctor because you feel sick. When the doctor enters the examination room the doctor tells you that he is giving you a prescription for to medicines. Confused you ask,â€œBut you havenâ€™t examined me yet to diagnose my problem?â€� The doctor replies,â€œDonâ€™t worry I have a pretty good idea what is wrong with you so Iâ€™ll just wing itâ€�.
How fast would you run out of there? This is how most school district design school safety plans. They use a little bit of internet information, a little bit of other districts information and a lot of guess work. This is not professional or effective planning.
Without a compete assessment an effective plan cannot be designed. Most districts have had safety assessments conducted by local people or companies. The problem is that these assessments are superficial and general ineffective for planning purposes or problems solving.
Most of the security assessments that have been performed in U.S. schools have focused either on security hardware [cameras, locks, etc.] or exterior crime prevention. Since school safety is primarily about the management of a school environment and the people in it, an accurate assessment of safety must include analysis of the management systems in place on a daily basis that affect daily security issues.
The following is a list of what a proper school security audit should include:
â€¢ Each audit / assessment must be custom designed to the school facility structure and personality. For example California style [one floor, flat or shallow roof] buildings present different security problems than a school facility that have multiple floors. Socio-economic aspects of the community and the surrounding area also set the personality of a school.
â€¢ A complete audit must also include interviews with key community people regarding juvenile crime and social problems related to children.
â€¢ The audit must seek out key personnel within each school for extensive interviews. These key personnel provide much of the relevant usable information for the audit.
â€¢ An audit of sub social groups must also be conducted.
â€¢ An audit of management structure related to security is also vital in a proper audit.
â€¢ An audit of the relationship and communication between staff and students must be properly conducted.
â€¢ Student movement and classroom management must be audited.
â€¢ An audit of disciplinary issues must be conducted.
â€¢ Finally, the audit must provide specific issues with specific solutions must be designed for each school facility.
Parent, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 2/18/2008:
Unlike Miss Simon, the unnamed toady of the administration on the student council would not identify him/herself. One can only wonder why. Is s/he afraid or sheltered?
Another student stood before the school committee a couple of months ago brought a story similar to Miss Simon's.
Rumors aside, the empirical facts support the notion that there is a significant problem. It is an empirical fact that the police were required to respond to PHS more times in the first three months of school than they were all year last year. It is an empirical fact that two young people were removed by ambulance because of a fight.
Do leaders wait until someone is killed in what apparently only most of the student body knows what is happening and then attempt to maintain plausible deniability, or do they do something now?
DAVE HARDING, Chatham, NY, 2/18/2008:
Thank you, Mr. Fanto, for your excellent editorial. The follow up to Ms. Simon's letter in the EAGLE has been enlightening. It is good that there is a week of school vacation just now as this gives everybody a chance to reflect. The Mayor and School Committee need to move on the issue of school safety and if the problem is being complicated by the presence of drugs and gangs, the City Council also needs to take a stand. It may be wise to alert the state Attorney Generals office as well. Pittsfield and the surrounding area have made a financial committment to increase tourism and full public safety is a must if this effort is to succeed. And, of course, the safety of our students in the public students should be of the highest priority to all facets of the city government who bear responsibility in this area. Please don't drop the ball!
"Impeachment advocacy not worth bluster"
By Clarence Fanto
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Lost in space last week were this column's punch lines: "On Tuesday, Berkshire voters can help realize the dream so well-articulated by Obama himself. Our deeply troubled times demand dramatic, visionary change. Obama is the eloquent, dedicated champion who can lead us, yes, to a New Frontier once again."
Democrats and independents here — and statewide — chose to back Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the irrational antipathy expressed toward her in some quarters is not shared chez nous. If she puts together the winning majority of party delegates, her candidacy is a far superior alternative to a McCain administration that would prolong the war and slash domestic spending. He should be believed when he trumpets his conservative credentials. None other than Pat Buchanan, a respectable conservative political commentator and one-time presidential hopeful, has predicted that McCain would "make Dick Cheney look like Gandhi."
Closer to home, even Don Quixote would be laughing up his sleeve at the absurdity of Stockbridge attorney Robert Feuer's recently announced primary challenge to our long-serving U.S. Rep. John W. Olver. The Amherst Democrat, in office since 1991, is now 71 and his all-but-certain re-election in November could be his final term. Depending on population loss determined by the 2010 U.S. Census, the 1st Congressional District stretching from the Berkshires to Worcester County may be merged into the adjacent 2nd District.
Of course, Feuer has the perfect right to tilt at any windmill he chooses and to chase the impossible dream that eluded the Man from La Mancha. But the premise of his campaign is beyond all reason. He argues that, were it not for Olver, impeachment proceedings against Vice President Cheney and, presumably President Bush, would be under way in Congress. Feuer and supporters even claim that a majority of the population favors impeachment.
Feuer's Folly was launched on the steps of Town Hall in Great Barrington (a handful of supporters showed up) and outside City Hall in North Adams last Monday, where only one reporter was present. His language verges on Apocalypse Now. "Throughout the district, I see people in need, as throughout our country the days have grown dark. Consider this an opportunity to work together to remove the obstacles that have hampered our freedoms, stifled our liberty and blocked our path to our pursuit of happiness."
Touting his experience as a two-term Democratic Committee chairman in Stockbridge, a local leader of the Clean Elections movement and as a public defender, Feuer offered a litany of goals beyond his hopeless advocacy of impeachment at a time when Democrats barely control Congress and cannot even muster the required supermajority to begin a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Voicing faint praise, Feuer stated that he has "supported, appreciated and admired the past years of progressive intent displayed by Congressman Olver. He deserves our every respect for all of his prior terms as our sole representative to the U.S. House."
But then, he blasts Olver and Congress for failing to stand up to the president, all of which "demonstrates that good intentions mixed with bad political decisions have, at best, been a disappointing failure." According to the challenger, Olver and colleagues ignored the will of the people by refusing to pursue impeachment. As evidence, attorney Feuer cites small numbers of voters in 20 Western Massachusetts towns who approved pro-impeachment resolutions last spring.
Bush and Cheney have presided over arguably one of the worst administrations in U.S. history. But to take on Olver, one of the most progressive members of Congress and a faithful representative of this area's economic interests, represents an excursion into Never-Neverland. Every meaningful project that has benefited the Berkshire economy has come about either directly or indirectly through Olver's leadership and support. He is the only Massachusetts representative on the House Appropriations Committee, which gives him great leverage to advocate for the economic development of our region. He is the chairman of a crucial subcommittee responsible for initiating and approving transportation, housing and urban development spending.
Beyond that, he has been on the right side of every major issue, from global warming to the war. His résumé of accomplishments could fill this entire page, and then some.
In response to Feuer's arrogant and self-serving challenge to a fine lawmaker, Olver should be saluted for all he has done to help this district, and the nation, on the path to progress, justice and a hoped-for return to sanity at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"Money woes confront state health program"
By Clarence Fanto
Friday, February 08, 2008
A pack of wolves is lurking outside the door, and no amount of dancing can resolve the threat to this state's health care reform — a first-in-the-nation, revolutionary program that is under close scrutiny as Democratic presidential candidates attempt to figure out solutions to our broken medical insurance system.
The state's insurance programs for the poor as well as low- and middle-income residents not covered by employers — MassHealth, Commonwealth Care and Commonwealth Choice — seem to be working as smoothly as any massive, government-run startup system could be expected to. Judging from published reports, anecdotal evidence and personal experience, most people are able to navigate the initial red tape with help from community health agencies. More medical practices have signed up, making it possible for patients to remain with their chosen physicians.
But the good news ends there. According to The Boston Globe's revealing investigative reporting this past week, the state badly undercounted uninsured residents, putting the figure at 460,000 while the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 748,000. The reality is somewhere in between, but far higher than the state expected.
Thus, within three years the cost of Commonwealth Care program is expected to double, reaching $1.35 billion a year. Commonwealth Care insures individuals and families earning modest to moderate incomes — for example, up to about $51,000 a year for a family of three. Premiums are far below unaffordable market rates set by private companies.
Total state spending on subsidized health care — including MassHealth for the poor and disabled — is already nearly $2 billion a year. The state is hoping the feds will reimburse half the cost starting next year, but the prospects are highly uncertain. The likely outcome is that already hard-pressed state taxpayers will be on the hook — or the state would be forced to reduce the scope of the program.
During a briefing for Eagle journalists last week, health-care reporter Jack Dew asked Gov. Deval Patrick about fears that the health-care reform program cannot be sustained.
"I think it's too soon to tell," he responded. "We're working really hard to make it sustainable, but there's a whole lot we have to do, particularly on cost control, to make it work. . . ." He emphasized the need for help from Washington, especially for the lowest-income Medicaid recipients covered by MassHealth. He also denied reports that cost-control measures have failed to make much headway.
Patrick explained the program will be "adjusted as we go, that's the best part of health care reform" and that a coalition of political leaders and health-care officials is holding together to make the necessary tweaks.
The governor did acknowledge the extent of the difficulty — "the rate of increase in premiums is a serious problem for the state system and for private individuals, families and businesses as well. . . and there's a view out there that as long as private insurance is a part of health-care reform, we're never really going to break the back of the pattern." He called for serious consideration of a single-payer universal health care solution by the next administration in Washington.
He also cited research by Blue Cross Blue Shield that focuses on fixed payments for services to health-care providers, while higher-quality care would provide a financial "upside." Overall, Patrick insisted that he remains "cautiously optimistic" about the future of health-care reform in Massachusetts. While the governor's personal charisma, enthusiasm and upbeat approach are praiseworthy, there's plenty of evidence for concern.
The Legislature and the governor still remain bogged down on examining his resort-casino proposals, but Patrick is already counting on gambling revenue long before it's hatched — if it ever does. Funding for many of his other laudable but costly initiatives remains questionable, especially in a plunging economy that could hit Massachusetts even harder than the rest of the nation, if past experience holds true.
Patrick inherited inaccurate assumptions about the cost of state-subsidized health insurance from the Romney administration, which created the program along with Beacon Hill lawmakers. (It's laughable whenever the presidential flunk-out blasts "Hillary Care" as socialized medicine, since it's based largely on "Romney Care.") Patrick's budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year includes $400 million in extra health care spending — taxpayers would be responsible for nearly half of that, with the federal government counted on to supply the rest.
With the Bush administration now seeking massive cuts in health-care and other non-military spending, the immediate prospect of relief from Washington looks bleak. A McCain presidency would amount to a Bush third term when it comes to domestic spending. A Clinton or Obama administration would produce a sea-change, but it's unlikely the federal government will be in a position to bail out Massachusetts if health care insurance spending spirals out of control.
The state program is run by the Commonwealth Connector, which hooks up uninsured residents with the appropriate coverage. Jon Kingsdale, head of the program, told The Globe in no uncertain terms: "This is not sustainable if we don't deal with affordability." Proposed solutions are vague or half-baked at this point, ranging from a $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax (a great idea anyway) to help fund the state's health program to plans by a pharmacy chain to put affordable clinics in its stores to deal with basic maladies (a highly-debatable idea). Down the road, tighter regulation of hospital fees and insurance rates may have to be considered.
To put it simply, unless and until the cost of health care — much of it administrative, tied to the bureaucratic jungle of dealing with private insurance carriers — is contained and reduced, the Massachusetts reform program is in jeopardy. And this would bode ill for any universal health care program, with or without mandates, nationwide.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Breaking down the primaries"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle
Sunday, February 03, 2008
On a quiet Sunday afternoon, a telemarketing call came in from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who represents a large swath of central and western Massachusetts — political calls are exempt from the do-not-call registry.
Of course, it was an automated Neal, touting Hillary Clinton. Presumably, Robot Neal was not offended by our abrupt hang-up.
The next day, a local educator called, shyly and gently reminding us that primary day was coming up and that we might want to consider voting for her favored candidate, Barack Obama. She was assured that the adults in this house would be voting, and that Obama's message had already hit home.
These calls were emblematic of some major differences between the two candidates. Clinton is favored by a portion of the Democratic establishment. Obama's grass-roots movement represents idealism, hope, passion from African-Americans, suddenly-aroused under-30 voters, older Democrats and independents who see him as the 21st-century embodiment of JFK, RFK and MLK.
A genuine rainbow coalition, galvanized by the stunning endorsements from Sen. Edward Kennedy and his niece, Caroline Kennedy, is fueled by the mantra, "Yes, we can!"
Berkshire County Democrats and independents face a difficult choice among two highly-qualified candidates. State Sen. Benjamin Downing is an impassioned Obama backer; State Rep. Denis Guyer is also on Obama's side.
Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto is a devoted Clinton supporter, citing her advocacy for the Colonial Theatre restoration project when she visited the county 10 years ago.
State Rep. Daniel Bosley praises her experience and detailed grasp of the issues; other backers include state Rep. Christopher Speranzo and veteran Democratic state committeewoman Mary K. O'Brien.
Mayor for Life John Barrett of North Adams extols the Bill Clinton administration as "the best 8 years I've witnessed in my adult life for things happening in this country; I have to assume the same policies would continue in her administration."
"I have to throw out all the other stuff, the baggage, and cut to the chase," he emphasized in an interview. "They're lightning rods, controversial, and strange things have happened to them over the years. But they're survivors, and that's what we need right now."
Barrett also said he's "comfortable with Obama" and asserted that "it's going to take a long time for this country to recover. ... Quasimodo the bell-ringer wouldbeat whomever the Republicans put up."
During Thursday's near love-fest at the Los Angeles debate, Clinton was at her best; Billary was back to being Hillary, having rediscovered her "true voice"now that her attack-dog husband has been defanged, perhaps even locked away in an attic with the key safely hidden.
At the end, a genuine Kodak moment: Obama gallantly pulled out Clinton's chair and they exchanged a near-hug and some stage whispers just moments after they had deftly deflected Wolf Blitzer's question about a joint ticket.
Obama-Clinton is an obvious non-starter, though one could imagine a Clinton-Obama ticket. Clinton biographer Carl Bernstein believes Mrs. Clinton would be an ideal Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Gov. Deval Patrick, named by President Clinton in 1994 as assistant attorney general for civil rights, made a strong case for Obama during a briefing at The Eagle on Thursday.
"He's such a unique, once-in-a-generation candidate ... it's just remarkable, not just the size of the crowds but the range of people who are excited about his candidacy ... young, old and in-between, black and white and everybody else.
"Out in Iowa, there were folks in feed caps and overalls, and folks in business suits as well, and that is enormously important not just politically, but for our democracy. ... I've worked with the Clintons and watched their politics, and they're not rolling over by any means."
"Obama is a transformational candidate," Patrick asserted. "It seems to me you go to a change agent for change, not the same-old, same-old. It is going to be hard to make the kind of change we need in this country, but it is not going to be up to politicians and office-holders alone; there is a commitment and engagement that's required of us as citizens. ..."
In her New York Times op-ed article last Sunday, Caroline Kennedy wrote: "Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible. We have that kind of opportunity with Senator Obama."
On Tuesday, Berkshire voters can help realize the dream so well-articulated by Obama himself. Our deeply troubled times demand dramatic, visionary change. Obama is the eloquent, dedicated champion who can lead us, yes, to a New Frontier once again.
Mrs. Bill Clinton or Barry Obama, they're both competing for Touchy-Feeliest Liberal in the class.
And Clarence Fanto sees this as something good and hopeful?
Spare us, Clarence!
It's amazing the intensity of mental masturbation that Liberal cum Socialists like Clarence Fanto go through to justify what is nearly a religious zeal for candidates who will only end up pushing for higher taxes, larger government, and more insidious government control over everyday life.
And this is supposed to strengthen America?
Glenn M. Heller
Monterey,MA, Bethesda,MD, McLean,VA
"Catching up with Jane Swift"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Some call it Jane Swift's Revenge. More likely, the former acting governor, now 42, is simply sampling the political waters by signing on to John McCain's presidential campaign as a forceful advocate. She stumped for him in New Hampshire, lobbed political grenades against her presumed nemesis, Mitt Romney, and showed up on Fox News and MSNBC.
Having set up her own WNP Consulting firm at her 25-acre Williamstown farm, Swift and her husband, Chuck Hunt, are raising three daughters (6-year-old twins and a 9-year-old) and tending to three horses.
On the Williams College campus, Swift has been serving as co-leader with associate professor James McAllister of a monthlong Winter Study course, "Political Engagement and the 2008 Election."
The 15 students accompanied her to New Hampshire just before the primary and worked for a day and a half on the campaign of their choice. Back on campus, they attended seminars with guest speakers such as Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos Web site, and Republican operative Bob Marsh. During the classes, the students engaged the guests in lively dialogue.
During a chat at a Williamstown cafe, Swift acknowledged that today's college students "may not be exorbitantly politically active, but they are very socially conscious. ... This generation cares deeply about issues of war and peace, and they care desperately about the environment and climate change. In one Winter Study course you don't change the world, but you help them understand how involvement in traditional politics and campaigns can actually be one outlet for their social conscience and their desire to change and impact the way society and government work."
A political prodigy who was elected to the state Senate from the Berkshires when she was 25, Swift served three terms, helped draft the 1993 Education Reform Act, was elected lieutenant governor in 1998 and encountered strong political headwinds in the post 9/11 environment as a 21-month acting governor.
She has been mentioned recently as a potential Republican contender for U.S. Rep. John W. Olver's seat whenever the Amherst Democrat, now 71, chooses to vacate the post he has held since 1991.
(She lost a hard-fought race against him in 1996.)
"I am enjoying doing politics through an academic prism," she stressed, "as well as a volunteer who can choose whether I want to go somewhere on a particular weekend. ... There are a lot of folks who would strongly urge me to consider it, but it's so theoretical. ... There are many outlets for one's political interests besides running for office. I can't rule out someday going back, but I do not wake up every morning trying to figure out a way to get back and involved politically."
No Jane-come-lately to the McCain campaign, Swift declared her support for him a year ago.
"This is going to be an incredibly difficult election for Republicans," she conceded, but she touted McCain's support among independent voters in contrast to Romney's lack of appeal to that group.
"The only hope we have is to nominate somebody who can draw independents, and hopefully some Democrats, because at this time, people's inclination is not that they're going to vote for a Republican as president.
"I voted for Governor Romney in 2002 despite my personal hard feelings," Swift pointed out. "He has a great profile and a great message. ... but the problem is, you need to look at his record in Massachusetts in contrast to his rhetoric. ... I thought his business background was exactly what we needed as we continued to struggle in an economic slowdown, and I, like many others, was greatly disappointed that he did not have more focus on those issues as governor."
Swift seeks to advise her chosen candidate on a "critical issue — national education policy, a crucial issue that neither party nor the electorate is focused on as much as we should, but it really is the key to the economic challenges we face."
She acknowledged that McCain "does not share my positions on social issues."
For now, Swift is focusing on building her consulting firm. She also travels for speaking engagements and serves on corporate boards.
One has to admire her sharp intellect and keen ability to articulate her moderate Republican viewpoint. There is a good chance that the last chapter in the political saga of the youngest state senator and the first woman to serve as governor has yet to be written.
The Berkshire Eagle: Op-Ed
Clarence Fanto: In defense of the nerds
By Clarence Fanto
Friday, January 25, 2008
Back in the 1950s, the pejorative terms "geek" or "nerd" were hardly known. But there were plenty of other insults hurled at those of us who buried our heads in books, listened to classical music, were socially inept, and avoided the athletic playing fields or the baseball stadiums.
"Brains," "brainiacs," "squares," "dorks," "eggheads," "goody-goodies," "goody two-shoes" are just some of the insults that come to mind. Adults who supported Adlai Stevenson over war hero Dwight Eisenhower were branded as intellectuals and were somewhat suspect, as were their offspring.
Actually, "nerd" originated as the name of an imaginary zoo denizen in a 1950 Dr. Seuss book, was cited by Newsweek as a popular slang expression in Detroit a year later and was in general use nationwide in the early '60s. By the 1970s, "nerd" was in full flower as the ultimate label of shame.
"Geek" is slang of more recent vintage; according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it describes "a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual." Earlier, it applied to a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken, bat or snake! Now, it most often refers to those with arcane knowledge of specialized subjects — especially, computer-supersavvy young males.
We antediluvians who need high-tech help accord "geeks" plenty of respect — in fact, one well-known chain promises to send a "geek squad" to hook up a new computer or other electronic equipment. Author Richard Clarke told Stephen Colbert last year that the difference between nerds and geeks is that "geeks get it done." As we delved into Berkshire-based clinical child psychologist David Anderegg's provocative, well-reasoned and highly accessible new book, "Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them," it became clear that the subtext is the virulent anti-intellectualism that has long infected American culture. Perhaps encouraged by the anti-science rhetoric of the Bush administration, the creationists, and the all-engulfing Internet onslaught that threatens to make book-reading obsolete, contempt for the life of the mind seems especially intense now.
During a well-attended appearance at the Stockbridge Library's Sunday speakers series, and later on WAMC Northeast Public Radio, Anderegg explained that he was inspired to write the book from a "kids'-eye point of view" after a fourth-grader told him that he resisted improving his poor grades because he didn't want to be labeled as a nerd. Anderegg, who's also a professor at Bennington College, believes the insult refers to someone who is "socially awkward, sexually unappealing or disgusting," 99 percent of the time, a male.
For a child, Anderegg writes, a nerd is "someone who always does what's told; a nerd does well in school because that's what parents and teachers want. . . a suck-up, a kid who's eager to please the authorities." In other words, for early-elementary kids, a nerd is "a baby who's more attached to adults and their good opinion than a first-grader should be. . . it's a common playground epithet almost always delivered with contempt." He finds it remarkable that, even in 2008, anyone who wears glasses is immediately a suspect.
"It's time to give it a rest," Anderegg declares, citing Harry Potter as an ideal role-model for young people, "transcending stereotypes" as a socially-awkward, glasses-wearing, super-intelligent hero who only could have been created in Britain.
In fact, Anderegg denies the actual existence of nerds and geeks, although people assume otherwise because the "extremely negative, confusing social stereotype" is so amorphous and "hard to pin down." It's defined in popular culture through TV shows — "Are You Hot or Not" and "Beauty and the Geek" are prime examples — as well as nerd glasses sold at toy stores and "nerd self-tests" on the Internet.
The biggest concern over the TV shows is the notion that people come in two flavors — those who are "intelligent, accomplished, unappealing, terribly socially unskilled, hopeless, and can't get a date" versus "beauties, all as dumb as a box of rocks." Until this season, the nerdy types have been men and the beauties have been women; recently, there has been a role-reversal episode featuring a girl geek (a "plain Jane" ethno-musicologist who wears big glasses) and a boy beauty (a personal trainer).
The effect on kids and grownups is highly damaging, Anderegg writes, since it encourages "black-and-white thinking," typical among youngsters but an obvious drawback for adults. In a key passage, he hits the argument out of the park: "We adults know that nerds and geeks are OK, in fact we can't live without them, and so we think it's OK to make fun of them. We act like it's all in good fun to communicate to our kids that people who are smart, who do well in school, and who like science-fiction and computers are also people who smell bad, look ugly and are so repulsive that they are not allowed to have girl friends. And then we wonder why it's so hard to motivate kids to do well in school."
Reporting that he's often asked by interviewers whether he fits the geek-nerd stereotype, Anderegg's standard response is: "I'm a big fan of baroque counterpoint, and I'm a big fan of the Boston Red Sox, so you figure it out!" We took him up on his gentle challenge, and here's what we found. Anderegg is a smart, well turned-out guy, a debonair, personable fellow, a pianist who loves classical music and sports, writes valuable books, works out at the local gym, and is known as a fine teacher and effective therapist. He personifies the case against bizarre, hurtful stereotypes; anyone who cares about the future of our society should hasten to pick up his eye-opening, thought-provoking book. And then, rent the 1984 movie, "Revenge of the Nerds"!
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Best of times for best-qualified"
By Clarence Fanto
Friday, January 11, 2008
You could call it a tale of two economies — the best of times, the worst of times.
On the aptly-named Technology Drive, just off Dan Fox Drive, the modest, self-effacing founder and president of Hi-Tech Mold and Tool, William Kristensen, Sr., was generously crediting his 100 employees for the success of his rapidly growing plastics-industry manufacturing facility. At a media event on Tuesday, the company dedicated the 20,000 square-foot addition to the 55,000 square-foot plant it opened a decade ago. Along with new equipment, Hi-Tech has invested $3 million in its expansion.
Beyond that, an additional facility is due in three to five years on adjoining property. Heavy-hitter William Hines, Sr. is coming out of his recent retirement as head of Interprint, Inc. to join the board of directors and help Hi-Tech manage its growth spurt.
The place is booming, thanks to an initial $11 million aerospace industry contract to supply air-cleaning components for the next-generation Boeing 787 "Dreamliner," a deal that is now worth nearly $200 million through 2028. Combined with its plastic molding supply deals for medical valves and consumer-recreational products such as the ubiquitous Thule bicycle racks, as many as 25 new positions are open. On track to post a 50 percent increase in sales this year, Hi-Tech seems to be as recession-proof as any Berkshire business can be in a fragile economy. It expects revenue exceeding $20 million this year, up sharply from $12 million last year, when 10 new positions were added.
But there's a downside, which may explain Berkshire Economic Development Corp. President Tyler Fairbank's use of the phrase "perfect storm" in his pep-talk that described Hi-Tech as the "the poster child for getting the most out of the economic development network here in the Berkshires." As the newly promoted Vice-President of Administration Carleen Mathews put it, "the shortage of an available work force is hindering our efforts. There are good-paying jobs and careers here for the people who want them."
Kristensen explained there's an urgent need to fill open positions because current employees are being shifted around from one department to another to deal with the work load. "We're kind of hurting these other areas," he said, "and we could be doing more sales if we had more people." The plant is running three shifts around the clock, so Kristensen met with each group of employees a week ago to tell them that recession or no recession, their jobs are secure. "We need every single body we can get," he emphasized.
Kristensen is planning a job fair to identify qualified local candidates. "I've always been a strong believer in recruiting locally," he told me, "because they're going to be with you for a while. Sometimes, you go outside the marketplace and it's a two-year thing, they just want to put something on their résumé." He related how a worker at another company who had just returned to the Berkshires and bought a home, only to be laid off, came in for an interview on Jan. 2, was hired the next day and began work this past Monday — "a very capable person with great skills; I just wish we had 20 people like that coming through the door." The company founder calls the need for more help urgent because of stepped-up production and shipping schedules that take effect on Jan. 23.
Sadly, the nearly 400 jobless workers from doomed paper mills in Lee and the village of Housatonic in Great Barrington lack the necessary technical skills.
Last Tuesday night at the Lee Selectmen's meeting, about 40 of the 225 workers in that town who have lost, or are about to lose, their jobs gathered to commiserate. As a 36-year employee of Schweitzer-Mauduit who's now 56 put it, "the market is flooded with workers. There are no jobs around here making $15 to $20 an hour or more." The Hi-Tech jobs pay at least that well; while some are specialized positions, such as design and manufacturing engineers, molding press operators and quality technicians, there are also maintenance posts and administrative slots available.
But most of the newly unemployed in South County face the grim choice of taking a massive pay cut or relocating, which would only worsen the population meltdown that is one of the county's most intractable problems.
Taking a longer view, help is on the way; Berkshire Community College is collaborating with Hi-Tech to help train or retrain potentially qualified workers through its new manufacturing associate degree — a partnership with McCann Tech in North Adams, Taconic High's vocational program in Pittsfield and the Berkshire Applied Technology Council.
Despite his frustrating search for more help, Kristensen acknowledges his good fortune — "It's mind-boggling, beyond expectations. There's nothing we do here that will ever go to Mexico or China. When we started 25 years ago, I never would have expected this company to be where it is today. I think we're at a point now . . . that it's just gone crazy. We need to get a handle on it." The company is emblematic of the successful, homegrown businesses championed by Fairbank's BEDC.
Fairbank, who stresses the need for better-educated local workers and cites the availability of about 2,000 jobs at any given time in the county, says the county's high-school and college graduates "have to be critical thinkers, skilled in math and science, able to communicate effectively, operate highly technical machinery and computers."
We can only hope that the mostly-older paper-mill workers can survive economically without leaving the area; for young people contemplating their future in family-friendly Berkshire County instead of riding the fast lane in high-stress urban centers, the message from the demise of the paper mills and the growth of companies like Hi-Tech couldn't be more clear. Without the skills required in a high-tech global economy, the best of times will remain somewhere over the rainbow.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Affordable housing still the main goal"
By Clarence Fanto
Sunday, January 06, 2008
The sad reality is that in all too many Berkshire communities, local residents can't afford to buy into the still-inflated housing market.
One of the most hotly contested pieces of land in Lenox is being considered for housing that middle and lower-middle income people could purchase. It's the 19-acre, commercially zoned site along Route 7 & 20 at Housatonic Street across from Caligari's Hardware. A proposed Tanger outlet mall in the mid-1980s and a Marriott resort in 2006 were shot down by the town.
The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire is poised to develop the Saw Mill Brook project, aided by a most-welcome infusion of $250,000 in low-interest loans obtained by the Trinity Church Vestry from the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and an additional $50,000 from the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge.
"We wanted owner-occupied housing for teachers, retail workers, DPW employees, anyone who serves our town, those who plow the roads, people who grew up in Lenox," explained Gail Street, chair of the Trinity Parish Outreach Committee. "We wanted to serve them back by giving them that option."
The trustees of the Episcopal Diocese, impressed by the proposal, allocated $250,000, rather than the $100,000 sought by the newly formed, nonprofit, secular Lenox Affordable Housing Corporation, an outgrowth of the Trinity Church group.
Now comes the challenge — of the 19-acre parcel owned for at least 50 years by the Bartoni family, only 5 acres can be developed because of wetlands and ledges.
The CDC's executive director, Tim Geller, has about 17 months remaining to execute a purchase-and-sale agreement for the land if design and engineering studies demonstrate that the project is workable.
"I think there's an excellent chance that affordable, owner-occupied housing for working families will be built in Lenox," said Deborah Burke, head of the Affordable Housing Corporation. "Whether or not this can be done on the property, we'll have to wait and see."
The group's mission is "to make sure that the community's voice is part of the process, in addition to those in Town Hall performing their official roles."
Geller's South Berkshire CDC and its affiliated Tri-Corner CDC have a strong track record in mixed-income and affordable housing, with multiple projects under consideration and one soon to break ground in Great Barrington.
Within six months, Geller told us, he expects to know for certain "whether we have a bona-fide project." The development cost, as well as the number, density and type of condo units, will depend upon the feasibility study.
Emphasizing the CDC's partnership with the town and offering high praise for the "terrific commitment" by the Episcopal Diocese, he said 40 to 50 percent of the units would be reserved for first-time homeowners.
Preference would be given to applicants who live or work in Lenox.
The affordable units are expected to cost no more than $127,500 for a one-bedroom unit, $152,800 for two bedrooms, $176,600 for three, and $197,100 for four bedrooms.
In the best-case scenario, groundbreaking for the mixed-income development would take place by the end of 2009, and units would be offered for pre-sale shortly thereafter; federal, state and local subsidies would help finance the project.
"This project came to us from the town and it was generated by the people of Lenox," he pointed out. "If the town wants this project, we can make it happen."
Lenox Select Board Chairman Roscoe Sandlin has advised residents that "affordable housing is a critical need. Real estate values have reached the point where young families cannot move into Lenox, our children cannot stay here, and our firefighters, police officers, and schoolteachers must reside elsewhere."
Sandlin also emphasized that the term "affordable housing" has been subject to "considerable misunderstanding. ... Those eligible are working people who are getting started, or who have chosen or been forced into less-than-CEO-level jobs."
As a member of a five-generation Lenox family, Select Board member Linda Procopio Messana says she and her colleagues are supporting the project as a "really good use for the property and something the town really needs." So, if the stars are properly aligned, this project could well serve as a model for other Berkshire towns facing the same challenge.
"Bill O'Reilly: Voice of fear and ignorance"
By Clarence Fanto
Friday, December 28, 2007
Do you agree with Bill O Reilly s characterization of Great Barrington and his spin on the town s 'holiday lighting' situation?
This is a non-story
The recent dustup between blowhard broadcaster Bill O'Reilly and the Great Barrington Select Board over holiday lights is a wake-up call for many here in the Berkshires who are insulated from the hard-right political venom spewed daily over the nation's commercial radio airwaves as well as via cable or satellite on the Fox News Channel.
O'Reilly and his ilk, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Glenn Beck, reach an estimated 30 million-plus Americans every day as they spew out a venomous blend of overheated pro-war, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-"socialized medicine," anti-women's rights rhetoric that helps poison the nation's political and social discourse.
Unfortunately, they far outnumber, in reach and influence, the liberal Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and the temporarily-sidelined equal-opportunity political satirist Jon Stewart and his fellow Comedy Channel protégé Stephen Colbert (whose faux-right wing spoof of O'Reilly & Co. is so spot-on that some viewers don't see through it). They've been sorely missed, even though the Writers Guild of America strike they've honored by remaining off the air is a just cause. They'll be back, most likely without their writing staffs, on Jan. 7.
Ultra-right demagoguery has a long, dishonorable history in American broadcasting, dating back to the radio days of the late 1930s, when Father Charles Coughlin's anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist ravings found an all-too-ready audience of sympathizers. Famously, he blamed the Great Depression on an "international conspiracy of Jewish bankers," the same group he claimed was responsible for the Russian Revolution.
Carried by hundreds of stations via CBS Radio (!) and, by some estimates, reaching as many as one-third of Americans, Coughlin's sympathetic expressions of support for Hitler and Mussolini finally were forced off the air in 1939 after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, a precursor to U.S. involvement in World War II. But other, less extreme right-wing broadcasters like Boake Carter and Fulton Lewis, Jr. continued to attract huge audiences.
University of Indiana media researchers released a study of O'Reilly's commentaries earlier this year, finding that he consistently vilifies certain groups and presents others as victims as part of his skewed world view. The analysis found that the broadcaster used derogatory names every 6.8 seconds, on average, during the "Talking Points Memo" segment of his infamous, ironically titled "No Spin Zone."
"If one digs further into O'Reilly's rhetoric, it becomes clear that he sets up a pretty simplistic battle between good and evil," said Maria Elizabeth Grabe, an associate professor of telecommunications on the Bloomington campus. "Our analysis points to very specific groups and people presented as good and evil." The researcher found that O'Reilly employs propaganda techniques eerily reminiscent of those 1930s radio hatemongers.
Utilizing propaganda tools familiar to students of World War II, the researchers identified O'Reilly's major patterns, all part of his effort to inject fear into the body politic. These include name-calling, "glittering generalities," card-stacking, the bandwagon effect (catering to the widespread desire to follow the crowd), and a pseudo-populist "plain folks" appeal to listeners in an effort to convince them that his ideas are "of the people." The Indiana University study team compared O'Reilly's approach to Father Coughlin's, even reaching the conclusion that the Fox newshound is a "heavier, less-nuanced user of propaganda devices" than Coughlin was.
Key findings pinpoint the use of fear in 52 percent of O'Reilly's commentaries — for example, he moaned that the U.S. was "slowly losing freedom and core values" at the time when "left-wing" media were "unfairly" criticizing the now-disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
In the World According to O'Reilly. "politicians and media, particularly of the left-leaning persuasion, are in the company of illegal aliens, criminals, terrorists — never vulnerable to villainous forces and undeserving of empathy," the study concluded. "Our results show a consistent pattern of O'Reilly casting non-Americans in a negative light. Both illegal aliens and foreigners were constructed as physical threats to the public."
Victimized by this vast left-wing conspiracy are most Americans, the U. S. military and the Bush administration, he argues as he casts himself as the chief protector of our fundamental freedoms. He's fond of inviting those he portrays as liberal East Coast elitists and "secular progressives" on his show so he can bully them into submission.
O'Reilly has every First Amendment right to air his views as he has evolved into the advocate-in-chief for neo-cons and disaffected fundamentalists. It's his style and his extremist techniques that are so offensive.
We knew O'Reilly slightly during our CBS News days in the early 1980s, when he was a promising investigative reporter and news correspondent who left the network in a huff when colleague Bob Schieffer used some film footage shot by network crews originally assigned to O'Reilly. Bloated egomania already was becoming evident.
With 10 months of the presidential campaign still ahead, O'Reilly will find plenty of fodder to support his hate-based cottage industry. The $10 million a year man is a self-described frequent visitor to the Berkshires; in the unlikely event that you encounter him on the streets of Great Barrington, be sure to give him a warm greeting.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Of loons, lights and pinheads"
By Clarence Fanto
Sunday, December 23, 2007
GREAT BARRINGTON, Massachusetts
Two and seven-eighths cheers to the Great Barrington Select Board for standing its ground when the proprietor of the "No-Spin Zone," Fox News Channel star Bill O'Reilly, sent his one-man hit squad — producer Jesse Watters — to bait town officials at last Monday's meeting for devising a "ruse and an attack on Christmas" by ordering the town's holiday lights extinguished at 10 p.m. to conserve energy.
"The O'Reilly Factor's" three-minute "Global Warming vs. Christmas" segment Tuesday night blasted the board as "loons" and Vice Chairman Ronald Dlugosz as an "unbelievable pinhead." Claiming to have visited Great Barrington "hundreds of times," the TV and radio demagogue, best-selling author and $50,000-per-lecture celebrity depicted the town as "James Taylor territory ... a touchy-feely, politically correct kind of place — wind-chime central."
In a particularly ugly comment, Watters blasted "rich New York elitists" for descending upon the town to impose their "ideology" on what O'Reilly called a "traditional, Christmas kind of place."
O'Reilly, whose media-empire earnings exceed $10 million a year, was throwing red meat to his audience of more than 2 million like-minded viewers.
The former network news correspondent and one-time host of the tabloid "Inside Edition" TV series specializes in vicious attacks on dreaded "secular progressives," whom he sees as undermining our Christian-based national culture.
Proudly, he claims to have beaten back a "war on Christmas." Unfortunately, the Barrington officials did seem somewhat Grinch-like at their contentious Nov. 26 meeting. Selectman Dlugosz said: "I hate to be Scrooge here, but we're really doing a lot in this community to be fuel-efficient, to reduce our carbon footprint." In the end, the board reluctantly approved a modest light display with a 10 p.m. cutoff.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are an environmentally friendly solution, no doubt. But the discussion unintentionally reflected the growing de-emphasis on the ecumenical spirit of Christmas devised by big business, which has eliminated most mentions of Christmas from ads, presumably in the interest of "inclusiveness" but more likely to not "offend" the non-Christian 15 percent of the nation. A recent Old Navy ad included a reference to gift-opening on "Holiday morning"!
The Barrington Select Board's insistence on the term "holiday lights" can be defended because Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, always precedes Christmas. But it unwittingly set the stage for O'Reilly to set off an onslaught of abusive e-mails and phone calls from his acolytes across the country.
"Since a cow belching does more damage to the environment than a string of Christmas lights (sorry, holiday lights), it is inconceivable that these loons are trotting out a 'carbon footprint' argument to help the environment," O'Reilly wrote in his Web site harangue. "The real strategy here is to diminish the public display of Christmas in that secular town. ... I am asking Al Gore to arrive in a horse-drawn sleigh and talk some sense into these Great Barrington pinheads."
Continued O'Reilly, "Every year we now have to hear whining from dolts who are offended not only by a baby laying (sic) in a manger, but also by images of decorated trees and a jolly old man in a beard. Call me a theocrat, but I have had enough of this politically correct bilge. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is controlled by people who somehow believe that Christmas decorations are harming the world. These numbskulls are so crazed by melting polar ice caps and perceived church-state 'issues' that they are imposing fascist declarations on folks who just want to enjoy the season."
O'Reilly, who has crusaded against the "Taliban-like oppression" of Christmas by "forces of darkness," left himself open to ridicule by concluding: "Al Gore must get involved. Since he has been driving this global warming stuff, he now has an obligation to calm the citizenry down. Dick Cheney can't do it; he's off shooting animals. And President Bush holds no sway among the far-left loons in Great Barrington. No, it must be Gore. He's the only one who can save Christmas in the Berkshires. Shine a light on this insanity, Al. Tell them the inconvenient truth."
Obviously, O'Reilly — despite his "hundreds" of visits to the town — was unaware that Gore presented his "Inconvenient Truth" road show in Great Barrington just last year as part of the Dowmel lecture series.
To O'Reilly, a big helping of coal for your Christmas stocking. For everyone else: A Merry Christmas, and may it be very merry indeed!
The care only angels can give
By Clarence Fanto
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Amid the holiday hullabaloo of frenzied shopping and overindulgence, we're pausing to give thanks to an organization that helps local families cope with the end of life.
HospiceCare in the Berkshires, the county's only not-for-profit hospice, will break ground soon for its $9 million facility on a hillside off Route 7 & 20, a 13-acre site purchased from Guardian Berkshire Life.
The Ann McGraw House (named after the mother of donor Robin McGraw of Egremont) affords scenic views and will be a tranquil oasis accomodating more than 200 patients each year, in addition to 600-plus aided by Hospice at home.
Local attorney Leslie Curley, widow of the highly esteemed Berkshire Superior Court Justice Thomas Curley Jr., recalls how her husband resisted help from Hospice for an extended period after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003. "My husband didn't accept that he was going to die," Curley said.
"The wonderful thing about Hospice is that they don't push, they wait until a patient is ready, but they will not intrude or force themselves on people," she explained. "When the doctors told us there were no more treatment options, it was Tom's great desire to die at home."
At that point, Hospice was called and quickly converted the Curleys' first-floor library into a bedroom.
Curley died on July 28, 2005, at the age of only 48, also leaving a 15-year-old son and two daughters, then 13 and 17. But in those final 10 days, more than 100 friends and colleagues stopped by.
"People asked to come and say goodbye," said Lesley, "and none of that would have happened if he had been in a hospital. He had a large room with a bed, a couch, chairs, and all his books."
She acknowledged that she could not have handled "all the physical work, the mental anguish, dealing with the children, being a host — I couldn't have done it.
"I have memories of those 10 days that are happy — memories of sitting around, having meals together, talking; it's not all tragic. If Hospice hadn't been here, he may have ended up in the hospital. Because they were able to maintain him safely at home, he was able to stay home, which is what he absolutely wanted.
"Not only do I have memories that comfort me, but so do all those people who wanted to say goodbye to him. He was able to entertain people with stories about law school.
"If I did nothing for the rest of my life but work for Hospice, I could not thank them enough," she declared. "This is a truly dedicated, gifted group of people."
Helping to raise funds for the new Hospice facility with her campaign co-chair Julie Weiss (nearly $4 million so far), Curley asserted that "if this facility gives people the opportunity to have the experience we had, it will be worth it. This was a horrible thing, but it's the way life is and we have to accept it. For those of us who remain, how much better it is to think about those last days, to be able to smile and to know our loved one was able to die the way he wanted to. It is very comforting that I was able to do that for him and for our children. This is something I couldn't have done if Hospice wasn't there."
Maureen Phillips, a loan officer at Greylock Federal, told us how her husband Mark was first diagnosed with brain tumors when he was 27; their youngest daughter was 6 weeks old. Many years later, when further treatment proved futile, Hospice stepped in to care for Mark while she continued working to support the family.
As she put it, "They can't save the patient, but they do save the family. It's impossible to explain the support and relief you get; they're angels. It's got to be a great relief for the patient to know the family is being taken care of; it allows you to go with an amount of peace."
Mark Phillips was 41 when died in March 2000. On average, families wait until seven days before a patient's death to call Hospice. Maureen encourages people to call sooner — "they think calling is giving up. But it's a conscious decision to take control of how the final days will go, making a determination that this is how we will live our final days. So much can be improved, so many good memories can be made."
Hospice support is physical, spiritual and emotional; most health insurance covers the services, but no one is turned away. Many of us who have benefited from Hospice over the years can only echo the eloquent tributes expressed by these two courageous women.
With apologies to poet Dylan Thomas, it is possible to "go gentle into that good night." But not without a lot of help from our friends.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com
Clarence Fanto: Pittsfield's inferiority complex infuriates
By Clarence Fanto
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Like a recurring nightmare, the unfortunate phrase coined by the Times of London a few years ago to describe Pittsfield — "a decaying backwater on the western edge of the state" — still haunts us as some residents deny the dramatic changes for the better evident to those willing to see them.
Defeatism stemming from a chronic inferiority complex remains a part of our local landscape, perhaps inevitably. If the aphorism "a rising tide lifts all boats" is true, there's no doubt that some vessels await elevation. By the way, that phrase was coined by an Irish politician and adopted by JFK in the early '60s before conservative economists hijacked it.
You don't have to be a Polyanna to recognize the upward spiral of Pittsfield's fortunes. Perhaps it takes outsiders to fully appreciate what's happening.
At the same time, as Mayor James Ruberto often says, the city still has all the social problems of any urban area, on a smaller scale, and the drug trade and violence associated with it must be confronted full-throttle. There's no higher priority than creating new jobs by attracting new businesses to the area, unless it's upgrading our schools so more of our young residents qualify for the challenging positions created by the global economy.
Those who complain that the city's improvements primarily benefit outsiders have their heads in the proverbial sands. Dining choices on North Street include affordable spots such as Burger, Dottie's Coffee Lounge, Bobby Hudpucker's, Pancho's, the Brazilian Restaurant, the always-reliable Lantern, House of India and quite a few others.
Barrington Stage often makes seats available at steep discounts to local residents. The Colonial Theatre has a variety of reduced-price options.
The "real Pittsfield" includes, but is not limited to, the reinvention and reimagining of downtown. While some of the rehabbed housing — the Maplewood condos, for example — are unaffordable for most residents, the projected New Amsterdam moderate-priced housing development (a $12-million investment by Beth Pearson) will be aimed at local folks.
Just last Sunday, two articles in separate sections of the Boston Sunday Globe acknowledged the urban pioneers who are helping Pittsfield move beyond its inferiority complex following two decades of economic stress and psychic depression.
The Globe's real-estate section headlined its overview "Alive in the Hills" and cited Joyce Bernstein and Larry Rosenthal's investment in Spice and Burger among the many new attractions "transforming this overlooked old mill city to a destination in its own right." Bernstein, always a realist, acknowledged that until recently, the city had a "not-undeserved inferiority complex."
Megan Whilden, the dynamic director of the Office of Cultural Development, and Mayor Ruberto are given major credit for helping reinvent the city as a cultural destination — the long-desired but elusive slice of the tourism pie that put Pittsfield in a doughnut hole, surrounded by Williamstown and, more recently, North Adams to the north as well as Lenox, Stockbridge and Great Barrington to the south.
More improvements are on the way for the downtown area, including a nearly $2 million Streetscape project with vintage lighting and other period details along North Street.
In the Globe's travel section, an article describes the vibrant nightlife spreading through Pittsfield and Great Barrington, described as the county's "most dynamic spots" — though the 2 a.m. bar closing cited as fueling that dynamism seems questionable. Asters Steaks & Raw Bar gets a tip of the hat as does the Latin restaurant-bar Sabor.
The chronic complainers fail to acknowledge one of the most welcome developments of the past decade — the cultural diversity fueled by the arrival of an estimated several-thousand Latino, Russian and other immigrants.
But there's no denying that much work remains to be done. Pittsfield will never be Paris on the Housatonic, or even Brooklyn North, but with the same drive and momentum behind efforts to boost employment opportunities and cut the crime rate, it is certainly becoming a much more desirable place to live, work, shop, dine and be entertained.
We should all welcome the potential benefits of the flattering attention from the Globe, Yankee Magazine, the New York Times and other publications. If it helps reverse the population decline and encourages more businesses and industries to consider Pittsfield, more of those boats still aground can look forward to a smoother sail.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarence Fanto: This land is Lenox's land
Norman Rockwell would have been proud
By Clarence Fanto
Friday, November 16, 2007
Norman Rockwell would have been proud. Once again, a Berkshire community faced with a major controversy that polarized residents and threatened to create a deep wellspring of ill feeling between neighbors and friends was resolved amicably in the spirit of grass-roots democracy that Rockwell championed in his illustrations.
The issue that drew 562 Lenoxians to the standing-room-only high school auditorium last Tuesday — the second highest turnout for a town meeting in the past decade but still less than 16 percent of the registered voters — was a proposal championed by a majority of the Selectmen. On the table was an offer from the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to purchase development rights for 948 heavily forested acres atop Lenox Mountain and Yokun Ridge. The state would kick $1 million into town coffers and guarantee that the land, which includes the town's watershed and reservoirs, would remain forever wild — "except for water infrastructure needs." The town would still own the land; the conservation restriction granted to the state would add another layer of protection against future development.
The proposal was defeated by a landslide vote, 337-225, after a mostly-civilized hour of debate that gave both sides ample opportunity to state their cases. There was but one brief outburst of booing that required the town moderator to call for order.
At first glance, there seemed to be much to commend in the proposed conservation easement. Leaders of environmental groups, most of them from out of town, argued eloquently in favor of the plan, which would have created a continuous swath of protected land, including Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary (owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society), town-owned Kennedy Park and Yokun Ridge mountaintop land acquired just a few years ago by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council.
Local outdoors enthusiast Patty Spector, the long-time organizer of the Josh Billings Runaground triathlon, was a passionate advocate of the proposal, arguing at the special town meeting that Lenox would gain additional protection for its watershed and adjacent land by approving the state's offer.
So, for some, it looked like a no-brainer, and the town could have put the $50,000 annual interest gained from investment of the $1 million to step up maintenance of its parks and recreation areas.
Not so fast! At two informational forums, and at the pre-vote debate on Tuesday, it turned out that most of the town's natives were strongly opposed. Select Board member Linda Procopio Messano argued strongly that the town should retain sole control of the watershed, pointing out that under the proposed conservation restriction, the current 400-foot buffer zone around the reservoirs would be reduced to 100 feet. The state would encourage various forms of "passive recreation," including hunting and fishing, potentially jeopardizing the town's pristine water supply.
The popular superintendent of public works, Jeff Vincent, and the Water Department foreman, Rich Fuore, voiced strong opposition, citing many of the same concerns. Five former Selectmen lined up against the proposal, asserting that town control of the watershed has been effective, that the land is posted against hunting and fishing and that violators are subject to arrest. "A watershed is a precious and priceless resource; a resource that should be locally governed and protected for generations to follow, including your children and your grandchildren," the former Selectmen contended in a letter to the editor written by the revered John Pignatelli on behalf of the Group of Five. Ex-Selectman Richard Piretti spoke on their behalf at the special town meeting.
Although supporters pushed back, contending that a few hunters already trespass on the land during the two-week shotgun season and that vehicles pass within a few feet of the water supply on Reservoir Road (which many in town contend should be closed to traffic), it was clear from the start of the meeting that the proposal was doomed.
It's obvious that deep suspicion of state government and of Boston bureaucrats triggered the fierce opposition; understandable, considering how Berkshire County has been neglected by the state (at least until the election of Deval Patrick) despite a succession of strong county legislators.
Former Selectman Tim Doherty expressed this sentiment, writing that it would be "foolhardy to sell our 'right to determine' what happens to our 1,000 acres to anyone, let alone an agency in Boston." He termed the watershed land a priceless asset, acquired by "our forefathers in years past and passed down to us." He asserted that the future use of the property can best be determined by future generations.
Townspeople stepping up to the microphones during the town meeting expressed pro and con viewpoints. Only 90 minutes after the meeting was gaveled to order, the preordained outcome was announced amid exuberant cheering. The people had spoken, and that's as it should be. The land and its reservoirs will continue to be protected at the local level and if the town continues to perform in the same exemplary fashion that it has since it acquired the property in 1948, the decision to keep the state at bay will turn out to have been a wise one, after all.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"The mayor envisions a new school"
By Clarence Fanto
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Is the grand plan to create one $200 million super-high school complex on the currentTaconic High grounds simply a vision like the imagined desert oasis? Since the proposal for a 423,000-square-foot mega-campus unveiled to the city by a team of consultants last May depends on state funding for more than half the cost, supporters may be understandably worried.
From an ailing heating system and broken windows at Pittsfield High to visible deterioration at Taconic, the evidence is indisputable that an urgent rescue mission is required. The city has been warned by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that the high schools' accreditation might be in question without "substantial infrastructure improvements." According to the consultants, renovations would cost even more than the construction of a 2,000-student complex.
In an interview this past week, Mayor James Ruberto described the city as "under siege" by the accreditation commission, by parents who send their children to other school districts and by concerned teachers and school staffers hampered by the existing deteriorating buildings.
But the Massachusetts School Building Authority has signaled that the sagging economy may force a sharp cutback in state-funded school projects because the necessary sales tax revenues have been declining. In the past, the state has reimbursed local communities anywhere from 40 to 80 percent for projects that pass a stringent eligibility test. State Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who's also chairman of the school-building authority, is now urging school officials and parents to lower their expectations and consider repairs rather than new construction wherever possible.
Against this backdrop, Pittsfield's School Building Needs Commission meets tomorrow evening at 6 at Taconic to formalize what Ruberto, a commission member, calls a "unanimous straw vote" taken last month to submit some version of the mega-school complex to the state for consideration. He cited a Nov. 15 deadline set by the state authority, which seeks additional "statements of support" from the city's School Committee and the City Council. The state wants to see "that whatever school is built reflects the consensus of what the community needs," he said.
Ruberto is an ardent champion of the project who takes the long view sunny side up, describing the proposal as "the beginning of a conversation in Pittsfield about how we're going to build a flagship high school for the next 50 years." He considers state-of-the-art technical and vocational education vital to the city's and the county's economic futures, "a technologically advanced environment that will serve as a source of pride to the city, and convince the community and the businesses we want to recruit that we have an educational priority."
Ruberto decries "hand-wringing" over the economy: "We often like to scare ourselves that the future of this commonwealth and this country is not going to be as great as in the past. I dismiss that entirely. I never base my strategy as the best case or the worst."
And he's convinced that Massachusetts residents will continue to pride themselves on a firm commitment to education and "will never allow our elected officials to lower expectations. That's where I start. The people of Pittsfield will find a way. ..."
He envisions the new school as a magnet for parents and students in nearby communities. "There's an incredible need for a technical and vocational school in central and southern Berkshire to accommodate the interests of all those students," Ruberto asserted. "It can only be done on a world-class basis in one facility. We've been playing around the edges for a long time. We can never look to the future by saying our strategies are going to be based on a doomsday scenario. Otherwise, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Whether or not he seeks a fourth term next year, Ruberto is staking his legacy on the high school project. He makes a strong, convincing argument.
Despite the strong economic headwinds, the school project is vital and a strong recommendation should be sent to the state authority. With any luck, by the time it gets a green light, a more gentle, positive breeze might be blowing our way.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
August 28, 2008
Dear Clarence Fanto, (et al),
Your most recent column, below, was the worst piece of writing by you EVER! You are in total denial of reality concerning Pittsfield Mayor Jimmy Ruberto! (Please note, I have placed some depressing facts about Pittsfield to back up my arguments in REALITY, below).
You endorse Ruberto's impractical (or fiscally impossible) plan to replace Pittsfield's two public high schools with one super-high school at a nominal yet whopping price tag of $200 million.
Meanwhile, the commonwealth of Massachusetts is the highest per-capita (that means per person --or by population--) debtor state in the nation. Moreover, the "Big Dig" is now estimated to cost taxpayers a historic record level $22 billion. On top of all that, the corrupted state Treasurer, Tim Cahill, is cutting back on capital projects for the school system.
So, Clarence Fanto, where is the (not so) good Mayor of Pittsfield going to finance a nominal $200 million capital project to build one super-high school for Pittsfield? The answer is NOWHERE!
What about Ruberto's current capital projects? Did not "Spice" go bankrupt after over $10 million in tax breaks? The answer is "Yes"! Did not the "Beacon Cinema" project also go way over budget? The answer is, once again, "Yes"! There is a trend here with the (not so) good Mayor and his incompetent management of capital projects! The super-high school's estimated nominal price tag of $200 million may actually balloon much higher to 1/2-billion-dollars and upwards in costs to the TAXPAYERS!
What about the current diminishing state of Pittsfield's public schools and the area youth who are mostly captive to a life of low-income employment with high state and local taxation?
What is the real Ruberto record? Well, Clarence Fanto, I will tell you what Pittsfield's reality on public education and its youth really and truly is, and it is DEPRESSING!
* Test scores that are among the lowest in the state. Dropout rates that are among the highest. School buildings that need repair. Three top executives who have resigned. A community sometimes left out by a lack of communication. Vocational and alternative programming that the school district leaders agree needs improvement.("School crossing: Amid struggles, district eyes different direction", By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff, The Berkshire Eagle, Sunday, September 30, 2007)
* A rash of violent incidents were reported in city schools Friday, including an episode in which a teenager was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. ("Pittsfield: Violent incidents reported at schools", Monday, November 19, 2007)
* Not too long ago, Pittsfield's North Street was deserted after dark, a hole in the middle of the city where no one sought to go. ("Downtown moving up", The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial, Saturday, October 13, 2007)
* Pittsfield is the #1 place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for job LOSS! Teen pregnancies now double the statewide average with an average of 5 to six babies born to a welfare mother and deadbeat dad every month! That is more than one poor baby per week. Pittsfield is known by state economist as a place with low economic outputs with skyrocketing high welfare caseloads. ...Most of Rinaldo Del Gallo, III's economic public policy ideas made sense and many of his predictions proved true for Pittsfield, Massachusetts. NO ONE LISTENED TO HIM! ...Mary Carey perfectly captures Pittsfield's decaying mentality, but without much humanity towards the poor people struggling to survive there. (Jonathan Melle, Blogger, early-January, 2008)
* The teen pregnancy rate rose in Pittsfield in 2005, even as the state and national numbers declined. ("Teen pregnancy up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts", By Jack Dew, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Thursday, January 25, 2007).
* Pittsfield graduated only 67.6 percent of its students who entered high school in 2002, a number that climbed to 72.9 percent among students who spent all four years at Pittsfield high schools. (THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE, "Pittsfield graduate rates low: Ranked in bottom 13% in state", By Matt Murphy, Eagle Boston Bureau, Friday, February 02, 2007)
* Governor Deval Patrick's new Executive Director of Workforce Development isn't wasting any time getting down to business. Former State Representative Suzanne Bump is working to introduce herself to the local business communities and let them know she will make sure the Berkshires are not forgotten on Beacon Hill. She says a major concern right now is addressing the loss of jobs in the Berkshires. Currently the Berkshires have the highest rate of job loss in Massachusetts. Bump says this can be changed with the right policies in place. She says she will be meeting with the Governor once a week to work on bringing skilled workers and higher paying jobs into the area. Bump says a key part to local job growth and development will be finding a way to keep the younger workers in the Berkshires. (Bump looks to address job losses in Berkshires, 2/19/2007, By: Karen Honikel, Capital News 9).
Jonathan A. Melle
~Native of Pittsfield, Massachusetts~
Current resident of Manchester, New Hampshire
"Hold on tight in year ahead"
Op-Ed By Clarence Fanto via The Berkshire Eagle Online
Friday, December 26, 2008
That's the best we can hope for on this day after Christmas, with the state confronting a budget gap that's widening into a chasm, if not a canyon. Nothing grand about recent reports that at the halfway point of the fiscal year, Massachusetts is looking at a $2 billion budget shortfall caused by plummeting tax revenues. Even if a portion of the $1.7 billion snowy-day reserve account is tapped, state services and aid to local communities are expected to take a severe beating, with unforeseen consequences affecting all residents.
When state lawmakers resume formal sessions on Beacon Hill early next month, Gov. Deval Patrick will disclose some of the plans he has been studying. So far, he has declined to reveal what he has in mind, telling reporters last week: "I don't want to set off a panic."
For a sneak preview of what may be coming down the MassPike, we only have to look at New York State, where Gov. David Paterson has proposed Draconian cuts; or California, where Gov. Schwarzenegger is in a Terminator-type fight against state lawmakers with only two months of cash left to run the country's largest state budget.
"The problem is so large, there's going to be a lot of damage," Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, warned during a recent hearing.
"Damage to the economy. Damage to human beings. Damage to institutions."
The governor's top budget official, Leslie Kirwan, has acknowledged that "everything will be on the table" when the Patrick administration gets together with lawmakers in about 10 days.
"One thing is certain: Things are bad now, and getting worse quickly," Alan Clayton-Matthews, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe.
At a time of such steep economic decline, it may seem off-the-wall to propose any kind of tax increase. But in order to tackle one part of the mess — the state's crumbling transportation system and the need to climb out of the Big Dig financial hole — a moderate increase in the gas tax seems to be the most palatable possibility, even though Gov. Patrick has been skeptical thus far.
A Globe poll out this week showed that by a margin of 48 to 42 percent statewide, Massachusetts residents are resigned to this idea, especially if the increase enables the Turnpike Authority to wipe out planned toll hikes, or even to eliminate tolls along the entire MassPike. Understandably, residents polled in Berkshire and other western counties were less keen on the gas-tax proposal since there are no Pike tolls now between Chicopee and the New York border. Few state lawmakers, and none from Berkshire County, have publicly endorsed the idea. Support for a higher gas tax is bound to be politically unpopular, even if it's considered the lesser of various evils.
Our gas tax has remained at 23.5 cents a gallon for 17 years, and 23 states take a larger bite at the pump, as anyone can observe when driving in New York or Connecticut. Taking inflation into account, the tax now amounts to 14 cents a gallon in 1991 dollars.
How big an increase is needed? Five cents a gallon wouldn't go far — the proposed toll increases in the Boston area would be headed off, and mass-transit fare hikes in the state capital could be averted. A steeper hike, such as 11 cents a gallon, could wipe out all MassPike tolls. With fuel prices at a five-year low, around $1.70 a gallon, the pain at the pump would be unpleasant, but tolerable.
Prices here in Berkshire County would remain lower than in most of New York State and Connecticut. According to one study, since the average Massachusetts vehicle uses about 600 gallons of gas a year, the current gas-tax burden works out to $135 annually. An 11-cent increase would cost about $65 a year for each car or truck, less than $1.25 a week.
Supporters of an 11 cent increase also make the case that not only could MassPike tolls be wiped out all the way to Boston, but some of the added revenue could go for badly needed road and bridge repairs.
Rather than a regressive tax, which unduly burdens lower-income groups, this increase would qualify as a progressive tax, benefiting all drivers while sharing the burden equally.
Some will object on the grounds that western Massachusetts residents shouldn't have to help out toll-burdened drivers in the eastern part of the state. But we're all in this economic free-fall together.
Others will point out that gas prices are extremely volatile, as we've seen this year, and may go back up as quickly as they've come down. A valid point; the Legislature and Gov. Patrick should agree on a temporary 11-cent increase in the tax for 2009, with a review at the end of next year to determine whether it should remain in place or be rolled back.
Then, we need to get on to a nightmarish scenario — how to close the budget gap without imposing intolerable cuts in state services and in aid to our cities and towns. Gov. Patrick may have to persuade his good friend, President-elect Obama, that the states need a rescue as part of an economic-recovery proposal that's already approaching $1 trillion.
This will be a stomach-churning rollercoaster ride, but there's no choice but to climb aboard and hold on tight.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Cutting through propaganda fog"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, Friday, January 09, 2009
This has not been Israel's finest hour.
Despite a ruling by the Jewish state's highest court that foreign journalists must be admitted to the Gaza Strip, the government and military have barred reporters from the war zone. Nevertheless, we have seen the bitter fruits of Israel's all-out assault as 1.5 million impoverished Palestinians crammed into an area the size of D.C. or Detroit endure a siege that U.N. officials and local physicians term a "full-blown humanitarian crisis." At least 25 percent of the 600-plus Palestinians killed so far have been civilians, according to impartial estimates. The gut-wrenching photos and video of innocent women, children and elderly men victimized by the war are excruciatingly tough to watch.
Put aside the hyperbole depicting Israel as engaging in a holocaust against the Gazans and the Hamas terrorists as humanitarian heroes. Instead, it helps to cut through the fog of the Israeli government's public relations offensive and the Hamas propaganda machine. The bottom line is that a military offensive resolves nothing until Hamas, chosen by Gazans in a U.S.-backed election, recognizes Israel's right to exist in peace, and until Israel acknowledges the Palestinians' right to live in their own state with free access to the basics of daily life.
It's understandable that Israel would respond after more than 11,000 rocket and mortar attacks into its southern towns by Hamas in the past eight years, according to the military. Fifteen Israelis have been killed; the fear that grips a million residents in the targeted area cannot be dismissed. But the scale of Israel's all-out air and ground assault is hard to fathom.
The invasion that followed a six-month ceasefire had been planned for up to a year. The timing, during the final weeks of the ultra-supportive Bush administration and a month before elections to establish new leadership in Israel, cannot be coincidental.
No wonder the military has ignored the ruling of Israel's own Supreme Court against the censorship policy. As New York Times correspondent Ethan Bronner wrote, reporters cannot witness Palestinian suffering but are given "full access to Israeli political and military commentators eager to show them around southern Israel, where Hamas rockets have been terrorizing civilians. . . . Like all wars, this one is partly about public relations. But unlike any war in Israel's history, in this one the government is seeking to entirely control the message and narrative for reasons both of politics and military strategy."
The Foreign Press Association minced no words: "The unprecedented denial of access to Gaza for the world's media amounts to a severe violation of press freedom and puts the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs."
Daniel Seaman, director of Israel's government press office, responded: "Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that." As a result, Palestinian journalists already in Gaza have supplied much of the coverage.
It seems especially self-serving when Israelis complain about simplistic war coverage that depicts "an American-backed country with an awesome military machine fighting a third-world guerrilla force leading to a handful of Israelis dead versus 600 Gazans dead," as described by The Times reporter. "Israelis and their supporters think that such quick descriptions fail to explain the vital context of what has been happening — years of terrorist rocket fire on civilians have gone largely unanswered, and a message had to be sent to Israel's enemies that this would go on no longer, they say. The issue of proportionality, they add, is a false construct because comparing death tolls offers no help in measuring justice and legitimacy."
The director of U.N. relief operations in Gaza, John Ging, put it simply but eloquently: "For the truth to get out, journalists have to get in."
As worldwide revulsion spread this week, Israel allowed a three-hour daily "recess" in its attacks to allow civilians to obtain food, water and other supplies. But the military fired upon a U.N. relief truck yesterday, killing the driver.
The influential Israeli newspaper Haaretz and its Web site (www.haaretz.com) offer a broad perspective. As analyst Gideon Levy wrote yesterday: "Our leadership wonders whether to take another spin on the roulette wheel, broaden the war and thrash some more victims for no reason — or to hold fire and bring an end to a war that is probably the most brutal and least necessary in the history of Israel."
The conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, who established an orchestra of young Israeli and Arab musicians, has expressed three wishes: "The first is for the Israeli government to realize once and for all that the Middle Eastern conflict cannot be solved by military means. The second is for Hamas to realize that its interests are not served by violence, and that Israel is here to stay; and the third is for the world to acknowledge the fact that this conflict is unlike any other in history. It is uniquely intricate and sensitive; it is a human conflict between two peoples who are both deeply convinced of their right to live on the same very small piece of land. This is why neither diplomacy nor military action can resolve this conflict.
"Palestinian violence torments Israelis and does not serve the Palestinian cause; Israeli military retaliation is inhuman, immoral, and does not guarantee Israel's security. The destinies of the two peoples are inextricably linked, obliging them to live side by side. They have to decide whether they want to make of this a blessing or a curse."
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"The impact of Patrick's budget cuts"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, Sunday, January 25, 2009
Devastating, painful cuts in state funding to cities and towns are on the way, now that Gov. Deval Patrick has outlined his necessary "tough choices among miserable options" — an immediate $128 million slash to local aid, with $375 million more proposed for later this year.
Massachusetts must close an expected budget chasm of $4.1 billion over the next 17 months. The state is about a billion dollars short for the current fiscal year that ends June 30; for the year that follows, the shortfall between spending and shrinking tax revenue is likely to total $3.1 billion.
Layoffs of police, firefighters, public works crews as well as other state and municipal employees seem unavoidable here in Berkshire County and statewide.
Patrick told the Massachusetts Municipal Association on Friday that $3.9 billion in direct state aid to schools won't be touched now, but for the next fiscal year he would keep education spending at the same level, which would produce staff and program reductions unless he can tap federal stimulus funds, as he hopes to do.
Nonetheless, school cuts may come even sooner.
"The state sends us local aid money and it goes into a great big pot," explained Massachusetts Municipal Association President Bruce Tobey on New England Cable News. "The decision is made locally on how that pot gets divvied up to provide services. The bottom line is school, police, fire, trash collection and environmental services are all equally on the table when we get to the reality of what goes on at City Hall or Town Hall."
Cities and towns already have submitted to Patrick as many as 4,000 local projects that could be funded once President Obama's economic recovery package, currently pegged at $825 billion, is approved by Congress.
But that project list has grown ridiculously large.
North Adams Mayor John Barrett III acknowledged that "there's no way we're going to get all that money. Too many people are going to the trough here. They've really got to streamline it down."
As reported by the Boston Globe, Barrett has focused on only one request for his city: Restoration of the Mohawk Theatre through a combination of $7 million from the feds and $10 million from private sources.
To ease the impact of reductions in local services, Patrick now seeks a 1 percentage-point increase in the statewide 5 percent meals and 5.75 percent hotel tax, producing $150 million for cities and towns the same way state lottery revenues are distributed. He also advocates an additional 1 percent that individual communities could keep if they choose to impose it.
It's understandable the Massachusetts Restaurant Association opposes this idea; we've seen a series of restaurant shutdowns here and more are likely because of a dismaying lack of patrons.
As association president Peter Christie put it: "Don't single out one industry, particularly an industry that is really reeling right now. I don't think many people in the Patrick administration realize that."
A 2007 survey in the Globe found cities and towns with many restaurants would benefit much more than others from local surtaxes.
Meanwhile, telecommunications companies should be required to give up their decades-old exemption from property taxes for their telephone poles. Patrick also wants cities and towns to participate in lower-cost health insurance program with 50 percent approval of union members — a potential savings of $250 million a year. The governor would penalize communities that fail to take part.
Though Patrick still shies from it, a modest and temporary increase in the state tax on gasoline should remain on the table.
Cutting public safety is unthinkable, especially when petty crimes possibly related to the recession are increasing in the Berkshires, several more months of snow and ice-removal remain even though towns are running out of money, and firefighting remains a constant priority.
The proposals on the table are a modest price to pay in order to prevent drastic reductions in our quality of life.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Liquor tax likely to start battle"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, Sunday, February 08, 2009
Battle lines are forming over Gov. Deval L. Patrick's proposed 1 percent tax increase on restaurant meals and hotel rooms, plus a new 5 percent tax on candy and soft drinks. But the biggest brouhaha is certain to be over the plan to add a 5 percent tax on bottled liquor.
Massachusetts residents who live near New Hampshire could drive a few miles to that tax-free state ("live free or die") to purchase alcohol. New Hampshire liquor sales are up 4 percent this winter, and profits are up about 8 percent. Berkshire visitors might bring booze from home rather than buy here if we lose our competitive edge on pricing. Still, an extra 50 cents on a $10 bottle of wine or $1.50 on a $30 bottle of imported Russian vodka seems to be a modest price to help raise $100 to $150 million statewide for public health services.
Likewise, an extra 25 or 50 cents on a $25 restaurant tab via a 1 percent increase in the meals tax (and maybe another 1 percent in some local communities) looks like a minuscule sacrifice if it would ease painful, damaging cuts in local aid to cities and towns that could cause layoffs of police, firefighters, DPW workers and teachers, among others.
The Beacon Hill battle over the liquor tax proposal could turn nasty.
Package store owners say they're hard pressed by the economic slump and the Massachusetts Package Store Association is lobbying strongly against the tax plan.
"There's only so much a small-business person can bear until it gets to the point when it's not worth running a business anymore," complains Frank Anzalotti, the head of the association that represents more than 700 liquor stores statewide.
The Patrick administration states that money raised by a liquor-purchase tax would fund alcohol treatment and prevention programs; Massachusetts is among the five worst states in the nation when it comes to adult binge drinking and underage drinking. Advocates of Patrick's proposal point out that 43 other states tax alcohol sales at stores — including New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine. (In Vermont, spirits are sold only at state-operated stores, while beer and wine can be purchased at grocery and convenience stores.)
In New York State, which faces a deficit of more than $15 billion, Gov. David Paterson has proposed issuing licenses to permit wine sales in grocery and convenience stores, currently limited to beer sales only. The plan would raise roughly $105 million per year.
Joseph Nejaime, co-owner of three Nejaime's Wine Cellar stores in Lenox and Stockbridge with 30 years in the business, insists that liquor is not recession-proof, adding that his revenue is flat and with costs rising, he had to lay off three of his 30 employees.
"People are buying a little more judiciously," he acknowledges. Nejaime opposes potential tax hikes because they "hit everybody either where they need to spend money, like transportation, or where they like to spend money" (presumably in his stores).
He also points out that, on average, up to 40 percent of the price on alcohol represents a state excise tax; his view is that the tax exemption for in-store purchases should be extended to restaurants, since their owners absorb the same tax.
"When things get tough for the state, it looks outward," he contends. "When things get tough for businesses or individuals, they look inward. The government should be cutting spending. We have a distressed citizenry and I don't want to see them burdened with more taxes."
Nejaime also worries about losing the county's competitive edge if new sales taxes are imposed as part of a "never-ending proposition."
"How can we be in a financial crisis and turn around to ask for tax increases to fund government functions when the accountability on those functions is certainly lacking?" he asks, citing repeated ethical issues on Beacon Hill. Besides, "you can rarely rely on the state to use the money for what they say it will be used for."
Finally, warning of a "chilling effect on sales" if new taxes are imposed, he argues: "You can't break the citizens, the small businesses because they're the segments that seem to be having some resilience."
Nejaime's viewpoint is bound to resonate with many fellow citizens. It will be a long, contentious spring and summer when lawmakers get down to business and it would be foolhardy to bet on approval for some, much less all, of these tax proposals.
"City's schools aren't the choice"
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Friday, February 20, 2009
By Clarence Fanto
If school officials in Pittsfield and elsewhere in the county were banking on federal stimulus funds for new projects, they appear to be out of luck, and so are all of us.
The final Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act cobbled together on Capitol Hill and signed by President Obama in Denver this week could funnel money for renovation and construction projects at state universities and at charter schools such as Berkshire Arts & Technology (BART) in Adams. But funding for new public school construction was sacrificed during the final frenzied negotiations.
It's still unclear whether the state can figure out a way to divert any of the expected $6 billion to $8 billion bound from Washington to Beacon Hill over the next two years to help cities and towns build or renovate schools.
Pittsfield's high schools are in urgent need of costly renovations, assuming that the state's School Building Authority will be unable to approve the city's proposal for a $200 million mega-school complex on the grounds of Taconic High. Since that project appears to be a pipe dream for now, the city must deal first with renovations as well as a severe perception problem that's draining students and funding from the public schools.
At least 300 Pittsfield students have fled to neighboring districts through school choice, and only 66 from nearby towns have opted to enter the city's schools. The price tag for this net loss of about 235 students could reach $1.3 million this year, a severe drain on the system's already precarious finances. In addition, some 60 Pittsfield students now travel to Adams to attend the BART charter school.
That was the grim picture painted by Assistant Superintendent Sally Douglas at the Feb. 11 Pittsfield School Committee meeting, as reported in the Pittsfield Gazette and seen on Pittsfield Community TV. Observing that the outflow of students from Pittsfield schools is accelerating, Douglas told shocked committee members: "I'm not going to paint a rosy picture."
"We've got to stop the hemorrhaging," warned School Committee Chair Kathleen Amuso, adding that Douglas was understating the crisis. "No matter what we've done in the past four or five years, we haven't been able to keep our students in Pittsfield."
Nearly 100 Pittsfield students now choose Lenox schools, including a significant influx of first-graders. Other popular destinations include Central Berkshire Regional in Dalton (58 students), the Lee school system (37 students) and the Richmond Consolidated School (32 students), according to figures presented at the School Committee meeting. (Time Warner Cable subscribers can see the next repeat telecast of the meeting tonight at 7 on Pittsfield Community TV's Channel 18, with a repeat at midnight.)
Perception usually has some basis in reality. The city's middle schools, as well as Pittsfield High, are viewed by many as troubled institutions where outbreaks of violence are all too frequent. The city's high school graduation rate, while improving modestly, is 74 percent, well below the 81 percent statewide average.
What's often overlooked is the excellence of many programs offered in the Pittsfield high schools — culinary and other vocational courses come to mind, along with performing-arts courses. Many academic departments also get well-deserved high marks from students and parents.
But all that counts for little if the prevailing message about the condition of the city's schools is negative. Serious infrastructure problems at both high schools sends a strong, disturbing signal.
One of the School Committee members, Erin Sullivan, pointed out that dismissing public perceptions as unwarranted fails as a strategy. "Their perception is our reality," she declared as she questioned the specific steps being taken to stanch the outflow of students.
Amuso conceded that "we have tried some things, but they're not working." A survey returned by only 31 families cited problems with "orderliness" in the school environment, class size and quality of instruction, but such a small sample of the population is hardly conclusive.
Mounting financial problems plaguing the city's schools also fuel perceptions that other districts are in healthier condition. Pittsfield School Department officials are scrambling to avoid running out of money before the current fiscal year ends June 30. This may well require dipping into reserves, which will hamper spending next year. With the city facing a $1 million reduction in aid from the state over the next four months, and perhaps twice that in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the schools already have cut $300,000 from their current $49.5 million budget.
Superintendent Howard Eberwein, not one to pull punches, has warned that more state-aid cuts could result in layoffs for the next fiscal year beginning July 1.
Silver linings should not be overlooked — the city's graduation rate improves to 77 percent if students who gain their diplomas outside the two high schools are included. And the year-by-year dropout rate is down to 4.6 percent, a significant gain when compared to the alarming tally of 7.6 percent in 2002.
In education, as in most areas of life, you don't get what you don't pay for. The hope from here is that City Hall and the School Department whack the weeds and beat the bushes to gain some financial stimulation from Boston as the Obama economic-recovery money starts flowing into badly-depleted state coffers.
Surely, there are many competing, urgent needs in these desperate times as the Almost-Depression, or Great Recession if you prefer, continues to deepen. It may take a few years but this, too, shall pass. Investing in our children's ability to navigate the competitive, high-tech global economy through a top-quality school system is an urgent priority that we can ill afford to sacrifice.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"The price of folly"
By Edward Udel, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Clarence Fanto made it painfully clear ("City's schools aren't the choice," op-ed, Feb. 20.) The migratory path of school choice students away from Pittsfield carries an enormous price tag of over a million dollars. Those Pittsfield students and families who prefer the public schools in Lee, Lenox, Dalton and Adams (BART) clearly outnumber their counterparts from those same communities who find Pittsfield a desirable educational destination. Why?
Pittsfield, a community beset by urban problems, is surrounded by much smaller, more homogeneous communities that may not yet have begun to fully grapple with MCAS "underperformance." Pittsfield's two middle schools and some elementary schools have been less fortunate. They are immersed in test prep instruction, using test items to serve as the engine that pulls the whole train.
It is no secret that Pittsfield's previous superintendent was brought in to improve test scores. She focused on this challenge like a laser beam and she succeeded. Much to the consternation of a small but vocal group of parents who wanted their children to receive more creative and stimulating instruction, the two middle schools began scheduling yearly multiple MCAS practice exams using the data (results) to drive the curriculum. MCAS became their focal point, their raison d'être.
Once a school is labeled as underperforming, the administration and faculty have little choice but to follow this path. They are obligated to improve the scores. Educational babble has been heavily applied to this effort to make us all feel better about test-prepping but it is what it is.
By contrast, some other schools have not yet made this transition because up until now, their test scores have been good enough to make their AYP, anticipated yearly progress. That is about to radically change.
The state has just ratcheted up the minimum score required to "pass," and schools that have succeeded in the past will soon find that their target AYP is impossible to reach. Teachers from surrounding communities will be joining their Pittsfield peers in the task of pushing a heavier and heavier rock up a much steeper hill.
In that regard, there will be fewer escape routes available to neighboring communities. The state is carefully monitoring their suspensions, absences and drop-outs. Some educators credit this attention as the reason that Pittsfield is finally focusing on drop-outs with some degree of success. That may be a good thing.
I say may be a good thing because the gargantuan effort to keep every student in matriculation mode may explain why there seems to be a concern about discipline in Pittsfield's schools. Is the number of disciplinary suspensions decreasing? If so, does this indicate an actual reduction in disciplinary problems or greater tolerance for disruptive behavior? Many teachers point to the latter.
However, the Juvenile Resources Center has reduced the need for out-of-school suspensions. I have heard many encouraging and supportive comments about this program. It is difficult, therefore, to accurately gauge the extent to which the perception about disciplinary problems in Pittsfield's schools is" fueled by reality."
One thing is certain. There is no escape from MCAS. State and federal requirements to impose greater "accountability" are actually doing far more harm than good. As the pressure escalates and expands to include more communities, Pittsfield's recent adjustments in curriculum and instruction may soon become the local norm.
Pittsfield offers some excellent programs and courses taught by many talented and devoted teachers. Top students from both high schools are accepted by the finest colleges and universities in the country and there are some remarkable opportunities available in the fine and creative arts.
Pittsfield also offers a wide choice of AP courses. I recently talked to an administrator of a prestigious private school who is more than satisfied with the education that her child is receiving at PHS. These facts, however, are not enough to dissuade some parents from sending their children elsewhere. It is both unfortunate and tragic that some schools have almost completely MCASified their instruction.
Pittsfield, along with many other communities, is a victim, not a culprit. The state-mandated cure is really a disease, blocking pedagogical arteries, cutting off creative circulation and contributing many more deficits than gains. Soon more neighboring communities will succumb to the same illness.
A long-time teacher in the Pittsfield school system and former chairman of the English department at Taconic, Edward Udel is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Skeptical Onlooker", Northampton, MASS., March 4, 2009, wrote -
Mr. Udel fails to hit on a major factor in school choice politics and how districts make decisions. When Pittsfield losses a student to another district, that money comes off the CITY cherry sheet state aid and NOT out of the school committee's state aid and budget. However, when a student comes into the district, that money goes direct to the district itself, not the City. This disparity is unfair and greatly influences and alters how school choice is treated by districts and decisions they make. Not sure how you can blame MCAS for this, though it seems to be his recurring theme in these pieces. Most kids choice in because of their friends, sports teams or where their parents work, though having a solid academic program doesn't hurt. If the state starts to fairly connect the school choice money, both in and out, with the actual students, I think better decisions would be made.
"Clarence Fanto: To survive, homeowners need support"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, Sunday, February 22, 2009
Two months after it accepted $40 million in taxpayers' money under the TARP stimulus program, it's reassuring to find out that Berkshire Bank, the county's largest, is launching a program to boost lending in the region.
The Troubled Assets Relief Program, initially designed to help rescue failing banks, was reinvented by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to jump-start lending by healthy banks. Under the retitled Capital Purchase Program, at least $250 billion was handed out, but the largest banks hoarded the money to help their balance sheets. Now, the Obama administration is struggling to save Bank of America and Citigroup.
Michael P. Daly, the president and CEO of Berkshire Bank, told investors and reporters on Jan. 27 that the publicly traded parent company, Berkshire Hills Bancorp, would combine its $40 million in federal funding (preferred stock owned by the U.S. government) with $40 million raised by a common stock offering "to better position the company to expand the flow of credit and support economic vitality in the communities that we serve." Daly cautioned that his company will be proactive in "working promptly to address loan problems if they develop" while the economy continues to falter.
As The Boston Globe reported on Feb. 5, Daly is the third best-paid bank CEO of the nine in Massachusetts that took federal money — $1,219,029 in total compensation in 2007 — $400,000 in salary and the rest in stock awards. Thus, he won't be affected by President Obama's proposed $500,000 cap on bank executive salaries.
As Legacy Bank President and CEO J. Williar Dunlaevy has observed, Berkshire County has too many banks for the size of the population. Thus, Berkshire Hills and Legacy Bancorp, the parent company, have been branching out to upstate New York, southern Vermont and the Pioneer Valley.
Partly because of loan losses, Legacy reported a net red ink of $451,000 in the fourth quarter of 2008, somewhat less than it lost during the same period the previous year. For all of 2008, Legacy earned net income of $1.4 million, a slight increase over 2007. "These are solid results, particularly in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the last 70 years," said Dunlaevy.
Berkshire Bank earned just over $5 million in the final quarter of last year, and $22.2 million for the full year, partly reflecting its Factory Point bank acquisition in southern Vermont.
Greylock Federal is a credit union but operates much like a bank; it earned $1.1 million in the fourth quarter, $6.25 million for the year and ranks as the county's top mortgage lender with 27 percent of the market, compared to 10 percent for Berkshire Bank and just over 9 percent for Legacy.
All is not rosy locally. There are anecdotal reports of tougher lending standards; the banks can't be blamed for seeking to avoid the problems that may have turned several of their much-larger brethren into "zombie banks" ripe for a federal takeover.
Daly acknowledged that "the coming year will be challenging for our industry and we will again be disciplined in our budgeting process." Translation: Businesses, nonprofits and individuals seeking financing will have to prove their creditworthiness. Berkshire Bank's problem loans represent only about one-half of one percent of its total lending, and the company aims to ensure there's no increase.
While Berkshire Bank's new Community Investment Program is a welcome boost for lending, the promised helping hand to troubled borrowers trying to stay above water may be more noteworthy.
"Things are pretty difficult," Daly said in announcing the initiative that takes effect on March 16, when annual lending is increased by $50 million to $500 million — $300 million for home mortgages and home equity lines of credit.
The bank's plans, including refinancing at lower interest rates, are in line with President Obama's just-announced housing relief program designed for people who are struggling through no fault of their own but not intended for irresponsible borrowers who knowingly took on more than they could afford.
Despite some hysterical rants against Obama's plan, notably by CNBC's Rick Santelli, distressed homeowners deserve our support during the toughest times most of us have witnessed.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
"Arts groups' reality is doing less with less"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Friday, March 06, 2009
During the Great Depression, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" from the 1932 Broadway musical "New Americana," was recorded by Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee and Al Jolson and became an anthem representing the American dream turned nightmare.
During the current Great Recession, the exhortation that best captures the mood of the moment is, "Do more with less!" The origin of this cliché remains murky, but it seems to come right out of a corporate handbook.
The bleak reality confronting non-profit arts organizations from New York and Boston to the Berkshires, may best be represented by a twist on that cliché — "doing less with less." It was shocking to learn from New York magazine that the dazzling, massive Marc Chagall murals commissioned by Lincoln Center for its 1966 opening and displayed in the Metropolitan Opera lobby, "The Triumph of Music" and "The Sources of Music," have been put up as collateral for a $35 million loan to the opera house from JP Morgan Chase. The paintings, 30 by 36 feet each, are said to be worth $20 million. A Met board member called it "a decision of last resort" and a former Met financial officer, Marvin Suchoff, offered this blithe explanation: "If you have some great art sitting on the wall, why not use it as collateral? It beats selling it for cash."
For faithful listeners to live Saturday-matinee broadcasts and viewers of the high-definition Met telecasts shown at theaters, including the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, the financial demons torturing the Met are a source of deep concern. The New York Times reported this week that singers are being asked to take a 10 percent pay cut next season, matching a salary rollback already in place for the staff. Some big name artists already are donating a portion of their fees back to the opera house. The Met's powerful unions also are being asked to make sacrifices. Four new productions planned for next season are being put on ice. The Met's $300 million endowment has lost a third of its value, donations are "way off" and "potentially disastrous deficits" are looming for next season, according to The Times.
Broadway World.com reports a modest box-office decline of 1.3 percent so far this season compared to 2007-2008, with many tickets being offered at deep discounts. Last season represented a high water mark for the company with 88 percent of available tickets sold, compared to 77 percent in 2005-06.
Closer to home, the Boston Symphony has unveiled an ambitious Tanglewood season, with an extra week because of the late Labor Day weekend. The orchestra, also facing a loss in its endowment, is making a commendable effort to attract younger listeners and patrons. At Symphony Hall in Boston, 5,200 tickets have been sold to under-40 customers for $20 each, well ahead of the expected sales target of 4,000 this season. These ducats normally sell from $29 to $115. The discount program was made possible by an anonymous benefactor who bought tickets and donated them back to the orchestra.
Those of us who haunt Tanglewood all summer see relatively few listeners under 40 in the Shed, though the lawn attracts young couples and families. In Boston, the average age of BSO concertgoers is 49, younger than we might have thought.
The orchestra has initiated many incentives at Tanglewood, including reduced prices on Friday evenings, low-cost upgrades to the Shed for lawn tickets, free lawn admission for anyone 17 and under, and affordable full-season lawn passes, known affectionately back in the '60s and '70s as "grass passes" — double meaning intended! For full-time Berkshire residents, these can be obtained for only $75.
Extending the offer of $20 Shed seats for people under 40, subject to availability, would be great for Tanglewood, if it makes financial sense for the BSO. While the notion is often expressed in some quarters, including the page-opposite, that occasional rock concerts such as last summer's Wilco performance can help attract new audiences for the classical season, we await corroborating evidence that this is indeed the case. It seems counter-intuitive, and with all due respect to a friend who is touting rapidly-rising rocker Jason Mraz as an ideal booking for Tanglewood, it's also outside the organization's mission of showcasing serious music, classic and contemporary, along with always-welcome detours into first-class purveyors of pop like James Taylor and Tony Bennett.
That said, there's no quarrel with the argument that cultural organizations must innovate to ensure their survival. As Leon Botstein, president of the Bard College campuses in Great Barrington and in Annandale, N.Y., told The Boston Globe recently: "The problem is that young people do not grow up with a culture that allows them naturally to enjoy sitting though an instrumental concert that lasts for over two hours. These fantastic institutions like the BSO need to reinvent themselves from the bottom up: where they play, how they play. It simply needs to think, 'Why are we crucial to the larger Boston or New England area?'"
His suggestions include performances in locales outside concert halls, the addition of Sunday matinees in Boston, and further efforts to attract more members of Boston's student population, which now exceeds 300,000 at more than 50 college and university campuses, according to a Northeastern University study.
Bizarre experiments by certain orchestras elsewhere — hiring rock DJs to host concerts that are spiced up with videos — are doomed to fail. Better to do more with less, or less with less if circumstances dictate, as our local stages and regional public broadcasting operations are attempting. But that's a topic best left to a forthcoming column.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
3/7/2009, "HellerCarbonCapN TradeLLC" wrote:
Yet another sop to the local powers-that-be from the slobbering pen of hack-for-hire Clarence Fanto.
If not-for-profit Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony are facing such financial difficulties, why not do what for-profit businesses always have to do in order to stay afloat when faced with similar circumstances: Cut profligate spending.
It's disingenuous for BSO to be crying poverty when it pays its Managing Director, Mark Volpe, more than $957,000 annually (including contributions to his pension and benefit plans), and Malcolm Lowe, BSO's Concertmaster, over $391,000 (including benefits and pension plans).
The number of employees paid over $50,000 annually, according to BSO's IRS Form 990, is 206.
Meanwhile, the list of those getting over $200,000 annually is enough to indicate even to the non-musically-inclined that this is not an organization of poor, starving musicians, but rather an overpaid, overpampered bunch of union hacks.
Maybe a little belt-tightening would be just the thing to bring the 'heavenly' BSO and Tanglewood back to earthly reality.
SEE: BSO's FY2007, IRS Form 990, PDF pgs 10 & 18.
"Public radio feeling fiscal pinch, too"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, Sunday, March 8, 2009
Some public broadcasters are suffering from the effects of the decession, as some economists now call the meltdown. Others, not so much.
National Public Radio laid off 64 people, about 7 percent of its staff, after a precipitous 29 percent decline in underwriting (nonprofit radio's form of low-key advertising). Vermont Public Radio has slashed its annual operating budget by more than 11 percent, and its employees are taking pay cuts ranging from 2 to 7.5 percent. A 27 percent dropoff in underwriting from businesses is blamed.
But the WAMC juggernaut rolls on. Maintaining $2.7 million in underwriting (40 percent of its $6.8 million annual budget) has been "tough," said President and CEO Alan Chartock, "but we're holding our own." Chartock's inimitable style of fundraising yielded $800,000 from listeners in five days last month, a record-setting pace. WAMC's powerful Mount Greylock transmitter and its 20 relay towers reach an audience of about 400,000 per month in parts of seven states.
Nevertheless, Chartock says, "we've been hit relatively hard" by the crashing economy. New York's Gov. David Paterson has proposed a 50 percent cut in the state's $75,000 annual support. WAMC has cut its staff by 5 percent through attrition and layoffs for several part-timers. The long-running daily feature, "Word to the Wise," went off the air after Merriam-Webster withdrew its funding.
At WMHT, which provides PBS and local TV programming and has several FM radio services, the tidings are definitely sad. The stations' 30,000 members have just received a letter marked "urgent, action needed!" Vice President and General Manager Scott Sauer appealed for additional support in view of "a serious financial shortfall" during the December fund drive.
Combined with a loss of corporate contributions, WMHT's $8.5 million annual budget is $235,000 in the hole. Sauer warned that "it is urgent that you act today and send the largest gift you can." He suggested a "special gift" of $150, $120 or $90, "whatever amount you wish." Just last week, WMHT's President and General Manager Robert Altman offered mixed signals, stating the recession's impact "hasn't been dramatic" while acknowledging a "difficult environment that's challenging and a struggle." He pointed to Paterson's proposed budget cut, which would halve the stations' annual $1. 5 million in state support. While avoiding layoffs, he said, the Capital District operation has frozen hiring. Midway through a three-week fund drive, WMHT has discontinued its monthly program magazine, saving well over $100,000 a year.
At WFCR, based at UMass-Amherst, the addition of five low-power transmitters covering most of Berkshire County has boosted the station's finances, according to General Manager Martin Miller. The station's recent two-week, low-key fund drive yielded nearly $200,000, exceeding the goal by $15,000, he said. Offering an extensive classical music schedule with knowledgeable hosts that respect the listeners, WFCR has tripled its Berkshire County audience.
Miller claims 11,000 listeners per week; that's about half the number reached by WAMC but well over WMHT-FM's 8,600. With a $3.5 million annual budget and 200,000-plus weekly listeners in western New England, WFCR has lost cash support from the state university, though UMass continues to house the station's studios.
But $55,000 in combined annual support continues from Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire College, as well as $350,000 from those campuses toward "Five College Radio's" $4.2 million capital campaign, which is halfway toward its goal. The station plans not only to upgrade its facilities but also to add a daily, late-afternoon half-hour talk show and to initiate an outreach program, "WFCR Music for Young People."
"We have maintained our staff, with no layoffs and no attrition," Miller said. WFCR is in year two of a 10-year lease from commercial giant Clear Channel Communications of WNNZ (AM 640) in Westfield, which is devoted to news and information programming. Miller at WFCR and Altman at WMHT insist they're strongly committed to continuing classical music programming. Such silver linings are gratefully accepted.
"Tweets need edits, substance"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed
Sunday, March 15, 2009, LENOX, Massachusetts
Ever feel like a stranger in an ever-stranger land? The cacophony of e-mail, blogs, Blackberries, iPhones, Bluetooth, thimble-size iPod Shuffles and social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and My Space overwhelms us with a flood tide of mostly useless "information" and "communication."
The flavor of the moment is Twitter, a micro-blogging gimmick with an estimated 6 million users. It allows "followers" to see messages of up to 140 characters on computers or cell phones — one more electronic bauble of babble, trafficking in triviality. Time Magazine assures us that "it's on its way to becoming the next killer app."
According to the company's Web site: "Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?"
The notion that strangers, never mind friends, would want constant updates on what I'm doing is so bizarre that I signed up for the free service so I could notify followers: "Stop & Shop is out of Weight Watchers brownies, but Price Chopper has 'em. Skinny Cow cones sold out at Big Y, but they're at Harry's in Pittsfield and at Loeb's in Lenox." Just made it, 140 characters!
Surely, my followers would find this fascinating: "I'm on the treadmill and CNN's bozo anchor Rick Sanchez is reading Tweets!"
Jon Stewart and Brian Williams have derided Twitter as a useless doodad. Presidential wannabe Newt Gingrich and several Republicans in Congress have Tweeted attacks on Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. Improbably, even Sen. John McCain has Tweeted to list alleged budget pork while President Obama addressed Congress.
It gets better. Jane Fonda, 71, is back on Broadway in the play "33 Variations." She now Tweets and blogs nearly every day, sometimes during intermissions. A typical Tweet: "I am old. I am matronly." Thanks for that. Explaining her self-confessed obsession, Fonda said: "I'm getting immediacy from the theater, which is new — it's been 46 years. And from the blogosphere: instant feedback. Isn't that fascinating?" If you say so.
You want inane? Quarterback Eli Manning of the Giants flashed his followers: "pro bowl was fun."
But what convinced me to rethink the Twitter thing was NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr's on-air confession that, at 92, he has joined the Twitterverse. Schorr is the only member of Edward R. Murrow's legendary team of journalists still on the air. Among my earliest memories is his voice on CBS Radio News every morning. When he was 12, he earned $5 from the Bronx Home News for a story about a woman falling off the roof of his apartment building. Now, Schorr's weekly chats with host Scott Simon on NPR's "Weekend Edition" Saturday mornings at 9:05 are must-listening.
So, I nearly fell off my treadmill a few weeks ago when he revealed one of his first Tweets: "What impresses me about Twitter is that it gives you a sense of community. Thanks again to everyone for being so great." As of Friday, Schorr had 5,473 "followers" of his occasional communiques.
Turns out Schorr has already had second thoughts about Twittering specifically and the blogosphere in general. "What we are losing is editing," he pointed out recently on NPR. "When I grew up, nothing could be communicated to the outside world that didn't go through an editor to make sure you had your facts right, spelling right and so on. Now, every person is his or her own publisher and/or editor or reporter. ... The discipline that should go with being able to communicate is gone."
So I'm deleting my Twitter account — during my brief trial I couldn't figure out how to use it anyway. Besides, there have been security breaches and the company shares information with "third parties," which could include spammers.
For me, it's time for a device-free walk in the woods — the best route for mind-cleansing decompression. And anyone who cares to become one of my followers can, well, take a hike.
"Arts groups concentrate on summer"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Sunday, March 22, 2009
Very tight belts. Stiff upper lip. Business as usual, with a few twists. Hope and cautious optimism.
With the official arrival of spring on Friday, and the welcome deluge of glossy arts and entertainment brochures in our mailboxes, the tourism season can be glimpsed from a distance. Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow Dance and the county's seasonal theaters are offering bountiful deals and discounts, along with audience-friendly programming to pump up the box office and compensate for declines in donations. At the same time, most organizations have trimmed their budgets and staffs.
Boston Symphony Orchestra Managing Director Mark Volpe told me on Friday that Tanglewood advance sales are slightly ahead of last year's pace — "we're cautious but optimistic." He credited the extra late-August weekend devoted to four James Taylor shows for most of the increase. All are completely sold out except for lawn tickets to his Sunday, Aug. 30, performance with the Boston Pops and John Williams.
Volpe acknowledged that "we're not immune" from the economic headwinds buffeting other orchestras and the arts in general. Hiring and wage freezes are in place at the BSO, he said, and staffing levels are being reviewed.
The BSO employs 1,100 people, full- and part-time, in Boston and at Tanglewood. "We're meeting to review a whole series of steps," he added. "Rest assured, we need to get more efficient."
The orchestra's endowment was down 27 percent as of Dec. 31 to under $300 million and has declined further since then; winter-season BSO income has not matched increased attendance as concertgoers flock to cheaper seats.
Given all this, Volpe conceded a possible impact on future programming at Tanglewood, though this summer's schedule is safe. Future seasons might include fewer costly-to-produce opera productions.
This summer's likely box office hits include an all-Tchaikovsky BSO opening night conducted by James Levine, a Shed performance by Tony Bennett, 82 and still going strong, two other Pops programs including Film Night, a pair of world premieres by the Mark Morris Dance Company, the return of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas after two decades, and birthday tribute concerts honoring Sir James Galway, Andre Previn and favorite-son conductor Raphael Fruehbeck de Burgos. Many first-class Ozawa Hall recitals are selling fast.
Prices for BSO Shed seats are the same as last year; new attendance-builders include free lawn admission for everyone 17 and under, a $250 "grass pass" good for all classical concerts through the summer (for Berkshire residents, it's $75), and a just-announced partnership with the Clark — $45 fetches two Tanglewood lawn tickets and two tickets to the renowned museum in Williamstown.
Professor Jeremy Yudkin's down-to-earth pre-concert discussions at the Lenox Library are back under the aegis of the BSO this summer at half price — $25 for a Friday or Saturday afternoon talk, $45 for both days, plus 20 percent discounts for Shed or lawn tickets to the Tanglewood concert being discussed.
Also new this year: guaranteed clear skies for every event! More specials may be on the way — "we have to be as flexible as we can be in this environment," said Volpe. "We have to be intelligent about how we do things, to attract a younger audience not only for more attendance but to develop a relationship with them over time." He's right, of course. The more arts organizations can broaden their appeal from elite, well-heeled, aging patrons to a younger, more diverse cross-section of the public, the better they'll survive the recession and build for the future.
But my view is that they'll need help from innkeepers and restaurateurs — the cost of a weekend in the Berkshires is exorbitant; the era of the dreaded three-night minimum and over-priced accommodations must end. In this economy, everyone is looking for a deal, and no one can blame them.
Next Sunday: How Jacob's Pillow, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Barrington Stage, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Shakespeare & Co. and other presenters are coping with the economic climate.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Budget cuts balanced by show quality"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Sunday, March 29, 2009
As they brace for an unpredictable summer season, Berkshire performing-arts leaders are stressing cooperation over competition following extensive budget cuts.
At Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Artistic Director Julianne Boyd plans more events at her two stages despite a 12 percent cut in what's now a $2.4 million budget. Two-week furloughs for the 10 year-round employees have averted layoffs, combined with a judicious schedule trim so the summer staff starts drawing paychecks three weeks later than usual.
"The cuts we make can't and won't hurt programming," Boyd emphasized. "We can cut a vein, but we can't cut an artery." Her Stage 2 productions are pared from four to three, and two of those are intimate and less costly.
Performances by the Bacon Brothers, Amanda McBroom and Shirley Jones are intended to fuel the box office. "At a time of downturn when the country is depressed, people need entertainment to get out of themselves," she added. "It raises the human spirit to see a great work of art; you feel better because it's touching something inside you."
A sharp pencil has avoided layoffs but yielded a 16 percent cut in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's budget to $3 million, resulting in fewer shows within a reduced schedule.
"A lot of our cuts have come from running smarter," said Board Chairman Matt Harris, citing savings in staff housing subsidized by Williams College.
He pointed out that contributions are 20 percent ahead of last year's pace so far, with the lion's share coming from trustee support. Acknowledging that "we've always been isolated up here," he stressed an intention to reach out to other performing-arts groups. "I think we'll all come out of this stronger for having bonded when times are tough," he said.
In its 81st season, the Berkshire Theatre Festival has slashed its budget by 20 percent to $2.1 million. Artistic Director Kate Maguire said year-round staff and salaries have not been affected; instead, administrative, marketing and production expenses have been trimmed. A Main Stage director will work for free and a reduced summer staff will save on housing and transportation costs. There'll be no compromise on quality, she stressed; new box-office incentives include half-price, 7 p.m. Wednesday performances for Berkshire residents.
"We've allowed ourselves the time and space to consider how to move forward prudently but, more importantly, how to respond in the most positive and exciting way from an artistic point of view," said Maguire. "It's a difficult time but also a time for us all to come together."
Shakespeare & Company has slashed its budget by 16 percent to $4.7 million in a major restructuring that cut seven employees and reduced year-round salaries by 10 percent.
The troupe seeks a box-office bonanza through revivals of "Othello" and "Hamlet" as well as returning hits like Annette Miller's "Golda's Balcony."
At Jacob's Pillow Dance in Becket, General Manager Connie Chin declared that "we're in very sound financial shape with excellent cash flow and we are very confident we will keep up our responsibilities to pay our vendors on time."
But the current budget, $4.7 million, is down 4 percent from last year and 7 percent compared to 2007. Salaries are frozen for its year-round staff of 24, maintenance and facility improvements are deferred, and other expenses are to be trimmed.
Acknowledging a "dire economic outlook," Chin said that "we took a deep breath" by adding Wednesday shows at the Doris Duke Theatre and instituting a low-price student rush program. "We believe that art can uplift, and people need it more than ever in these challenging times."
A glimmer of positive news: The Berkshire Music School's Executive Director Tracy Wilson reports doubled enrollment for private lessons in January, compared to 2008.
Given the importance of the county's cultural economy, an outpouring of support from residents and visitors is vital as arts-group leaders strive to keep the quality up while keeping costs down.
"Keeping perspective on crime in the city"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Friday, April 3, 2009
"Come now, and let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18).
Pittsfield is a crime-infested den of iniquity, filled with gangs, drug dealers, knife-wielders, baby shakers and wife-inseminators. It's not safe to walk the streets, especially after dark. The underclass, the low-lifes have taken over.
Or: Pittsfield is a vibrant small city with three magnificently restored stages for live entertainment, a plethora of eateries offering a smorgasbord of cuisine, more art galleries and cafés offering night life. The Beacon Cinemas project promises to bring thousands downtown each year for a quality movie-going experience.
Northampton or Saratoga we're not, and won't be, but at least the city is heading in that direction. The absurd Park Square traffic pattern is finally being revamped, streetscape projects are underway, and the city is being infused by U.S. stimulus funds for a variety of projects. The days of controversial mayors duking it out with dysfunctional City Councils are but a distant memory.
Perception versus reality. A tale of two cities. The best of times, the worst of times. A Jekyll and Hyde scenario, as Eagle columnist Brian Sullivan put it last week.
Sullivan minced no words: "Like it or not, it's two Pittsfields that we live in. It's the lofty, cerebral, fashionable, fine-dining and good times Pittsfield, or it's the seamy, sultry and sometimes despicable Pittsfield, with its drug dealing and violence."
In his "The City I Love" column, this native and life long resident of Pittsfield, with 20 years of editing and writing at the daily newspaper, Sullivan conceded he had no solutions but opined that "we're hanging at that pivotal point where we could fall either way." Leaving the city is no solution, he argued. "I have to believe there are other ways to restore quality life to our city. If we can't, then we're doomed."
Strong words, but attention must be paid. Surely, "Sully" speaks for many longtime local residents who still recall a bustling North Street with England's department store, Besse-Clarke, Melody House and many others open late on Thursday evenings after as many as 13,000 folks working at "the GE" collected their paychecks, their families, and went out on the town in the pre-mall era. There were three first-run movie houses and there was a sense of well-being in a company town that took care of its residents from cradle to grave. Crime was low-profile.
As GE began its painful exodus in the mid-'80s, cynicism, despair, anger and defeatism combined to create a city consumed by a sense of failure and self-loathing. In the early '90s, with unemployment into the double digits locally in a crushing recession, it was understandable that people could see nothing but a tunnel of doom. Crime surged, with murders in North Adams and Pittsfield, and an eruption of gun violence that claimed the lives of a student and a professor and wounded four other people on the bucolic Simon's Rock campus in Great Barrington. Serious drug trafficking became part of Pittsfield's day-to-day existence. North Street began to look like a wasteland.
Fast forward to the present. It can't be denied that there's an increase in violent and non-violent crime, and it's logical to assume that much of this stems from the miserable economy. Pittsfield has suffered as drug- and gang-related crimes, along with bizarre cases of domestic abuse, fill the news media. Lenox has seen several outbreaks of smash-and-grab break-ins at local businesses this year. There have been incidents in Great Barrington and other communities.
As always, the media messengers are being blamed amid concern about Pittsfield's image. Why would businesses want to invest here, why would people want to move to an area perceived as no more safe than New York, Boston, Hartford, Springfield and Holyoke? Veteran criminal and divorce lawyer Lee Flournoy is among the letter-writers and Internet commenters expressing criticism of creeping "tabloidism."
With all due respect, those concerned are invited to purchase a day's worth of the three tabloids from New York City and Boston and send me the bill. It's appropriate to feel appalled by the crime around us, particularly the Columbus Avenue early-afternoon outbreak of shooting perilously close to a group of children at play. It's encouraging to see the financially challenged police force and DA's office, led by the intrepid David Capeless, arresting and prosecuting the suspects in this and other recent crimes.
Ostrichism is just another form of denial. It's fine to debate how crime stories are displayed and how appropriate it is to include repulsive, lurid details. But to downplay the problem would cause people who reside in or work near the city's most troubled areas to cry "Cover-up!" Moderation is desirable, along with a sense of perspective. But the best thing we can do to restore a sense of well-being to the city Sullivan and many others love is to acknowledge and carefully examine the extent and causes of the outbreak.
"We have met the enemy, and he is us," wrote "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly in 1970. The thriving drug supermarket that fuels so much of our local crime is based on supply and demand. Anyone care to examine who's fueling the demand?
I thought not.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
Re: Open Letter to Clarence Fanto...
Dear Clarence Fanto,
I read all of your columns in the Berkshire Eagle Online, including the one published today, below, and I must say this one is superb!
Unlike your past lavishing undeserved praises for Good Old Boy Mayor Jimmy Ruberto, you describe with analytical precision the brutal reality of my native hometown: Pittsfield, Massachusetts!
One the surface, Pittsfield is all talk with propaganda worthy of the World's Worst Dictators -- past & present! Beneath the surface, Pittsfield is a black hole of negativity, violence, drugs, crime, job loss, teen pregnancies, welfare caseloads, ignorance, corruption, insider politics, high school dropouts, truancy, unemployment, homelessness, hunger, desperation, and cycled patterns of abuse and poverty.
All the State Representatives, Senators and Governor give run-down cities like Pittsfield is more and more scratch tickets and other lottery games, which is a voluntary poor tax so the wealthy, mainly wealth Boston-area corporations collectively receiving billions in annual tax breaks, pay less to Beacon Hill's State House. Pols like Dan "Bureaucrat" Bosley has done nothing to reform the "Big Dig" in Boston, but everything to encourage his constituents in North Adams -- the commonwealth's 3rd poorest municipality -- to scratch lottery tickets!
US Senator John FORBES Kerry is the wealthiest member of US Congress, where there are 40,000 registered lobbyists and 534 other Senators and Representatives, which is a ratio of about 70 lobbyist to a single member of Congress. John Kerry spends his summers on Nantucket, or off the main land of the commonwealth. While on his own boat, Senator Kerry misses Berkshire County's tourism "boat"!
For me, "North Street" is a hell hole I would elect to stay away from or avoid. To be on North Street is to be a marked man for top-down Pittsfield Pols like Carmen Massimiano II and Luciforo and Ruberto to mock, pick on, conspire against and bully for their own perverse amusements. I feel that one does not wish to be on "North Street", but rather, one ends up there because they have screwed up and are stuck there. I view "North Street" as both proverbial and real. The proverbial "North Street" is ending up stuck with child support payments, lifetime of shoddy housing, being bullied over and over again, being unemployed, anxious, fearful, and a sitting duck for the banalities of life. The real "North Street" is what you have described well in your column: A (metaphorical) Tale of Two Cities!
The only disagreement I have with you, Mr. Fanto, is that I do NOT view the Mayors of either Pittsfield or North Adams as "heroes" in reinventing their respective depressed communities. Nor do I view Berkshire DA David Capeless as a "hero" either. In some ways, they are part of the problem! For one, they are all insider only hack Pols that put their corrupted political network above the public good!
Over all, good job!
Jonathan A. Melle
The City I Love
"Pittsfield: A Jekyll and Hyde affair"
By Brian Sullivan, The Berkshire Eagle Online, Op-Ed, Thursday, March 26, 2009
It's not far from Pittsfield to Dalton, but Antimo, a cabulance driver for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, made the distance sound like a million miles.
Meanwhile, Patrick's Pub was packed this past Saturday night. The popular eatery and watering hole is doing well enough to initiate an expansion plan that will allow the establishment to hold private functions. In the meantime, Patrick's limits the number of reservations it takes during the week so as not to discourage walk-in customers.
Imagine. Limiting reservations to handle the walk-in crowd. That's both gutsy and accommodating. A tip o' this Irish cap to the major domos over on Park Square. Good job, guys and gals.
So, what brings Antimo and Patrick's together in this same column space? Simple. Pittsfield currently is evolving into one of those great-place-to-visit-but-you-wouldn't-want-to-live-there communities.
"What's there been," asked Antimo, 40, who recently moved to Dalton after being a lifelong Pittsfield resident, "about 11 knifings and shootings so far this year in Pittsfield? And we're still in March. This isn't the city I grew up in,
"It's the drugs," he added. "And don't blame it all on the dealers. There has to be customers who want the drugs."
The same holds true for Patrick's. The pub needs customers, too. On Saturday night, they had plenty. What are we to make of this? Let's just say the city I love would seem to have a strong customer base right now, no matter what the product might be.
Antimo's shift in residence is Dalton's gain and Pittsfield's loss. He came to Pittsfield with his family straight from Italy at the age of 3 — his mother still doesn't speak "a lick of English," he said. His last name has more vowels than his first, but you won't find that name next year in the Pittsfield entries in our phone books.
He's the kind of guy a city doesn't want to lose. A machinist for 15 years, he gave that career up for the cabulance job because he "feels more a sense of gratification" in the work.
"The money was good," he said of his machinist work, "but after a while I realized I wasn't getting much satisfaction out of it. I don't even mind working holidays now. I pick up people (at nursing homes) and bring them to their families for the day. It might be the last holiday they get to spend with them. Me? I've got plenty of holidays ahead of me."
Patrick's thrives, and so do the drug dealers. Which Pittsfield you live in depends on your perspective. It depends on your habits, your social group or maybe it all boils down to what you consider to be your own self worth. Or maybe you can live in this city and wear blinders wide enough to not see the kind of things that bother folks like Antimo.
That Patrick's does well in the shadows of the sometimes tempestuous North Street requires an encore and a bow. Or maybe I'm deceived a little. After all, I was part of the early-dinner rush at Patrick's on Saturday. We were back on the street before 8, long before the 'other' customers begin to zigzag around the West Side in search of their weekend fix.
It reminds me of Dodger Stadium. Veteran announcer Vin Scully always announces a lofty attendance figure for Dodger games, but if you know the fans there it's hard to quantify. Half leave after the fourth inning just as the other half are arriving fashionably late around the fifth. That 50,000 attendance figure is never in the house at the same time.
Maybe that's how it works now in Pittsfield. Maybe the Patrick's crowd all rushed home and locked their doors before 9, just about the time the bad guys start to prowl the streets.
Like it or not, it's two Pittsfields that we live in. It's the lofty, cerebral, fashionable, fine-dining and good times Pittsfield, or it's the seamy, sultry and sometimes despicable Pittsfield, with its drug dealing and violence.
I don't think there is room in our city for this Jekyll and Hyde show to play out. I think we're hanging at that pivotal point where we could fall either way. I want the good Pittsfield, and I want it bad enough to do something about it.
The problem is I don't know what to do. And neither do a lot of other people. Antimo left. That was his answer. Well, we all can't leave, can we? I have to believe there are other ways to restore quality life to our city.
If we can't, then we're doomed.
Brian Sullivan is an Eagle editor and a native of Pittsfield.
"A pitch for auto dealers"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Sunday, April 5, 2009
Here are some positive notes from the battlefield — early signs of progress in the struggle to revive the area's housing and automobile sales. After a downright miserable, gloomy winter, it's more than the advent of spring that's cause for modest celebration.
A local Realtor known for being a straight-shooter talks of business picking up. And my own informal check of several major auto dealerships confirms last week's national reporting that auto sales may be ready to turn the corner.
On the housing front, not only are 30-year fixed mortgage rates at an historic low of 4.78 percent but there's also a major incentive for first-time home-buyers — a federal tax credit of up to $8,000 for houses less than $250,000. Closings must be by Dec. 1 for purchasers to claim the refund on their 2008 or 2009 returns — homes bought since Jan. 1 are eligible for anyone who has not owned a principal residence during the past three years. The deal is for married couples with combined incomes less than $150,000 or singles less than $75,000.
Recovery in housing and vehicle-sales will be among the first indicators that the economy is beginning to recuperate. Although new-vehicle sales in the U.S. fell in March for the 17th straight month, improved results in the final week are cause for optimism, even though the future remains uncertain for GM and Chrysler.
At local auto outlets, a prospective buyer gets the warmest of welcomes — no surprise there. Purchasers can be in the driver's seat if they do their Internet homework, although some auto Web sites are riddled with errors. Nevertheless, you can get a good handle on what the dealer paid (the invoice price), what the automakers are offering dealers in extra cash per vehicle sold, and the incentives that can benefit customers buying or leasing.
Unlike most people, I've always found car-shopping enjoyable. Around here, at least, the dealership owners and their staffs are your neighbors and, in most cases, they're not out to hoodwink you. They've seen new-vehicle sales plummet by as much as 50 percent, depending on the brand. But the multi-generation family owners of the dealerships — Bedard, Haddad, Johnson — have stayed in business by consolidating or expanding their locations and offering a mix of new and used, American and foreign nameplates. As people keep their vehicles longer, service departments have been profitable and the used-car market has remained active.
On a raw mid-week day, a dealership I checked out was a peaceful setting for some friendly horse-trading. A day later, with the sun blazing and the Dow spiraling upward, a local physician was kicking the tires; later, a woman came in, timidly suggesting that her year 2000 vehicle with 200,000 miles on it might not be worth anything. "We'll be happy to take it," said the sales manager, a salt-of-the-earth type who told me he's not a superstar but is good at his job. No, you won't find out who it is since there was no way I could visit every dealer in the county.
A salesman observed that the showroom gets busier whenever the stock market goes up — "people watch it on TV all the time, and it makes them feel better." Still, customers aren't exactly beating down the doors. At one family-owned dealership, I learned that a certain popular line of small SUVs had sold out for the month because of especially attractive leasing offers. But another revealed that his lot was clogged with a well-regarded brand — 200 vehicles instead of the normal inventory of 100.
You don't need a sales pitch to realize that this is a great time to buy a vehicle or a home. And the chances are good that just by showing up at an open house or a dealership, you'll be treated like royalty. You may even feel that, in a small way, you've done your part to help the U.S. economy get back on track. End of what turned out to be a sales pitch after all.
"Tea Party success in eye of beholder"
By Clarence Fanto
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Friday, April 17, 2009
There was a whole lotta' honkin' going on at Park Square Wednesday afternoon, and it was neither the usual Demolition Derby "rush hour" nor the sound of geese flying north.
By our count, about 150 anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-Obama protesters held up signs expressing disgust with federal and state economic policies. Many vehicles honked in sympathy, especially big-rig trucks. Patriotic songs and country music blared from speakers mounted on nearby vehicles while organizers used bullhorns to pump up the crowd.
This was Pittsfield's Tea Party ("Taxed Enough Already"), one of an estimated 750-plus events in all 50 states fueled by social-network sites like Facebook and Twitter, talk-radio blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and especially by the Fox News Channel. Its right-wing stars — Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Neil Cavuto and Sean Hannity — not only advocated but also served as organizers, using their "fair and balanced" cable network to jump-start the protests. Nationwide turnout is hard to determine — the Associated Press used the phrase "tens of thousands," but this is a rare case when "conservative estimate" may mean a higher figure, not lower.
Fox devoted wall-to-wall advance coverage to the planned protests, which were downplayed or even ignored by the major national TV and print media ahead of time. Rick Santelli of CNBC was credited with igniting the spark that fueled the demonstrations with his widely-disseminated rant from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Feb. 19 lambasting President Obama for allegedly encouraging bad behavior by people facing foreclosure of homes they knew (supposedly) they couldn't afford. He went on to advocate a tea-party protest.
Here in Pittsfield, the event was coordinated by a new group, Berkshire Conservatives, led by local resident Jim Bronson. During an interview, Bronson denied any connection to national coordinators such as FreedomWorks, founded by former House Republican leader Dick Armey. Bronson emphasized that "conservatives are not all Republicans, and not all Republicans are conservatives." He insisted that "there's too much spending at all levels," and took special aim at Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal for a 19-cent a gallon increase in the state gas tax.
According to Bronson, who opposes any and all bailouts, the economy is recovering even before the Obama stimulus money has been injected into the system. "He should have cut taxes, especially the payroll tax, and put money directly into people's pockets," he said. Bronson cited Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Florida Gov. John Ellis "Jeb" Bush as promising national leaders — significantly, no mention of Sarah Palin. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney failed to qualify as genuine conservatives.
After denying that his group is anti-Obama or anti-government, Bronson argued that elements of the President's economic stimulus plan "are heading toward socialism; he's nationalizing the banks, he's starting to nationalize health care." In his view, the U.S. auto industry and troubled financial institutions ought to have fended for themselves — "those that should have failed, should have." "We're not part of a national movement," Bronson added. "We've all come here to say, 'enough is enough!'" The new organization plans to endorse conservative candidates of either party, but will not offer third-party choices. "Conservatism is alive, and we want to make Massachusetts a two-party state," he declared.
A new Gallup Poll shows 61 percent of Americans feel they're being taxed fairly, while 35 percent do not. In various polls, President Obama retains 60 to 65 percent approval ratings. However, some of that is a reflection of the First Family's popularity, since only a narrow majority supports the specifics of the stimulus.
To be sure, there's a distinction between reasonable groups such as Berkshire Conservatives and right-wing extremists like Glenn Beck and his Fox friends. Beck is about to embark on a six-city stand-up comedy tour to promote his warped beliefs — perhaps he's just an entertainer after all.
Did the Tea Party protests reflect a genuine nonpartisan grass-roots movement? Or were they "more of the Astroturf variety: An occasion largely created by the clamor of cable news and fueled by the financial and political support of current and former Republican leaders," as some argued in a New York Times news report.
Washington Post and CNN media critic Howard Kurtz wrote yesterday: "T-Day wound up as something of a Rorschach test, taking on a different shape depending on your political views and the media you consume. On talk radio, conservative Web sites and Fox News, the tax day tea parties felt like an earthquake. On the other cable news channels and in the major newspapers, there was barely a tremor. The larger question: What constitutes success for a far-flung series of demonstrations, a mixture of grass-roots fervor and conservative-group organizing? A few thousand protesters at some locations, a few hundred in others? This was never intended to be a Million Man March, and it certainly wound up with its share of publicity — not all of it good, of course."
Here's my take. Anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of Americans are personally hostile to Mr. Obama and his plans to help revive the beleaguered middle class and the impoverished lower class by seeking modest tax increases for the wealthy. If he's successful in restoring the economy to health, the opposition will wither, though there'll always be political wingnuts ready to pounce. But if there's no visible recovery from the Great Recession by year's end, look for disillusion to spread, creating fertile ground for a conservative uprising at the polls in November 2010.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Time to end vacation on Beacon Hill"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Sunday, April 19, 2009
The wheels have come off state government. The House has produced a $27.4 billion budget proposal that would whack 25 percent off aid to cities and towns — the most drastic cut in state history — with no plans to raise revenue or to dip into available reserve funds. To make matters worse, the state's transportation system is broken and the whiff of scandal and corruption continues to permeate Beacon Hill.
Mayor John Barrett III of North Adams, whose city faces a loss of $1.2 million, told reporters in Boston: "In 26 years as mayor, I have never seen such a lack of leadership on Beacon Hill. When times are tough, we need leadership. Any fool can cut budgets. It's been eight years of hell. We're beyond hell now. It's absurd and it's crazy. This is Draconian. People aren't angry about what's going on at the local level, they're angry about what's going on at the state level."
To preserve public safety, education, road maintenance and plowing, aid for the jobless and the impoverished, home care for seniors and other essential services, we will have to swallow our castor oil. Since Gov. Deval L. Patrick's proposed 19 cent-a-gallon gas tax hike is dead, a one penny on the dollar increase in the state sales tax, from 5 to 6 percent, is the best route.
Retailers are howling already. But, combined with local options to impose or raise taxes on lodging and meals, nearly $1 billion could be raised, cutting the fiscal 2010 budget gap in half. If you buy a $600 TV set, you would pay an additional $6 in sales tax. A $20 dinner out would cost an extra 20 cents, maybe 40 cents in some places. We might have to start taxing clothing purchases. Tough times call for tough choices.
"I have ruled it out, but also I don't want to be a jerk with the Legislature," the governor told a Boston radio interviewer. So, there's hope.
At 5 percent for the past 33 years, our state has one of the nation's lowest sales tax rates. Connecticut and Vermont charge 6 percent; New York's statewide sales tax is 4 percent, but additional city and county taxes combine for a total of 8 percent, on average.
"You're not going to get people to vote on four or five different taxes," state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, declared. "People can't feel like we're raising taxes on them every week. You need to do this one time."
Patrick also needs to reprimand the Turnpike Authority's arrogant executive director, Alan "Grin and Bear It" LeBovidge, whose contempt for the public knows no bounds. He failed to adequately staff MassPike toll booths on Easter Sunday, replacing only 3 of the 17 collectors who called in "sick." Thousands of eastbound motorists, including Patrick, endured a 7-mile backup at the Route 128 interchange, with only one collector on duty.
One state lawmaker fumed that his usual two-hour Westfield to Boston trip took more than four hours.
The tone-deaf LeBovidge, who acknowledges that his only claim to transportation expertise is that he drives a car, pleaded Pike poverty — holiday overtime pay for toll collectors is a tire-popping $55 an hour. His solution: Fast Lane transponders for all, even those who rarely use the Pike.
"It's all about the money," he argued. "I'm just trying to keep the ship from sinking."
But, he finally confessed on Friday, "I think we could have done some things differently. Maybe we should have. Everything is a learning lesson in life."
All right, learn this: You have one more chance. Assign yourself to help collect tolls on Mother's Day, three weeks from today. If there's another massive backup, wave the cars through and write your own check for the lost revenue.
Monday is Patriots Day, and the rest of the week is vacation time for many. When the Statehouse re-opens for business a week from tomorrow, we all expect to see action. This slow-mo exhibition of political cowardice has gone on far too long.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
"Towns come up short at the polls"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Sunday, May 17, 2009
Every vote counts. Annual town meetings and elections, a venerable New England tradition, are the essence of American grass-roots democracy. Yet, in many Berkshire towns, the vast majority of voters have been staying home instead of helping decide how their taxes are spent or who represents them in town government.
In Great Barrington earlier this month, only 221 voters, just under 5 percent, approved more than $20 million in spending for the town and district school budgets. Other low turnouts included 10.3 percent in Sheffield, 12 percent in Monterey (on a Saturday morning!), and 2.3 percent in Cheshire, where only 55 of the nearly 2,400 registered voters showed up, barely above the required minimum of 50.
Sure enough, when six members of the local fire company had to respond to an accident, the meeting had to be suspended until other townsfolk could be rounded up to restore a quorum. Most town meetings are held on weekday evenings, and it's understandable that working people, especially those with children, are reluctant to give up their limited down time or to pay for child care.
But every year, our rising property-tax bills are up for grabs. It's amazing that so many voters leave those decisions to so few of their fellow citizens. A sizzling front-burner issue can still bring out 500, even 1,000 residents.
Typical examples: Expensive school-construction projects, proposals for renovations or new town buildings, overrides to lift caps on property-tax increases, major zoning revisions, and hotel or shopping complexes.
Here in Lenox, most voters stayed home, leaving 250 of us (out of 3,675 registered voters) to approve $23.4 million in town and school spending as well as a semi-controversial measure giving police authority to fine marijuana-users caught smoking in public. That turnout of 6.8 percent was not far above the town's required quorum of 5 percent for annual town meetings.
Truth be told, the three-hour session tended to drag at times and it wasn't easy to pay $35 to the child-sitter. But giving up the time and the money is a small price to pay for direct participation in our democratic system.
Town elections on weekdays are better draws, though a still paltry 15 percent in Lenox and 21 percent in Great Barrington. A relatively robust 40 percent turned out in Sheffield, where the winning Select Board candidate eked out a two-vote margin and the loser is considering filing for a recount.
Within the past five years, there have been six-vote victory margins in Lenox and Lanesborough. For advice, I rang up my favorite former politician, John J. Pignatelli, who's now 85; in 1992, he retired from the Lenox Select Board after 32 years of service and from the County Commission after 20 years. Never having missed a town meeting since returning from military service in 1946, he suggested gently: "People in these little towns need to realize that they are the government, but some people don't quite understand. Really, it's sad, people just don't want to give up their time."
Low attendance has been a problem in the past; Pignatelli recalled a time when police cleared out patrons of the long-gone Joe's Grill and directed them to Town Hall for a quorum call. On another occasion, the fire whistle was blown, but when the volunteers showed up to find out where the fire was, they were shoved next door into Town Hall; the doors were locked until the town meeting ended.
This is not a rural legend. "If people don't turn out, they must be satisfied and happy with their town government," he mused. That's the optimistic view. My view is that many cynics doubt that they can change anything, despite massive evidence to the contrary.
"I tell people not to grumble about things if they don't turn out," Pignatelli said. He's right — if you don't enter the playing field, don't whine later about the final score. Or, as I like to tell non-voters: "For you, the complaint department is closed." Pignatelli said.
He's right — if you don't enter the playing field, don't whine later about the final score. Or, as I like to tell non-voters: "For you, the complaint department is closed."
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Peace in our time on Beacon Hill"
By Clarence Fanto, Special to The Berkshire Eagle, Friday, May 29, 2009
No wonder Gov. Deval L. Patrick seemed nearly giddy with joy as he fled the Beacon Hill political battleground to bask in golden sunlight during an upbeat Lanesborough ceremony a week ago marking the reopening of the Mount Greylock road network. "It's Western Massachusetts, a gorgeous day in a beautiful setting on the Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, it really does not get any better than this!" Patrick exclaimed, as his yellow Lab retriever Zoe patrolled the scene.
Only two days before, fellow Democrat and state Senate President Therese Murray had declared him "irrelevant" in the ruckus over raising revenue and reforming state government. Murray saw red following Patrick's headline-grabbing statement that lawmakers would be "thumbing their nose" at taxpayers by approving a state budget including an increase in the state sales tax to 6.25 percent ahead of the reforms.
Until recently, Patrick has been a strong opponent of that approach, preferring instead a targeted package that included an ill-timed 19 cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax as well as taxes on alcohol, soda and candy. "We're kind of ignoring what he sent us, because we have a huge fiscal crisis in front of us. We can't afford this kind of bickering and political grandstanding," Murray told radio talk-show host Dan Rea on Boston's WBZ.
"We're doing the work. Unfortunately, he's kind of making himself irrelevant at this point in the game, which is too bad because we really need him. We haven't had a Democratic governor in 16 years. This makes no sense to me. We need to work together."
Patrick dismissed Murray's insult: "I am not worried about that. If I am irrelevant, then millions of others here in the commonwealth who think we should have reforms before revenue are irrelevant and they're not. You know, people are going to say all kinds of things in the heat of the present debates. My job is to keep my cool, to keep my head, to set the agenda and keep moving it forward and that's what I intend to do."
"She can say what she wants," Patrick told reporters, "but I'm not going to make this personal. She can make it personal if she wants, and I think when cooler heads prevail, she won't. In fact, we have set the agenda, we are moving forward on pension reform, and ethics and transportation reform, and we have a record of partnership in the last legislative session that is unmatched in the last 30 years. So, I'm not going to get too worried about this or that idle remark on the budget debate."
Since the state Senate and House have approved the sales-tax increase by a veto-proof margin, a cease-fire between the governor and the legislature becomes even more urgent.
"I will support the sales tax, and have said so all along, provided we deliver on the reforms," Patrick told reporters in Boston. "Doing the right thing isn't that difficult. Everybody knows what the right thing is to do; now let's get that done before the budget comes to me next month."
The sales-tax increase, the first in 33 years, would raise an estimated $900 million to reduce the severity of crippling cuts in aid to cities and towns, health and human services, and public safety.
If Patrick is willing to drop his opposition to this solution, state lawmakers should agree to his reasonable demand that pension reform apply to current lawmakers, not only future employees. And the state Senate's effort to weaken the State Ethics Commission seems questionable; Patrick is right to promote stronger commission powers.
Among the potential peacemakers is state Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Revenue.
"The most important thing to remember is that we have to get along because that's what we're sent here to do by our various constituencies," he told me in a phone interview on Wednesday. "We share many of the same priorities with the governor. . . we voted for ethics, pension and transportation reform in the Senate and the House. The governor is right to push us to get all those reform bills to him before he gets the budget. It's an argument over timing but not so much over priorities — people understand we have to do everything to restore public trust and to raise new revenues."
In Downing's view, some of the overheated rhetoric is caused not only by differences between the governor and the legislature but also between the House and Senate, and within each branch of the legislature. He believes it's "disingenuous" to pose a choice between targeted revenues as Patrick has proposed and the sales-tax increase. Downing warns that even that tax increase combined with local-option lodging and meals taxes, there will be "incredibly deep" cuts everywhere because the gap between tax collections and necessary revenues is so enormous.
"It's very easy for someone to jump when they feel they've been slighted," Downing said. "We're far better off to turn the other cheek. We need to not demean one another over who gets the best headline. More important is who has the best proposal to improve the quality of life."
Patrick should convene a secret summit meeting at his Richmond retreat with leading state lawmakers; Downing chuckled at my suggestion but then added: "Calling for a time-out makes sense, and sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the politics of Beacon Hill and forget about serving the people we're all sent here to serve, and the two are not mutually exclusive."
Bottom line: It's time to bring out the proverbial peace pipe and get back to doing the people's work, minus the backstabbing, bickering and political posturing.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Dressing down the dress code"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Sunday, May 31, 2009
It seems Mayor James Ruberto used fairly strong language at the Pittsfield School Committee meeting Wednesday evening to dress down Pittsfield High students for their slovenly appearance in public.
Irked by what he saw during a lunch-hour stroll near City Hall, the mayor went so far as to call the kids' attire "appalling an absolute disgrace to the educational system and what we're trying to foster."
In the past, Ruberto has cited the increasingly dilapidated condition of Pittsfield's high schools as demeaning to students and faculty, demonstrating a lack of respect for education and for young people. Now, the mayor is on the warpath against high-schoolers, blasting their appearance as a violation of "the whole notion of respect for our administrators and our teachers." He urged a stricter dress code "that better reflects the kind of values and the kind of young people we want to encourage and develop," according to the Pittsfield Gazette.
As a fellow Baby Boomer, I've been concerned about the same syndrome. I recall that neat attire was a given at my high school, though some of my friends attending certain sleepaway private schools were required to don uniforms. We called those students "preppies" and felt sorry for them.
It's understandable that the mayor and others of our generation see this as a matter of "respect" for elders — and we wish local students would show more of it. But the problem probably goes deeper.
Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen Massimiano, a School Committee member, proposes keeping students inside the school during lunch hour instead of the "open campus" policy that allows them to go out for a bite or to smoke. But with a capacity of 300 in the cafeteria and an enrollment of about 1,000, a third lunch period would have to be added, or even a fourth. Sounds impractical, and unfair to the students who do dress appropriately.
The Pittsfield school system actually has a stringent dress code right now, although enforcement is left to individual principals. A look at the student handbook reveals that personal appearance is "an individual matter. No one, however, has the privilege of disregarding the norms of reasonable dress."
Among the guidelines: Clothing must be clean and neat without holes and tears; the bottom of the top overlaps the top of the bottoms; Spandex and Lycra are acceptable only when worn over or under less revealing garments; hemlines of skirts or shorts must fall below fingertips when arms are relaxed at sides; shoes and sandals are required at all times; no caps, berets or scarves of a non-religious nature; and undergarments should not be visible.
The code also prohibits "obscene, vulgar, racist, sexist or other offensive pictures, words or slogans."
Then, there's the following all-encompassing mandate: "Any other dress that distracts, disrupts, intimidates or provokes can be deemed inappropriate by the principal or designee."
Students, parents, teachers and administrators all took part in drawing up the code. Though Mayor Ruberto singled out Pittsfield High because its students are most visible on heavily traveled East Street, violations can be seen elsewhere in the city's school system, not to mention other schools countywide.
Hip-hop and gangsta rap "artists" can be cited for fostering rampant disrespect that leads to a nose-thumbing youth culture sending a clear message of alienation to adult society. TV and glossy-magazine advertising and fashion layouts that stress provocative, sexually suggestive attire have created a teen and 'tween fascination with outfits that expose too much and leave too little to the imagination.
Exploring a stricter dress code is all to the good; even Massimiano's suggestion warrants examination. But proper enforcement of the existing dress code would go far to address Ruberto's well-placed concerns.
What of the parents who allow their children to leave home looking like extras from a low-budget hoodlum film? Schools are responsible for education, but it's regrettable that administrators have to deal with out-of-bounds personal conduct and appearance.
The mayor's assertion that some students lack respect for administrators and teachers may be true. But when it comes to the image students project at school and around town, the real issue may be self-respect, and that's a problem that will take more than rules and rants to correct.
"Tourism engine revving up"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, 6/21/2009
This is where the rubber meets the road.
On this first day of summer, the peak season for tourism in the Berkshires is revving up. Our performing-arts groups, museums and outdoor recreation sites are open; hotels, motels and inns are beginning to fill up as rates approach their summertime peaks. The Berkshire Visitors Bureau is promoting the region at full throttle with a spiffed-up Web site (www.berkshires.org) along with a batch of special deals and a new, one-stop room-reservation feature. The BVB, with an outlook of cautious optimism, stresses that it's important not to cheapen the image of the Berkshires, but to stress value. After all, we average 2.6 million visitors a year (the majority in July and August) and there are close to 25 million people within a three-hour drive. There's plenty of evidence that people who can afford a vacation this summer are planning their sojourns fairly close to home, especially with gas prices expected to approach $3 a gallon in several weeks.
Tourism is either the second-or third most-significant engine driving the Berkshire economy, depending on how you measure it. So, the stakes are high, the concerns are many and, so far the weather has been downright frightful.
An Associated Press poll taken in April turned up the fact that only 42 percent of Americans were planning a summer vacation; a more recent travel-industry survey put the figure at 54 percent. Still, no matter how you slice and dice the numbers, the outlook is for a modest decline in visitors and, more significantly, an understandable focus on thrift and demand for discounts. Despite many no-cost or low-cost attractions such as the stunning makeover of the Mount Greylock Scenic Byways, our region holds an unenviable reputation as too pricey.
It's encouraging to see the outpouring of deals offered by most of our area's stages -- Tanglewood has all kinds of discounts and promotions designed to attract more families and especially young people to the extended 11-week season that begins this week.
Barrington Stage's $15-$20 previews for "Carousel" this past week sold out; forthcoming Main Stage productions also will also offer a pair of inexpensive previews before the official openings; there are frequent "Pay What You Can" nights, as well as 15 tickets for $15 for every performance (all ages) and a larger supply of $15 tickets for young people 21 and under anytime except Saturday night.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival has $15 "rush tickets" every Thursday evening, student rush tickets at $15 for all performances except Saturday nights and free admission for youngsters under 18 for the first Friday performance of each Main Stage production (when accompanied by an adult).
Berkshire Theatre Festival and Shakespeare & Co. are equally aggressive with a variety of low-price deals while Jacob's Pillow offers many free events through the summer.
Half-price, same-day ticket booths are open noon to 5 Tuesday through Sunday in Pittsfield, Adams, Great Barrington and Chatham, N.Y. The Visitors Bureau's new information hotline at (413) 743-4500, ext. 322, lists available tickets and prices. A dozen area theaters and concert stages are taking part, including most of the major presenters.
But unless more hostelries, eateries and merchants come to grips with reality and entice wary visitors and residents with recession-era pricing, some of the grumbling we're already hearing about the season that's barely started is likely to become a deafening roar by Labor Day. Setting a good example is the just-opened Berkshire Harvest Restaurant at the site of the shuttered Lenox Bennigan's -- superior, freshly prepared local cuisine at affordable prices.
We've made this observation before, and it bears repeating: A half-empty dining room, inn or store at full price makes no sense when a 20 percent discount could produce a full house. It doesn't take a business degree to figure that out. And forcing people to stay more nights than they can spare or afford is just as self-defeating.
The cultural and entertainment organizations deserve applause for their price reductions. Now, if we want our tourism economy to avoid the doldrums, certain members of the hospitality industry need to act accordingly. They know who they are.
"Too quick to chicken out"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Friday, July 10, 2009
Now that the TV and on-line media obsessions with the antics of the love-sick puppy Gov. Mark Sanford, the still-dead Michael Jackson and the still-loony Sarah Palin have run their course, it's time to refocus on what really matters.
Like the proverbial canary in the mine shaft, a respected poll shows that Ohioans have run out of patience with the Obama administration's attempts to steer our storm-tossed economy back on a true and steady course. Many Americans seem to have Twitter-like attention spans; patience and realism have become rare, but it was fanciful to believe that the worst economic tailspin in 75 years could be reversed in the first six months of the Obama presidency.
Nonetheless, in his enthusiasm to win support for a $787-billion stimulus package, perhaps the president promised too much. At least two million jobs would be saved or created. The unemployment rate would top out at 8 percent and then start declining. The Great Recession would be over by the end of this year and those "green shoots" of recovery would sprout into a great forest of prosperity.
Instead, a startling two million jobs have been lost since January and the unemployment rate is likely to top 10 percent before year's end. In many large states, that has happened already. Nearly 15 million people are unemployed; the average work week is only 33 hours as many have to settle for part-time work without benefits.
Retail sales and consumer confidence are diving again after a short-lived early-spring recovery; oil prices, reflecting weak demand and grim economic forecasts, have dropped nearly 20 percent in the past week. Stock prices are down to early-April levels.
The Quinnipiac University survey of Ohio voters shows Obama's job-performance rating, now 49 percent, has declined by 13 percentage points in the past two months. No wonder Vice President Biden was assigned to visit Cincinnati yesterday to tout supposed progress credited to the stimulus program. Just last weekend, Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that "we misread how bad the economy was."
Perhaps Biden was being more candid than the administration desired; the next day, during an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd in Russia, Obama acknowledged that "we haven't always gotten the numbers right but I think the general overview is right. We went through an economic tsunami that was far worse than anything we've gone through since the Great Depression. And even early on I think we did not see the full magnitude of what was going to happen."
But he took issue with Biden's contention that the administration misread the extent of the tsunami. -- "No, no, no, well I would actually rather than say misread, we had incomplete information. We came in January 20. It was only after the first quarter numbers came in if you recall that suddenly everybody looked and said the economy shrank six percent. So it was happening much more rapidly at an accelerated pace than the projections out there at the time. . . . A lot of wealth was removed out of the system and what we have successfully done is to stanch the bleeding. . . . So what you have is no longer the complete free fall that we had back in January or February."
Obama's personal popularity remains high but his health care reform program and climate-control legislation face a highly uncertain future on Capitol Hill. Talk of a possible second stimulus program seems quixotic when it remains to be seen whether the first one can produce even some of the intended benefits. A majority of Americans worry about massive government spending and the cascade of red ink stretching as far into the future as we can see.
The trouble is, no one has come up with credible solutions. Respected economists like Paul Krugman are calling for super-stimulus, a mainline injection of massive government adrenalin into the arteries of our system. Most politicians and most of the public aren't buying it.
How is all this playing out here in the Berkshires? We counted more than 25 shuttered restaurants during a quick tour on Route 7 from Great Barrington to Williamstown, east to North Adams and back south on Route 8 to Pittsfield. The latest prominent casualty is the 60-year-old Miss Adams Diner. Owner Jae Chung blames business conditions, telling the North Adams Transcript: "It's a great location. I think the problem is that Adams is a small town. It's hard to really make a living. But if anyone wants to put in the hard work and long hours, I think they can make it work."
There are scores of vacant storefronts and a bevy of for-sale signs at homes and at condo complexes. Arts and entertainment executives are eying the box office nervously -- "it's a very suspenseful summer," one of them told me -- and it's evident that patrons are being highly selective about ticket-buying. There are some early hits, but even more misses.
Some folks have accused Chicken Little, who fears the sky is falling after an acorn hits her head, and her friends, Henny Penny, Cocky Lockey. Lucky Ducky and Goosey Loosey, of ghost-writing these columns en route to their encounter with Foxy Loxy. There are many versions of the fable -- most have fatal consequences but one offers a happy ending whose moral is not to be "chicken" but to have courage.
Most versions urge us not to believe everything we are told because Chicken Little jumps to a conclusion and creates mass hysteria, whereupon the unscrupulous fox takes advantage of the chaos and treats himself to a fine poultry supper.
You can take it to the bank: Chicken Little is not my co-author. But we could all benefit from a big serving of courage, with seconds and thirds, as we confront the perils that loom along our uncertain path to recovery.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Farewell to a man, and to an era"
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, July 23, 2009
By Clarence Fanto of Lenox, Massachusetts
The end of an era. There’ll never be another like him.
Repeated endlessly in print and on the air, these sentiments about the passing of "Uncle" Walter Cronkite, the leading TV journalist of his time, are all too true. Cronkite was the model of integrity, reporting the facts as objectively as any human being could.
His definition of news was straightforward: what happened today of importance and significance, a televised front page featuring the best reporters in the business. No frills, no features other than Charles Kuralt’s folksy "On the Road" reports, no commentary other than Eric Sevareid’s crisp, three-minute analyses. Just 22 minutes of information and context, "and that’s the way it is."
For nearly 20 years, ending in 1981 when he was succeeded at age 64 by an ambitious, impatient Dan Rather, that’s the way it was for some 22 million viewers each night. Cronkite was an anchor in turbulent waters. We gathered around the electronic hearth for reassurance following the deaths of two Kennedys and a King, through the civil rights revolution, a misbegotten war that came close to tearing our nation apart, and a constitutional crisis over President Nixon’s Watergate conspiracy.
But Cronkite navigated through the shoals of our upheavals with a sure hand on the tiller. He worked hard and played hard -- emblematic of a life well-lived. One of the most touching film clips shown on the CBS retrospectives last weekend was of the yachtsman extraordinaire, steering his beloved 64-foot vessel, the Wyntje, into the sunset off Martha’s Vineyard, his second home. "Glorious!" he exclaimed of the view. Several Edgartown residents spoke fondly of him to the Boston Globe, remembering his friendship and his eagerness to be "just Walter," mingling with the regular folks.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that he changed the course of history after he returned from a reporting mission to Vietnam in 1968 to declare in a rare commentary that the only solution would be to negotiate an honorable settlement. President Lyndon Johnson, realizing that Cronkite’s disenchantment with a war he had originally supported meant that he had lost the support of middle Americans, was photographed watching the telecast, then burying his head in his hands.
Cronkite was no news automaton; he gulped back tears as he announced JFK’s death and he rubbed his hands in jubilation as the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon. He was a champion of space flight, perhaps to a fault.
Most of all, he was cited as the most trusted man in the nation, deservedly so. Swedish TV anchormen were sometimes called Kronkiters; in Holland, they were Cronkiters.
He came to regret his decision to make way for Rather; he was sorely disappointed that CBS News put him out to pasture, hardly ever inviting him back on the air as NBC News has done for its former anchor, the esteemed Tom Brokaw. In Cronkite’s fascinating 1996 autobiography, "A Reporter Remembers," he wistfully ends by expressing the hope that people will continue to stop him on the street to ask, "Didn’t you used to be Walter Cronkite?"
During my stint at CBS News from 1977-83, I was asked to prepare Cronkite’s script for a 1980 space mission. I approached the assignment with some trepidation, since space had never been my journalistic forte and Cronkite was the master of that universe. I knew that his immediate colleagues regarded him with a mixture of awe and fear, since he demanded much of himself and therefore of others.
He took one look at my script, sat down at a typewriter and hammered out a new first page. Not to worry, a colleague assured me. That’s what he always did and, after the fact, I was told that my mission had been accomplished.
So, I’ve been deeply affected by Cronkite’s passing, and was intrigued to see Rather on various telecasts speaking most graciously of his predecessor.
Cronkite had come down hard on his successor for the bogus report on President Bush’s military record that turned the CBS eye black and led to Rather’s unhappy, forced departure.
I had worked briefly for Rather in 1983 while his regular news editor recuperated from a heart attack. Tightly wound, insecure, fearing that the Cronkite loyalists were scheming behind his back, Rather was suspicious of newcomers. Several years later, when I was covering television for the Daily News and the Post, he became a confidante, eager to share the latest gossip about the declining fortunes of CBS News.
On one memorable evening during an extended phone chat, I looked at my watch and reminded him that he was due on the air in two minutes. When I left New York for the Berkshires, he sent me a cactus plant and a warm note of farewell. He was, and remains, one of the most complex individuals I’ve encountered. He was also, let it be said, a great and courageous reporter during the past half-century.
The end of Cronkite’s era actually arrived during the 1990s, when journalistic values gave way to entertainment considerations and a ratings-driven emphasis on what viewers wanted, rather than what news professionals considered significant and relevant.
Meanwhile, if there’s an afterlife, Cronkite is sure to be behind the wheel of his boat, undoubtedly referred to as the most trusted man in celestial waters.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"The mayor is poised for a run"
The Berkshire Eagle, OPINION, By Clarence Fanto, Sunday, September 20, 2009
LENOX, Massachusetts (covering Pittsfield Politics)
In times of economic turbulence, politicians face anxious voters. Even though Pittsfield's Mayor James M. Ruberto remains the favorite to win a fourth term, it's not a slam-dunk this time.
Ruberto is tough-minded and totally committed to the city's well-being. To outside observers, Pittsfield's 10-ring circus has been a source of bemusement. While anyone qualified was entitled to enter the preliminary contest Tuesday, it seems elementary, Watson, that at least some level of political experience might be desirable. It doesn't take a Sherlock to figure out that the runoff will produce one finalist named Ruberto and one named either Bianchi or Malumphy.
Daniel Bianchi, Ward 6 city councilor and former Pittsfield finance director, champions the city's downtrodden and is supported by some retirees and blue-collar workers skeptical of downtown prosperity and convinced they're overtaxed and under-serviced. He's backed by the Berkshire County Building & Construction Trades Council. "The working class wants to be involved with city government. We want to be listened to and heard. We just want to be treated fairly and have a seat at the table," said Mike Filpi of the Laborers Local 473.
Patricia "Pam" Malumphy, a former city councilor-at-large now on leave as regional director for the state Office of Business Development, emphasizes job growth, crime-fighting and renovation of Pittsfield High and Taconic High rather than construction of a costly new high-school campus. Malumphy is a formidable candidate who may well emerge with a strong showing on Tuesday.
During an interview Thursday, Mayor Ruberto acknowledged that the general election campaign will be "hard fought, without a doubt. We are seeing in this race a very different philosophical approach to the role government should be playing. In style and substance, we're going to have an opportunity to ask, ‘Do we want to move the city forward or do we want to put on the brakes?' "
Ruberto voiced. "amazement" that his opponents "denigrate tangible success. We have seen a revitalization of downtown that has lifted the spirits of all in the city."
He bristled at opponents who claim that downtown enhancements have come at the expense of the city's neighborhoods. In response, Ruberto listed affordable housing developments, stricter code enforcement to upgrade the quality of the housing stock, road and sidewalk improvements, the restoration of youth activities in four city parks, a West Side community garden, flood relief, water-quality improvements and the blocking of proposed transfer stations in residential areas off Merrill Road and South Street.
Ruberto's most visible accomplishment remains the renaissance of downtown. The Nov. 20 opening of the Beacon Cinema, three weeks ahead of schedule, should attract another 175,000 visitors to North Street each year, Ruberto predicted, in addition to the estimated 175,000 lured by the Colonial Theatre, Barrington Stage and new restaurants. He cited a study by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard showing that the Colonial and Barrington Stage have injected an additional $4 million a year of consumer spending into the city's economy.
"We're creating the critical mass for Pittsfield again to be the cultural and entertainment center of Berkshire County," said Ruberto. "It makes Pittsfield a more engaged community and it helps companies like General Dynamics recruit people to a community where there's a lot to do, in addition to the outdoor lifestyle."
The mayor acknowledged he's "more than disappointed...that"s a polite term" by the failure of the William Stanley Business Park to attract a tenant so far, but now he's on the board of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA). CornerStone Telephone Co. -- a heavy-hitter in telecommunications headquartered in Troy, N.Y. -- may relocate here if it can secure $5 million in funding, including $3.7 million from a Federal stimulus grant.
The loss of KB Toys and layoffs elsewhere are major setbacks, though Ruberto listed new employers who have brought in 100-plus jobs.
The upsurge in drug-related crime and domestic violence are ongoing campaign topics, as are the condition of the city's schools and the decline in state aid. But Ruberto is fighting hard against what he considers misperceptions and distortions of the record. "What I see going on is that my opponents are looking at downtown and saying that's all the mayor has done," he declared. "Well, that's only a portion of what the mayor has done." After Tuesday's runoff, barring a political earthquake, Ruberto should emerge on a fast track toward re-election.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor at The Eagle.
"Filmgoers will have say at Beacon"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle (Online), Nov. 15, 2009
Now let's get this straight: Even before Pittsfield's Beacon Cinema lights up its six screens beginning late Thursday evening with midnight showings of "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," some cinema devotees are griping about the programming philosophy outlined by owner Richard Stanley and his manager, John Valente, in this space last Sunday.
Perhaps it's a sign of our fractious times, when overheated rhetoric rules.
The Beacon's approach mixes mainstream Hollywood films with some independent titles. From some of the vitriolic reaction, you'd think the proprietors were planning to exhibit nothing but mindless comedies and ultraviolent action flicks.
Come on, people. What works at Great Barrington's Triplex Cinema, where many patrons are South County second-home owners and visitors, isn't necessarily the prescription for success for Pittsfield's mostly year-round residents who have a wide variety of preferences. That's not a put-down - it's simply a judgment-free reality check.
The Colonial Theatre's programming is more down-home than the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center's lineup. The Metropolitan Opera's live-HD telecasts sell out at the Mahaiwe; similar opera and classical offerings have flopped at the Colonial.
Last month's audience-friendly Berkshire Symphony performance at the Colonial couldn't even fill half the house; let's hope for better results at this afternoon's concert. There's a reason the region's winter-season classical music offerings are presented in Great Barrington and Williamstown, but rarely in Pittsfield.
A look at the Beacon's Web site (www.thebeaconcinema.com) reveals a healthy mix of the selections currently available from distributors to moviehouse operators in the Berkshires. In addition to the "New Moon" vampire thriller, there's Disney's 3D version of "A Christmas Carol"; "Planet 51," an animated kid flick; the independent documentary "The Yes Men Fix the World," shown during last May's Berkshire International Film Festival at the Triplex; and "The Blind Side," a biographical drama starring Sandra Bullock.
There's also a prestigious French film, "Paris," which played at the Triplex recently and is exactly the sort of fare being demanded by a vocal contingent of local cinema aficionados. If there's robust attendance for this movie, you can be sure that more foreign, independent and art films will be scheduled. If not, the marketplace has spoken. There's no way a for-profit film complex needing 210,000 paid admissions a year can afford to book titles that appeal only to a relative handful of moviegoers.
Some critics believe Stanley promised to dedicate one or even two Beacon screens to Triplex-type offerings.
"Never did it, wouldn't do it, couldn't do it," Stanley declared Friday. "I want to play what people want to see."
General Manager John Valente books both the Beacon and the Triplex through George Mansour, 74, a wellknown Boston distributor who coowned the Images Cinema in Williamstown many years ago. Valente explained that "the reality of film booking precludes guarantees of any kind."
Release schedules often give priority to large urban areas, and contracts require films to be held over for a predetermined number of weeks regardless of their local popularity. As a result, the Beacon cannot be locked in to a rigid commitment to show independent titles week after week in one of its auditoriums, Valente said.
"Frankly, there will be a period of time in the beginning where we will be feeling our way through this new venture, trying to find what works and what doesn't," he said. "We are certainly aware of the audience in Pittsfield that craves this type of programming. But our challenge will be to find a balance, and it is likely to take many forms."
According to Valente, there is no simple formula - some independent films may arrive at the Beacon after they play at the Triplex; some Beacon bookings won't be shown at the Triplex. "In the weeks ahead we will be looking at our options while trying our best to serve all of the constituencies that make up our audience here in Pittsfield," he promised.
So let's hold our fire and give the Beacon every chance to fulfill its mission. The betting here is that moviegoers will be pleased, and the new cinema complex will give downtown Pittsfield renewed vibrancy as a desirable entertainment, dining and shopping destination for the region.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
December 28, 2009
Re: Clarence Fanto follows insider Berkshire County area Pols!
Clarence Fanto is very intelligent with facts and figures, but he follows the lead of the lousy Berkshire County area insider politicians who have done nothing but hike local taxes and cut critical public services, which has made Berkshire County the #1 place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for job loss. Economist see both Pittsfield and North Adams as depressed post-industrial problematic urban communities with high per capita poverty and crime beset in the commonwealth's western area rural region -- or places for both middle class families and wealthy businesses to AVOID! I see Berkshire County and its insider provincial politicians like outgoing North Adams Mayor John Barrett III and Lenox State Representative William "Smitty" PIGnatelli as snake-oil salesmen who do nothing but vote to raise regressive taxes, make brutal cuts to essential public services, and providing or supporting more and more lottery number games and scratch tickets to its poor (working class) people. Clarence Fanto should address Berkshire County's own failed regional economy before pointing his finger at Charter Schools as one of the major problems for its cities and towns' school districts. Berkshire County, especially Pittsfield & North Adams, is losing thousands of jobs that are NOT coming back anytime soon! Its tax base is diminishing, while its tax rates, poverty and crime problems are growing larger each year. Its politicians are both hiking regressive taxes and relying on lottery monies to balance their budgets that include brutal cuts to public services. I disagree with Clarence Fanto's myopic focus on Charter Schools as one of Berkshire County's major socio-economic problems!
PERVERSE INCENTIVES IN BERKSHIRE COUNTY, MASSACHUSETTS! The Pittsfield & North Adams inequitable economic formula = (tax hikes + cuts in public services + lottery scratch tickets & number games + welfare caseloads) - (jobs + middle class family population + wealthy businesses).
- Jonathan Melle
"Charters’ funding is the fly in ed reform ointment"
By Clarence Fanto, The Boston Globe, Op-Ed, December 28, 2009
IT’S IRONIC that, just a week or two before state lawmakers vote on an education reform bill that would lift the cap on charter schools, two applications for charters in Lynn and one in Berkshire County are facing intense community opposition, while two existing charter schools in Springfield and Lowell face shutdowns.
When a sixth-grader at the C.T. Plunkett Elementary School in Adams asked Governor Deval Patrick during a recent visit why public money goes to charter schools, he explained that they are public schools, adding: “There are good ones and not so good ones, just as there are district schools that are good while others are not. We have a funding formula that is not good enough and needs to be fixed so that we’re not taking money away from district schools but supporting education in all different types of schools.’’
Patrick views the reform bill as aimed at “chronically underperforming’’ school districts. He acknowledges that the state lacks the money to support several proposed solutions for the charter school funding quandary.
Parents, students, and educators in four South Berkshire school districts have voiced near-unanimous opposition to a proposed new charter school in Great Barrington. During a nearly three-hour public hearing in Lenox this month, the few who spoke in favor of the Housatonic River Charter School application were organizers as well as several parents and students disillusioned by traditional public education. Supporters of the charter school expressed a need for innovative, experimental programs emphasizing college preparation. John Barry, a Lenox parent with a child in the public school system, called for more choice and competition against what he sees as monopolistic public schools.
During his Berkshire visit, Patrick also went to the Berkshire Arts and Technology (BART) charter school in Adams, which has demonstrated improved academic performance since it opened six years ago.
But Mayor John Barrett III of North Adams, winding up 26 years in office, pointed out that the city’s school system has lost $1.2 million in state support annually during the past three years and had to close a middle school because of BART.
“I don’t have anything against charter schools as such,’’ said Barrett. “It’s the funding of them, that’s the biggest problems mayors have. They were intended for cities, not for rural areas like Berkshire County.’’ He supports the education reform bill, but advocates much stricter accountability standards.
One flaw in the Housatonic charter application is that the four public school districts in South Berkshire are among the highest-performing in the county, and students have ample school-choice opportunities in neighboring districts, all of which welcome transfers.
Basan Nembirkow, former school superintendent in Brockton and Chicopee and now interim superintendent in Lenox, helped block a Brockton charter school application. “Brockton is one of the top-performing schools in the state,’’ Nembirkow said. “The charter school would have cost the district up to $15 million.’’
Like Barrett, Nembirkow insisted he’s not against charter schools, but is critical of the funding formula and the “lack of transparency.’’
“Charter school organizers are looking for a private school with public funds,’’ he argued in opposition to the Housatonic application. He favors education reform that would create better accountability. “If they tighten up and strengthen innovative schools, that would create more opportunity within existing options,’’ he predicted.
State Representative William S. Pignatelli of Lenox, a charter school opponent, insisted that “peeling off public dollars for private education sends the wrong message.’’ Pignatelli called the proposed reform legislation “a charter school reform bill that blows away the cap and doesn’t address funding, or big city versus small town considerations.’’ He believes the state should step in to bolster troubled schools, just as it took control when Springfield, Chelsea, and Pittsfield were drowning in red ink.
Pignatelli and Nembirkow expect the state Board of Education will reject the Housatonic application in February; Barrett is not so sure, citing political pressure in Eastern Massachusetts in favor of adding charter schools.
But the basic conundrum remains unresolved. Charter schools reduce funding for local districts and jeopardize improvements at underperforming schools. Until the state figures out a way to protect existing school systems and ensure stricter oversight for charters, public support for new applications is likely to wane even further.
Clarence Fanto is a Lenox-based writer.
"2000-2009: Decade of downs, ups"
By Clarence Fanto, Special to the Berkshire Eagle, December 31, 2009
Some call it the Decade from Hell, as half of Americans did in a recent Pew Research survey. The ‘00s, marked by major job losses and a population exodus, certainly have been difficult for Berkshire County.
But the cleanup of GE's PCB-contaminated Pittsfield plant and two miles of the Housatonic River has been accomplished, though there's more to be done downstream.
Despite the demise of KB Toys, the sale of GE Plastics to a Saudi Arabian company, and downsizing by employers large and small, Pittsfield's North Street has seen a major renaissance. North Adams and Great Barrington also enjoy more vibrant downtowns, and the county's rural communities have maintained their New England charm and sense of history.
Substance abuse and violent crime are a constant concern, but the county remains a mecca for visitors.
Here's a personal list of the top 10 high-impact local stories of the 2000s as we head into a new decade:
1. THE FRAGILE ECONOMY. Berkshire County's population dropped to 129,395 in 2008, down 4 percent since the decade began, while Pittsfield's population declined to 39,494, the lowest figure since 1920.
GE Plastics was sold to Saudi Basic Industries Corp. for $11.6 billion in 2007. The renamed Sabic Innovative Plastics, with 260 employees, has decided to stay in Pittsfield in the former GE complex. At General Dynamics, employment declined from nearly 2,000 to a current estimated level of at least 1,000.
Besieged by cutthroat price-cutting competition, KB Toys filed for bankruptcy in December 2008 and laid off most of the 270 employees at its Pittsfield headquarters before going out of business in 2009.
At its peak, the company -- founded as a wholesale candy business in 1922 by Joseph and Harry Kaufman -- employed close to 500 in the city.
Berkshire County unemployment hit a 16-year high in February 2009 at 8.6 percent, and the venerable Eastover Resort closed Nov. 1 after a 60-year run in Lenox.
2. PCB CLEANUP. Following prolonged legal wrangling, a federal judge approved a consent decree in October 2000 requiring GE to clean up PCBs at its former transformer plant, two miles of the Housatonic River, and several nearby locations. The agreement avoided a damaging Environmental Protection Agency designation of Pittsfield as a Superfund site. The total cleanup cost could approach $1 billion.
A separate "brownfields" agreement between the city and GE required redevelopment of the industrial site dubbed the William Stanley Business Park. But the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA) had no success attracting tenants. The city also gained a $10 million GE Economic Development Fund, payable at $1 million a year through 2010.
As the decade ends, the cleanup of the next 13-mile section of the Housatonic downstream from Pittsfield was tangled in environmental and legal complications.
3. DOWNTOWN PITTSFIELD REVIVAL. In 2000, North Street was considered a crime-infested wasteland. Redevelopment began with the $7.2 million Legacy Financial Center. The reopening of the Colonial Theatre and construction of a cinema complex were high priorities.
These projects and others gained momentum during Mayor James Ruberto's first six years in office. The Colonial, restored as a glittering, Broadway-style Gilded Age theater with nearly 800 seats, reopened on Aug. 29, 2006, after a two-year, $21.6 million renovation. Barrington Stage also opened its new home on Union Street, following a nearly $7 million renovation.
The six-screen Beacon Cinema, conceived in 1999, opened in November. The $23 million project, which survived a required historic-preservation redesign and construction delay that nearly doubled the cost, includes office, retail and restaurant space.
4. DOWNTOWN STADIUM KILLED. The economic-development project championed by Mayor Gerald S. Doyle Jr., a majority of the City Council, Berkshire Bank and The Eagle's parent companywas envisioned as a 5,000-seat, $18.5 million multiuse facility. The goal was to save minor-league baseball in Pittsfield by building a stadium off of Center Street on land owned by New England Newspapers, Inc.
On June 5, 2001, after a one-year, bitterly divisive debate over the creation of a Civic Authority to run a new stadium, voters decisively rejected the measure. Built on a flood plain, Wahconah Park became increasingly decrepit as a succession of baseball teams came and went.
During the new-stadium controversy in 2001, former Yankees pitcher and "Ball Four" author Jim Bouton of North Egremont emerged as the leader of a group seeking to refurbish Wahconah Park and bring an independent-league team to Pittsfield. The Bouton group's first attempt failed when the Pittsfield Park Commission selected another proposal. The group's second attempt in 2004 ended when the city pulled its support following a controversy over possible violations of the state's public bidding laws.
5. POLITICAL UPHEAVALS. In June 2001 -- after an $8 million budget deficit, a state takeover of Pittsfield's finances, and the state attorney general's investigation of a scandal involving the city's pension system and health-insurance coverage for city employees -- Gerald S. Doyle Jr. declined to seek a third term as mayor. Sara Hathaway defeated James Ruberto for the job in November 2001.
In a rematch two years later, voters disenchanted by a dysfunctional relationship between Hathaway and the City Council gave Ruberto a victory margin of 1,200 ballots. Seven city councilors were ousted, including Peter Arlos, the outspoken gadfly and always controversial, colorful politician who died on Nov. 16, 2008, at the age of 82.
Ruberto cruised to re-election in 2005 and 2007, taking 72 percent of the vote in each contest against Donna Walto. Ruberto won amid voter concern over rising taxes, perceived favoritism to downtown business interests, anti-incumbent fervor and a tanking economy.
Last month, Ruberto -- mourning the recent deaths of his wife, Ellen, and his mother, Edith -- eked out a narrow victory over longtime City Councilor Daniel Bianchi.
In North Adams, John Barrett III, the state's longest-serving mayor, lost his bid for a 14th consecutive two-year term in November when he was defeated by City Councilor and banker Richard Alcombright. Barrett saved the city from economic ruin by advocating for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which is credited with bringing in 120,000 annual visitors.
6. 9-11 SHOCK WAVES. The devastating terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, claimed the lives of Peter Goodrich from Williamstown and The Rev. Francis E. Grogan, a Pittsfield native. Berkshire police and firefighters rushed to help at Ground Zero, and many residents donated blood and money.
Sgt. 1st Class Daniel H. Petithory of Cheshire died in December 2001 when a U.S. bomb missed its target and struck American soldiers in Afghanistan. Scores of other Berkshirites volunteered to fight in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
In January 2002, terrorists in Pakistan kidnapped and murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, the widely admired former reporter for The Eagle and Transcript who had been on assignment for the Wall Street Journal.
7. CRIME SURGE: After nine murder-free years, Pittsfield was shocked by three slayings over 11 months in 2002 and 2003. The violence during the ‘00s was blamed on a burgeoning drug trade, activity by gangs or would-be gangs, and domestic abuse.
Subsequent murder victims included Neil Olsen, who was found slain in his Lanesborough barn in 2005. Olsen's wife, Patricia Olsen, 47, was convicted of first-degree murder for persuading her son, Christopher Robinson, to kill his stepfather. Robinson is eligible for parole in 2020; his mother is serving a life sentence.
In December 2006, escaped mental patient William S. Demagall of Stockbridge was convicted of second-degree murder in the slaying of Hillsdale, N.Y., resident George Mancini, but this past November, Demagall's conviction was overturned by a New York state appeals court, and he was transferred to a secure mental health facility in the state.
8. COMMUNITY FINANCIAL WOES. Berkshire Health Systems received major recognition for the quality of care, but as government reimbursements declined, BHS cut the equivalent of 130 full-time positions last year. BMC also joined five other community hospitals in filing a lawsuit against the state, charging a shortfall in Medicaid reimbursements. After suffering annual losses, Northern Berkshire Health Systems is seeking a partnership and is selling its Williamstown nursing and assisted-living facilities.
Early in the decade, the Pittsfield and North Adams public schools were hit hard by funding cutbacks and staff reductions; the underperforming North Adams schools were on a state "watch" list, but were taken off it several years ago.
Some of Pittsfield's elementary schools were upgraded and renovated, but the future of the city's aging public high schools remains uncertain.
Cost-cutting by the Diocese of Springfield forced the shutdown of Pittsfield's Notre Dame Church in 2004, and six of the city's nine Catholic churches closed in 2008. Six other churches were closed in North Adams, Lanesborough and Housatonic.
9. ARTS UPS AND DOWNS: The Mount at the restored Edith Wharton estate in Lenox was $9 million in the hole this year because of dubious acquisitions; under new leadership, it has cut its debt in half. Shakespeare & Company, relocated to the former campus of the National Music Center after leaving The Mount in 2000, is more than $10 million in debt.
At Tanglewood, attendance averaged nearly 350,000 during the decade, marked by James Levine's arrival as music director in 2002, succeeding Seiji Ozawa. The organization depended heavily on James Taylor's nearly annual appearances and generous donations to boost headcount and revenue.
Jacob's Pillow Dance in Becket, Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, and Barrington Stage in Pittsfield were some of the strongest survivors of the current recession, along with the Berkshire Museum, Hancock Shaker Village, MASS MoCA in North Adams, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge and The Clark in Williamstown.
10. WILD WEATHER. Extremes of snowfall, rainfall and temperatures were blamed on global climate change. Snow totals ranged from a high of 105 inches in 2002-03 to a record low of 30 inches in 2005-06. This year, record low average temperatures were set for June and July.
In October 2005, a 36-hour, 9-inch rainstorm toppled a 65-year record at Pittsfield Airport. A December 2008 ice storm left thousands of hilltown residents marooned without electricity for a week or more.
Clarence Fanto is an Eagle columnist and the newspaper's former managing editor.
"Here's a wish 2010 is better than 2009"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, January 3, 2010
Mercifully, the miserable year of ‘09 is safely behind us, as is the decade dubbed the "Big Zero" by economist-columnist Paul Krugman. With your indulgence, here's one final top-10 list -- wishes and hopes for the first year of the 21st century's second decade.
1. Can we all just get along well enough to debate and argue about policy and politics without the anger, hostility and even brutality that has surrounded us for most of the past year? Emotional and psychological abuse directed against those with differing views has no place in our cherished land. The far-right, now dominating the Republican party, needs to dial down the rage. We hear you.
Those on the far left have to acknowledge that President Obama is not and has never been one of them. Meeting in the middle is a positive prescription for progress.
2. Let's use common sense to tighten up airline security. There's too much panic on the airwaves and in public discourse. Racial or religious profiling is un-American and counterproductive. But terrorist-profiling is another matter. Someone who buys a one-way plane ticket with cash and carries no luggage deserves scrutiny. And a loss of privacy seems inevitable, including full-body scans where appropriate.
3. No texting or cell-phoning while driving. It's not against the law yet in Massachusetts, but state legislators should stop dithering on this issue. Until they act, we have to police ourselves. Pull over to the side if you must chat or text.
4. Get out and vote. After all, in a democracy, it's a privilege as well as a right. But fewer than half of us take part in a typical election. During town meeting and election season, key decisions are often made by 20 or 10 percent of Berkshire voters, or even less. The turnout for December's primary was shameful -- about 20 percent statewide, even less here.
It bears repeating: If you stay on the sidelines, keep complaints about elected officials to yourself.
5. Circle your calendar. On Jan. 19, a crucial special election will determine who takes over Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. There's a clear choice between the Republican state Sen. Scott Brown and the Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley. The winner is likely to cast a decisive final vote on the health-care reform bill. Coakley will vote for it; Brown is very eager to become the 41st Republican and to scuttle the historic measure. Case closed. If for no other reason (and there are plenty of others), Coakley must win.
6. Stop dumping on the U. S. Postal Service. Maybe we're lucky, but our mail now arrives earlier than it used to. A recent parcel shipment to a friend in California went out Saturday morning and arrived Monday afternoon. Quite a bargain for less than $3 postage. If we want to save the USPS, use it.
7. Step up to the box office. You want quality independent and foreign films at Pittsfield's new Beacon Cinema? So do I, but Managing Partner Richard Stanley tells me he's not seeing much turnout for the indies despite the recent outcry in support of high-class fare. Overall, however, the Beacon has had a busy first six weeks, boosted by mega-hits such as "Avatar" and "Sherlock Holmes."
"To say we're ecstatic would be an understatement!" Stanley exclaimed. That's great news for downtown Pittsfield.
8. No more free rides. Quality news coverage by professional journalists can't be free, nor can entertainment. Illegal music and movie downloads and file-sharing remain rampant. Internet piracy is a worldwide scourge. Long life to the handful of Web sites that charge users for unique information or entertainment and compensate those who provide it. Others need to get with the program.
9. Support needed. Two of our cherished arts organizations -- Shakespeare & Company and The Mount -- aren't out of the woods yet. A year from now, with plenty of good fortune, they'll be saved and our other worthy theaters and museums will emerge intact from the economy's free fall.
10. Beginning tomorrow, columnists should get down to business and refrain from making lists and predictions. That said, Happy New Year!
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Pittsfield gains from loss up north"
Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, 1/10/2010
Mayor James Ruberto must love surprises; he sprang a big one at a media event last Wednesday when he brought former North Adams Mayor John Barrett III aboard as an adviser on neighborhood issues. Ruberto's recognition that he needed help from the dean of Massachusetts mayors amounts to a political master stroke.
Ruberto was refreshingly candid when he acknowledged that he had not been accessible enough to local residents during his wife's terminal illness. It must have been a dramatic wake-up call when he won a fourth term by 207 votes, with winning margins in only 5 of the city's 14 precincts.
North Adams's loss is Pittsfield's gain; Ruberto, a downtown mayor, will benefit from the hands-on expertise of Barrett, a self-described neighborhood mayor and "urban mechanic" who rode shotgun aboard city plows to make sure snow was promptly cleared from the hilly streets.
"We have to find a better system of reporting the problems citizens are facing, whether it's a pothole or getting the streets swept," Barrett explained at the news conference (viewed via www.pittsfieldtv.net). "Those don't seem like sexy issues but they are as important to economic development as anything there is; the mayor recognizes this and I give him a lot of credit." The former mayor views a city's image as critical -- not long after he arrived at City Hall, North Adams was described as a gateway to nowhere.
Now, it has an attractive downtown that looks like the quintessential small New England city.
Barrett is passionate about the vision for Pittsfield that he shares with Ruberto. "The potential's there for this city to really be unbelievable," he told reporters. "It's well-poised to move on, but you've gotta do the little things, I can't stress that enough. You have to have the support of your community, and where does the support begin? It begins in the neighborhoods, with decent parks that are mowed and maintained, and residents making sure they're seeing something for their tax dollars, that the streets are plowed and the potholes are filled."
To this end, he's conducting an audit to improve the quality and efficiency of public services. Barrett has promised to make his recommendations and defer to Mayor Ruberto and the City Council for decisions.
As Ruberto emphasized, "We're looking at productivity improvements, at getting more out of what we have, and we're looking at doing it better than we've been doing it. That's not to say we haven't been doing a good job, it's to say we can do better and we will do better if we have another set of eyes in there helping direct us to do it, and that's what Mayor Barrett will be doing."
We shouldn't make too much of the Talk Berkshires poll conducted by Sherman Baldwin on WBRK this week which showed 63 percent opposing and 37 percent favoring Barrett's new role. More than 1,000 votes were cast, one vote per computer. A similar survey on The Eagle's Web site found an even split among 603 participants. Talk show listeners don't represent a cross-section of the public.
"Over the next several months, we're going to see big changes in the city," Barrett promised. When asked if he'll be working 40 hours a week, the former mayor responded: "Knowing me, it'll be a lot. I have no life."
Barrett insists on visible results. "The people better see it; if they don't see it, I'm not doing my job," he vowed. "If I don't save what it's going to cost, I won't take the salary, how's that? I think there are savings that can be made and that will pay for itself when it's all said and done."
It may be hard to envision a dynamic leader as an adviser. "I don't have to be in the driver's seat, I'm on the bus and that's the way it will be here," Barrett declared. "I know my role and hopefully I'll do it right and if I don't, I hope the mayor will ask me to leave." More likely, by springtime, Pittsfield's leaders and residents will be urging him to stay.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
January 10, 2010
Re: Propaganda Clarence Fanto!
Pittsfield Mayor Jimmy Ruberto hired North Adams former-Mayor John Barrett III because they are both part of the Good Old Boy network that has ruined both Pittsfield and North Adams, which has loss in population, jobs, quality of life, while rises in taxes, welfare caseloads, teen pregnancie, and lottery sales. Give me a break from you endless propaganda, Clarence Fanto!
- Jonathan Melle
"No traction on jobs"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, February 4, 2010
For each Berkshire County job opening, there are at least 12 unemployed residents scrambling for scarce positions. That’s the stark reality, especially alarming since the national rate is six job-seekers for each available post.
No wonder that the December unemployment rate spiked to 8.8 percent, not quite as high as the statewide and national rates. But the outlook for recovery here is foreboding, even though seasonal hiring in the hospitality industry is just four months away.
There were 6,291 Berkshire residents without jobs in December, according to the Regional Employment Board. That doesn’t include discouraged workers not now looking, nor the underemployed working part-time who need full-time jobs.
Only an estimated 400 to 500 jobs are now vacant, according to Michael Supranowicz, president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, down from about 2,000 just four years ago. That figure included vacancies caused by normal turnover, as it can take weeks or months to fill a position. At that time, expansion-minded employers were still creating new jobs.
So, do the math, and you’ll see how hard it is to land any of the limited number of jobs now available. Supranowicz holds out hope that Washington may provide hiring incentives for small businesses.
At the Berkshire Economic Development Corp., CEO David Rooney cites a mismatch of skills between job-seekers and the limited number of positions.
Former KB Toys staffers are over-qualified -- "they have skills and experience that may not translate to current openings here in the market," as Rooney put it. Laid-off workers from South County paper mills have "production skills that need some fine tuning" so they can be hired in the local plastics industry. Retraining programs at Berkshire Community College help match job-seekers with the remaining manufacturers.
Other fields ripe for growth when the economy rebounds include health care, education, hospitality (especially management), renewable energy, and even ripple effects from the $4.2 billion GlobalFoundries computer-chip complex under construction in Malta, N.Y., about 60 miles northwest of Pittsfield, Rooney said. The factory is expected to employ 1,200 workers starting in 2012, with another 5,000 jobs created nearby. Pittsfield-based Unistress already reaped benefits through the $8 million contract it landed last summer to supply precast concrete structures for the facility.
Rooney foresees potential for Berkshire County for companies that are part of the supply chain for the high-tech corridor in New York’s Hudson Valley from Dutchess to Saratoga County, and even for facilities such as Intel in Hudson, Mass., 35 miles northeast of Worcester.
While Rooney’s optimism is laudable, it’s worth remembering that until the state and national unemployment disaster is confronted in Washington, there won’t be much to celebrate here.
"The economy’s engine is running, but to some degree we’re still in a ditch spinning our wheels,’’ Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial told the Boston Globe. A recent University of Massachusetts study showed that this state’s economy remains stuck in a no-growth zone. With more than 300,000 Massachusetts residents jobless, hiring remains minimal and employers are more likely to increase hours for part-timers before adding to payrolls.
No significant improvement is expected until mid-summer, according to Robert Nakosteen, an economics professor at the UMass Isenberg School of Management. "We’re in the middle of a long slog,’’ he told the Globe. "The economy is trying to get to a spot where we’re in a self-sustaining recovery, but there’s just no traction yet.’’
The only way to get traction is for Republicans in Congress to put aside their deficit-peacock outfits -- there’ll be plenty of time for strutting once the economy is back on even keel -- and help pass the job-creation programs in President Obama’s just-unveiled budget for 2011. He has proposed $100 billion targeted at small business (tax credits for hiring) and at companies investing in green technology. There’s another $166 billion to prime the economic pump, including an urgently-needed extension in Federal unemployment benefits.
Fortunately, the House has already approved a $154 billion jobs bill that includes many of these proposals, but it faces opposition from the 41-vote Republican "majority" in the Senate. It appears that Senator-elect Scott Brown put his swearing-in on the fast track yesterday so he could vote against the jobs proposal.
Brown and a few other independent-minded Republicans will be hard-pressed to explain why they opposed a measure to help small businesses and out-of-work Americans. But as this bitter mid-term election year unfolds, all that matters in our overheated, ultra-partisan universe is tearing down the president and the Democrats every day in every way.
Mr. Obama’s recent feistiness and willingness to engage in combat is reassuring. But it’s a forlorn hope to expect any help for the economy or for health-care reform from the Senate. The outlook is for gridlock as far as the eye can see. Lurking in the background is the dangerous Tea Party movement, which threatens to be the Next Big Thing in politics.
I’m ready to crawl into the bunker, pull up the blankets and await the flowering of crocuses and daffodils, Maybe by then it will be time to come up for air in search of salvation and renewal. What’s needed is more than a pocketful of miracles.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
"Little return on big bucks spent is sad"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, March 21, 2010
Anger against government may be sweeping our land. Or the problem may be despair that leads to "an overwhelming sense of political exhaustion," as columnist Neal Gabler has suggested in the Boston Globe.
Gabler contends that Americans are "dispirited over how wrong things are and uncertain that they can ever be made right. Simply put, they've given up."
Perhaps, but the populist revolt looms larger, and one issue that cuts across partisan lines is government waste - taxpayer money committed to economicdevelopment projects involving start-up and established businesses that promise to create jobs in return for tax breaks.
One local example is WorkshopLive, the online guitar lesson enterprise that relocated to Pittsfield but closed its South Street studio last April and is now back in Litchfield, Conn., where company CEO David Smolover runs his other businesses, the National Guitar Workshop and Workshop Arts.
Pittsfield's helping hand, based on the company's November 2004 commitment to hire 60 or more employees for at least six months within a four-year period, involved a $750,000 incentive package through the GE Economic Development Fund. But the Internet video musicinstruction company maxed out with 42 employees at its peak in June 2006. The recession packed a fierce wallop for the fledgling business, Smolover explained in an interview Friday, and despite an ongoing deal with Best Buy to become the retail giant's Internet music educator, WorkshopLive is now down to five employees who work at remote locations such as their homes.
The company collected $150,000 in start-up funds from the GE fund, which was launched in 2000 with $10 million to be distributed in $1 million chunks per year. But WorkshopLive never qualified for its remaining $600,000, said Ann Dobrowolski, a community development specialist for the city. Smolover said that his company injected a total payroll of $4.8 million into Pittsfield's economy during its four years here.
On a much larger scale, the Beacon Cinema and the Colonial Theatre benefited from complex, costly, multimilliondollar packages of city, state and federal incentives. The Beacon is off to a strong start and is attracting new eateries and other retailers to North Street. The Colonial confronts economic challenges but ranks as a prime, live performance facility. All told, 38 Pittsfield businesses and 23 others countywide have won state and local tax breaks based on hiring commitments, according to a detailed Boston Globe investigation this past week. The report raises disturbing questions about the state's Economic Development Incentive Program, created in 1993.
Massachusetts has given away hundreds of millions of dollars to more than 1,300 projects, but in too many cases, far fewer jobs were created than promised, many were low-paying, and some companies cut staff instead of expanding.
Nearly half of the projects involved small businesses that committed to anywhere from one to 10 full-time positions - in the Berkshires, they include a hardware store, a coffee-roasting company, a food cooperative, several medical practices, a restaurant and an inn.
State Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, was one of the key lawmakers who helped set up the program. At a time of deep recession, it was designed to fuel job growth and economic development in blighted urban areas. Based on investment and job-creation targets, companies could get a 5 percent state tax credit computed from what they spent on expansion, and they could qualify for a break on property taxes good for up to 20 years.
While not disavowing the program, Bosley is skeptical about state oversight, arguing that questionable proposals should have been more closely scrutinized, and more should have been done to monitor hiring promises.
"It wasn't intended to just give companies tax breaks," Bosley told the Globe.
"It was intended to create real job development. It's kind of gone in different ways than the original intent."
As Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, pointed out: "It's one thing to use this program to attract a state-of-the-art pharmaceutical facility. It's quite another to reward pizza parlors and hair salons."
And the state's deputy inspector general, Neil Cohen, complained that "oversight is practically nonexistent. The state must ensure that it is getting something for what amounts to an investment."
Next Sunday: A closer look at Berkshire businesses, large and small, that have benefited from the state's largesse.
"It's time to tighten tax breaks"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, March 28, 2010
A well-intentioned state tax incentive program coupled with local property-tax breaks went off course following its approval by the state legislature in 1993. As outlined here last Sunday, a recent Boston Globe investigation revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives have been granted to 1,371 economic-development projects. Until recently, the state approved every project recommended by city or town officials.
In the Berkshires, 63 businesses benefited from tax breaks, including 38 in Pittsfield. The largest, and a major success story, was a $30.5 million investment by Interprint, Inc., in 1995, which promised 79 jobs. The company gained a $1.5 million state tax credit over a 13-year period, plus local property-tax benefits. In 2001, it qualified for an additional $1.1 million state tax credit over 10 years, based on a further investment of $23 million and additional hiring.
According to Managing Director William M. Hines, Jr., the company has met all hiring goals set by the state and the city. It expanded from about 40 employees in 1995 to 124 currently. "The incentives were definitely helpful," Hines told me, pointing out that Interprint was able to triple its employment level since 1995 while adding nine positions so far this year.
Another major private-sector beneficiary of state and local tax breaks is Sabic Innovative Plastics, which won a $1.4 million tax credit over 10 years based on a $29.5 million investment in late 2007 and a promise of 25 new jobs over a two-year period. Sabic surpassed the commitment during the first year, but "because of the challenging economic climate, we have a net increase of seven jobs," said Sabic spokeswoman Jodi Kennedy Gaffey.
In Williamstown, Wild Oats Cooperative Market was granted a 10-year tax credit from the state in September 2005, worth at least $50,000, in return for adding one full-time staffer. The market relocated to larger quarters and expanded from 15 employees to a current total of 35 to 40 full- and part-timers, said General Manager Michael Faber.
But elsewhere, the Globe's study found that all too often, taxpayers failed to get their money's worth. Gov. Deval Patrick's administration has acknowledged that the 16-year-old program needed tighter controls and oversight. The state's secretary of housing and economic development, Greg Bialecki, has stated that the program had "hits and misses" but he has worked with Patrick and lawmakers to revise it. He told the Globe that while significant job creation resulted in some cases, "there were other cases where the amount of tax credits was disproportionate to the amount of job creation and it wasn't the best investment.'' In recent years, he estimated, the state has lost an average of $25 million in state tax revenue, plus an unknown value from the accompanying local tax breaks -- perhaps several hundred million dollars since 1993.
"The original intent of the program was clear: These incentives were to be made available in economically challenged areas,'' Bialecki said. "That doesn't seem to be happening. ‘'Now, the state no longer will offer an automatic 5 percent tax credit for applications made by towns and cities on behalf of specific projects.
Instead, based on legislation signed late last year by Patrick, Bialecki's department will scrutinize projects in designated "economic opportunity areas" and decide whether to grant no credits, or a range of tax credits up to 10 percent of a company's investment.
The law also gives the state the authority to go after companies that don't deliver on job promises for projects approved this year and beyond, and to retrieve lost tax revenue. The state also has the ability to end annual tax breaks for projects that have not fulfilled the original hiring goals.
"The reform effort, lead by Patrick, has addressed the major issues that have faced the economic development incentive program over the years," said Kofi Jones, a spokeswoman for Bialecki.
"With this new legislation in place, the state can regain tax incentives for future projects that fall short, has more flexibility to steer aid to projects most likely to create the most jobs, and focuses specifically on projects that generate substantial out-of-state sales." It's good politics and good policy for the Patrick administration to crack down on a program it inherited that too often has granted seemingly arbitrary tax breaks and has failed to stimulate job growth in areas that need it the most.
March 29, 2010
Re: Clarence Fanto should have listened to Rinaldo Del Gallo III
Dear Clarence Fanto,
As you know, I try to read almost all of your political columns. I find your essays to be thoughtful and well researched. Your last 2 columns on "incentives" pointed out that the state and local governments use of tax dollars to attract business growth mostly failed and that newly proposed reforms may change things for the better, but you left out the poor track record of the recent and current politicians who drove Pittsfield into the ground.
I remember when Rinaldo Del Gallo III ran for local political office in 2003 and 2005, but was not elected, and instead the people of Pittsfield elected a then-new Mayor and WHEN-backed City Councilors, who went onto raise local taxes far above the rate of inflation year after year after year while hundreds upon hundreds of local jobs were lost and Berkshire County became the #1 place in all of Massachusetts for job loss. Rinaldo unfortunately predicted everything that happened to my native hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and then ALL of the bad news that came to pass came true.
Rinaldo proposed using incentives to attract techology-based and manufacturing businesses, speedy permitting processes for PEDA and other business zones, and lower taxes with an emphasis on funding public education. Instead, Pittsfield used million of tax dollars or "incentives" to open the Colonial Theater on South Street and the $22.4 million Beacon Cinema on North Street. There were NO jobs created! Pittsfield's public schools are now among the worst performing school districts in the commonwealth with high truancy, drop-out and teen pregnancy rates. PEDA still has 0 private tenants!
It seems to me, Clarence Fanto, that reforming the laws on the use of taxpayer "incentives" may change almost all of the failures to successes, but it may take replacing Ruberto with Rinaldo to really attract business growth to Pittsfield!
Jonathan A. Melle
"The die is cast as House sells out"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, April 16, 2010
During a brief research visit to Mohegan Sun in southeastern Connecticut right after it opened in October 1996, I found stupefied gamblers transfixed in near-hypnotic condition. They inhabited an alternate universe, unaware of time and space, trying to beat the house instead of squandering their hard-earned cash. It was a pathetic scene right out of the nine circles of hellish suffering in "Dante's Inferno."
Who knew that some casino operators pump behavior-altering chemicals known as pheromones into the air in order to encourage gamblers to keep playing! This is no joke.
In their mindless, headlong rush to approve expanded gambling, House lawmakers in Boston saw fit to defeat an amendment to prevent the practice at resort casinos even though State Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, contended that casino patrons deserve to know if the air they're breathing is artificially spiked with chemicals or even extra oxygen to pump up the energy level.
"When you're feeling like a million bucks, you don't mind betting a million bucks," he said. "Everything is geared so the house will win and you will lose.''
State lawmakers in their infinite non-wisdom killed nearly all efforts aimed at controlling sociopathic gambling addiction. "We should not begin to micromanage every facet of this industry, and what they can and can't do,'' state Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, argued. Amendments defeated would have required casinos to post the odds of winning on slot machines, limit losses to $500 per day, put clocks on the walls, restricting the amount of cash dispensed by on-site ATMs, bar "luck ambassadors" from intercepting departing patrons to lure them back to the slots, and require public health officials to step in if someone gambles for more than 12 hours at a stretch.
At least the lawmakers killed an amendment that would have required a resort casino in western Massachusetts. They managed to approve a revision forcing casino operators to buy American-made slot machines. Another modification bans casino operators from marketing to people who list themselves as problem gamblers.
So now the die is cast. Unless the State Senate and Gov. Deval Patrick demonstrate political courage by derailing the gambling bill just approved by the House, we can expect two resort-style casinos, as well as 750 slot machines at each of the four Massachusetts racetracks. Patrick opposes the slots but favors the casinos. State Senate President Therese Murray's position is similar.
It was a repulsive scene late Wednesday as lawmakers toasted each other with cheers, hugs and fist-bumps while lobbyists and union leaders sported wide grins and popped champagne corks. The House had approved gambling by a veto-proof margin of 120-37.
Democratic Speaker Robert DeLeo, a fierce supporter, has two ailing racetracks in his district, and his dad was a track worker. Some state reps who opposed gambling legislation in 2008 switched, fearful that DeLeo would marginalize them by consigning them to the back bench.
"My sense is there will be consequences for people voting against this bill -- particularly people in his inner circle,'' state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, told reporters just before the roll call. "People know if they want to chair a committee or have influence, they should think about voting for this bill.''
Story abandoned her previous opposition -- DeLeo's reward was to add her to his leadership team. A blatant payoff, do you think? How inspiring that the House speaker carries as much or more clout than the governor.
The House express-tracked the landmark gambling legislation while differing versions of urgently-needed anti-bullying laws sit on the siding until they're reconciled. A fine set of Beacon Hill priorities. It's all about the golden calf of money and jobs.
Many former opponents were persuaded by exaggerated employment projections and a predicted $1.1 billion in revenues that would stay in our state instead of being spent at casinos in Connecticut and Rhode Island. DeLeo dangled promises of 15,000 jobs -- though only 300 would be permanent -- as well as $260 million in licensing fees and $300 million to $500 million in annual tax revenues, including $100 million in local aid. Wild estimates were thrown around -- $7.2 million for Boston, $4.8 million for Worcester, at least $1 million for Pittsfield. No matter that small businesses and downtowns suffer from nearby resort casinos, as demonstrated in southeastern Connecticut. Never mind the domestic abuse and related social ills spawned by gambling addiction.
State Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, a staunch foe of state-sponsored gambling, stood firm. "This does not have to be our economic future," he told reporters. "I'm not morally opposed to casino gambling, it's just lousy economic policy, the worst form of investment you can make."
Bosley has contended that states with legalized gambling have found no "economic panacea." He warned of a delayed economic recovery because residents would gamble away disposable income and noted that performing-arts centers could be affected because many casino operators require entertainers to sign 100-mile non-compete "radius clauses." (Pittsfield's Rep. Chris Speranzo voted in favor of the bill, with "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox and Dennis Guyer of Dalton joining Bosley in opposition.)
For example, what if a proposed resort in Palmer, only 45 minutes from Lee on the MassPike, soaked up some of the available talent for the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington or the Colonial in Pittsfield?
State Rep. Carl M. Sciortino Jr., D-Somerville, denounced his colleagues for giving their "blessing to an industry whose sole mission is to strip people of their hard-earned money for nothing more than corporate profit and corporate greed. It's not economic development. It's exploitation.''
"Using food stamps, getting hand-me-downs, phones turned off all the time...It's going to hurt families,'' state Rep. Matthew Patrick, D-Falmouth, warned.
In the end, none of the opposing arguments prevailed. It's a safe bet that legal gambling on a grand scale is coming to Massachusetts, and in many ways that count, we'll all be the poorer for it.
Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.
Friday, April 16, 2010
Re: Clarence Fanto against casino gambling
I try to read most of Clarence Fanto's political columns in the Berkshire Eagle online. My Blog page: www.jonathanmelleonpolitics.blogspot.com/2007/11/clarence-fanto-writings-and-my.html . He is intelligent and makes astute and analytical points, but always seems to be in favor of the established local "Democratic Party" political class such as Mayors John Barrett & Jimmy Ruberto, et al. For example, Clarence Fanto will praise Pittsfield's so-called downtown revitalization, while omitting the fact that Berkshire County is the #1 place in Massachusetts for job loss with a nominal unemployment rate above 10%.
Clarence Fanto's newest column against casino gambling: www.berkshireeagle.com/columnists/ci_14894786 , criticizes Speaker Robert DeLeo's strong-arm leadership in pushing through a flawed casino and slot gambling bill, while praising Representative Daniel Bosley for his opposition. Fanto overlooks the fact that Bosley fully supports the multi-billion dollar per year state lottery: an inequitable system of regressive taxation that is pure profit for the state government. Moreover, Bosley is on the record opposing casino gambling because it would cut into the state lottery's bottom line. Bosley does not care about the issues Clarence Fanto raises: exploitation, marketing, equity, and economic parity. The only interest Dan Bosley has is keeping the state lottery prime, despite the fact that the lottery preys upon the weak, poor, disabled, and needy. Furthermore, Roberto DeLeo follows two corrupt House Speakers Bosley supported: Tom Finneran & Sal DiMasi, both of whom resigned the office in disgrace. Bosley is now an outsider, but was a long-time insider to closed-door, top-down, and autocratic leadership.
Unlike Clarence Fanto, I don't see the difference between one form of gambling versus another form of gambling. The lottery is nothing more than an inequitable system of regressive taxation. I find it the height of hypocrisy for opponents of casino gambling to point out the flaws in casinos while supporting scratch tickets and number games ran by the state government. The point Fanto misses is that the opponents of casinos support the lottery and want to keep the state in business as a monopoly institution of inequitable regressive taxation for the profits of corrupt politicians.
- Jonathan Melle
"The sounds of socialism seem louder"
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, April 18, 2010
Make no mistake: Even here in liberal-leaning Berkshire County, there's a mini-volcanic eruption of right-wing anger against "big government," taxes, deficits, the health care law and just about everything else advocated by President Obama and Democrats in Congress.
My visit to the second annual Park Square Tea Party rally organized by the Berkshire County Republican Association (BCRA) confirmed that we're inhabiting alternate solar systems. TEA 2010 (Taxed Enough Already) attracted 342 people to Park Square on Thursday afternoon, according to a head-count taken by BCRA chairman Jim Bronson of Pittsfield.
"I don't agree that we're heading toward a Communist state," Bronson told me. "But it's hard to argue we're aren't heading toward a socialist state as we have socialized medicine and our fingers deeper and deeper into the corporations. If the Democrats are going to be far left, then the Republicans should be a couple of degrees right of center. In fact, I think it is going so far left now that if you were a centrist, you'd look like a regular conservative."
Long-time BCRA executive director Peter Giftos of Dalton, a World War II veteran, condemns what he calls "maniacal pork-barrel spending on both sides, even Republicans. Overall, we think this is the worst year and a half we've seen in our lifetime."
Giftos favors a close alliance between Republicans and the Tea Party movement and, come November, hopes to see "more statesmen get into office who will put their country before their party and selfish motives."
Punctuated by horn-honking approval from passing vehicles, this rally was fairly genteel. A few demonstrators wore colorful Revolutionary-era garb; others brandished copies of the Constitution.
Among the signs we spotted: "Tax cheats should not get government jobs." "Constitution Republic, not Socialism." "This teacher gives Obama bad Marx." "Obama, Stop Your War on America."
Here's a sampling of what demonstrators told me:
. "You're not entitled to what I've earned. I don't think money should be freely given out, people should work for what they get. The government is just giving stuff out and taking advantage of the people. They want to give free health care to illegal aliens."
-- Julie Gundelfinger, Lenox.
. "We need to go back to the Constitution and do things the right way. I have children and grandchildren who're going to have to pay for all this money that's being spent."
-- Jonathan Hatch, Canaan, N.Y.
. "The current president is Communist. We got the health care takeover, the takeovers of our auto industry and the banking system these are the things that the Communists did. This isn't what we signed up for. Remember, we fought our revolution to get away from high taxes and from tyranny, and if they're going to bring it back to us, we must do what we're doing here peacefully. I'm not angry, I'm disgusted!"
-- David Cheung, Pittsfield.
. "Obama is spending way too much money, there's far too much government intervention in the private sector. The value-added tax, which Obama would love to impose, is a giant middle-class tax hike, which he promised not to do."
-- Steve Nikitas, Pittsfield.
. "Obama's trying to set up this country like Zimbabwe or Cuba. He's Communist and hates this country, he's not even a citizen to begin with because he never produced his birth certificate. He's Kenyan, you know. He's not American, neither by birth or state of mind."
-- Alex of Pittsfield, a native of Moscow.
. "I just want Barack Obama to step back and realize he's president of the United States, the last beacon of hope in the entire world, and everything he is doing is lowering that beacon of hope, tearing down our military, taking away the NASA program.
"We're a minority in Berkshire County, but that doesn't mean we're without brains and we can't speak. You don't see any racists here; when you've seen it elsewhere, those are the infiltrators who have come out to make signs that were misspelled and throw in racist comments. That's not what the Tea Party is about. It's a group of citizens fed up with what's going on. I think America is awakening, though maybe not Berkshire County."
-- Jim Balfanz, Stockbridge.
Alternate universes, irreconcilable differences. The essence of American democracy? Perhaps, as long as we can keep the debate about our wildly conflicting versions of reality civil, respectful and most importantly, non-violent.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Reflections on sheriff's long tenure"
By Clarence Fanto, Special to the Eagle, August 29, 2010
First of a series.
What is arguably the most powerful elected position in Berkshire County is also the least transparent, leaving some to worry that what happens in the sheriff's office stays in the sheriff's office.
But, with the impending election of his successor, Carmen C. Massimiano Jr. has been eager to describe his legacy, a considerable list of accomplishments since he was appointed in 1978 and re-elected every six years, beginning in 1980. During two lengthy interviews and a tour of the spacious, high-tech Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction, he was quite open about shortcomings as well as successes.
The site off Cheshire Road would never be mistaken for a country club. But it's less foreboding facility than others of its type. After emptying my belongings into a locker, except for a digital recorder and notebook, and clearing a security checkpoint, I met with the sheriff, Superintendent John J. Quinn Jr. , and public information officer Robert McDonough in a modern conference room that would not be out of place in any executive suite.
When he retires at year's end, a decision based on health and the emergence of election challengers, Massimiano will have held the position longer than any of his 19 predecessors. During his tenure, he amassed an unprecedented power base not only in the public safety arena but also in the Berkshire County Democratic Party. Unlike the pistol-packing, outlaw-fighting sheriffs depicted in old-time movies and on TV, the position here has evolved into a multi-layered, highly influential leadership role focused on security, administration and human services.
He has earned high marks from the county's only other elected public safety official, District Attorney David Capeless.
"Based on my two decades working here in Berkshire County, I think he has responded quite well to the change in the population coming into the House of Correction and the reasons they are there not just with heightened security but with programs dealing with substance abuse and education," Capeless declared. "He's done an admirable job. Whoever succeeds Sheriff Massimiano is going to take over the building but the most important thing is that they're going to inherit a staff with a work ethic of the highest professionalism."
"The overwhelming majority of people who come in here are coming out of here," Massimiano asserted. "They're not going to be here forever. There's a small group that's going to go off to state prison for some heinous crime and spend a good deal of their lives there. But the vast majority may be here an hour trying to make bail, or they may be here for five years and everything in between. So the question arises, in what kind of shape do we want them to be when they come out?"
The goal, he explained, is to avoid a revolving door by ensuring that prisoners are rehabilitated and educated in order to become productive members of society. The latest recidivism rate (the percentage of released inmates who return after conviction for new crimes) is 26 percent, one of the lowest in Massachusetts.
"I've loved being the sheriff," Massimiano said with considerable feeling. "I consider it a great honor that I've been in this position as long as I have. I believe I provided leadership, and I tried to be responsible, someone you could be proud of. Programs keep jails humane. If you don't have programs and you do it by sheer force, sooner or later, you'll be overwhelmed. I hope at the end of the day, people will say, ‘He was a good sheriff and he accomplished things that were in our best interest as a community.'"
Former North Adams Mayor John Barrett, consultant to the City of Pittsfield, acknowledges Massimiano's political clout with lawmakers.
"He has been very effective in dealing with Boston," said Barrett. "When you think of what he accomplished, if he hadn't secured the funding for the new House of Correction, we'd still have the terribly awful conditions at the Second Street jail. He's had strong influence in the Democratic Party; he was a good sheriff and a very compassionate individual. He always felt he could save everybody."
Next Sunday: How Massimiano achieved his most significant goal -- construction of a new jail.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
"Massimiano: New jail a highlight"
By Clarence Fanto, Special to the Eagle, September 5, 2010
When Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen C. Massimiano, Jr., is asked to cite the most significant accomplishment during his record-setting tenure, there's no hesitation. The 2001 opening of the $39 million, 160,000 square-foot Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction on Cheshire Road ended a hard-fought, two-decade crusade.
The sheriff pulled out all the stops to win public support, since critics considered the proposed facility too massive; some jeered it as a "Taj Mahal" that could house hardened criminals from other parts of the state. Appointed in 1978 and sworn in by Gov. Michael Dukakis after Sheriff John Courtney retired in mid-term, Massimiano had been chief probation officer. He was selected from a field of four applicants that included Richard Smith, a deputy supervisor at the jail.
Smith challenged him in the 1980 election and lost, and Massimiano has run unopposed every six years since. In more than three decades of service he amassed tremendous power as the county's leading Democrat, taking no prisoners, so to speak, as he fought for a state-of-the-art jail complex.
The brick, granite and marble Second Street Jail, built by Civil War veterans and opened in 1870, was nearing the end of its useful life as Massimiano took office.
"There was a tile floor, a line, and you walked the line," he said. "You didn't talk as you went from place to place."
Before firing his first salvo for a new jail, Massimiano mastered the complex duties of a county sheriff.
"It's a relatively invisible office in Massachusetts because we're not out on patrol," he explained. "It's a very important position, not because I hold it but because it can affect the lives of everybody in this county, those who are directly involved and those who know about it just because such places exist."
Quickly realizing that the Second Street Jail was "in serious shape," he embarked on a "20-year battle, from the moment I walked in the door there until we came here."
The old prison was regarded by many as a potential fire trap since each cell had to be opened individually. Sure enough, in July 1991, a fire broke out but was quickly contained by the four guards on duty. But it was a wakeup call that added fuel to the drive for a new facility.
Massimiano acted quickly to strengthen his political clout with state lawmakers.
"Over the years, I established a reputation that my word was good," he asserted. "Here's our mantra: We'll do exactly what we say we're going to do, in the time frame, for the money. I never deviated from that. As a result, people knew what they're getting. That's terribly important."
The sheriff went into campaign overdrive, arguing that despite a projected 500-bed capacity at the new facility, by law no prisoners could be transferred there from outside without his permission.
"We built an advocacy group," he said, "and people saw the need, as much as they didn't want to spend the money."
The old jail's population -- which stood at 69 when Massimiano took office -- had swelled to 285, well above the capacity.
"We were terrifically overcrowded," he recalled, "and we were trying to separate people out, get them into programs. We were dealing with drugs, alcohol problems and severe mental-health issues."
The sheriff believes a reputation for fiscal prudence helped him win the argument.
"I'm a very conservative spender," he asserted. "I believe you don't do more than what is reasonable and proper to borrow, and if you don't need it, don't take it, much to the chagrin of the superintendents who have to run the place and pay the bills."
Despite his self-described frugality, the sheriff acknowledged "an awful fight" with the state to win approval for "something special that meets our needs and allows us to do a better job."
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle.
"Too easy to shrug off bad politics"
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, By Clarence Fanto, October 17, 2010
Have voters become so jaded that they will look the other way while state Rep. Christopher Speranzo tries to have his cake and eat it too, by running for re-election in Pittsfield's 3rd Berkshire District while also pursuing a comfy state job?
According to state Ethics Commission rules, he can apply for two state jobs at once -- the other being the $110,000 a year lifetime post (plus perks worth thousands more) as Central Berkshire District Court clerk-magistrate -- as long as he decides which one he'll take within a month if he wins re-election and is also offered the court job.
Could it be that fed-up voters are simply shrugging their shoulders? Of course, we've seen this movie before.
Outgoing state Rep. Daniel Bosley rankled many constituents after he won re-election in 2006 and, within a month, eagerly pursued a post as economic-development "czar" for governor-elect Deval Patrick. Bosley changed his mind in January 2007 when it appeared that position would be less powerful than he had expected. He chose to end his political career this year to seek election as Berkshire County sheriff. That didn't work out, but he's bound to land on his feet.
Then there was the case of state Rep. Peter Larkin, who jumped to the private sector in January 2005, just six days after he was sworn in for his eighth term, only to re-emerge as a candidate for state Senate a year later.
He abandoned that campaign as well, citing family reasons for his decision in April 2006. More likely, he feared residual voter anger at his cavalier withdrawal from public service, which required a special election costing at least $25,000. It was a sad outcome, since Larkin accomplished much for his constituents during his 14 years on Beacon Hill. At least we came out ahead with the election of state Sen. Benjamin Downing, who is serving the sprawling First District with distinction.
Maybe it's naive to think Pittsfield voters would look askance at Speranzo's clever game plan. It's a sign of the times that the only Berkshire election contest to win front-page attention in the Boston Globe is Katherine Gundelfinger's quixotic effort via a non-binding referendum on the ballot to gain women's rights to appear topless in public.
"Here I am, a grown woman, who can't go for a swim and feel the sun on my chest and feel comfortable," Gundelfinger complained.
The Globe calls it the state's most unusual ballot question; no argument there, but Mayor James M. Ruberto rightly dismisses it as a sideshow.
"When we have people out of work, when we are struggling with balanced budgets, when we have two wars overseas, I don't think the voters are particularly interested in the question," Ruberto said. "I just don't think that the issue is worthy of discussion."
But the Speranzo double-dip is. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, the Lenox Democrat who becomes the dean of the Berkshire delegation after he wins re-election and is sworn in Jan. 5, is reluctant to criticize his colleague but did acknowledge "he's a victim of bad timing. I'm not sure this has been handled the best way by the judicial process. The appearance of the whole process looks flawed and reeks of politics."
Speranzo has ducked the issue (he did not respond to my requests for comment), though he hasn't denied pursuing the court job, which has been left vacant for 16 months. That begs the question of whether we even need an overpaid clerk-magistrate when the two assistants have been handling the work load.
No doubt, Speranzo -- an attorney with a master's from England's Cambridge University and a law degree from Boston College who has served as Pittsfield's city solicitor and assistant state attorney general -- is eminently qualified. The word is he'll be offered the job after he's re-elected to a fourth term with a 30-day requirement to say "yes" and a three-month window for a special election handing the post to a Democratic successor. "Planet Valenti" (columnist Dan) has speculated that the anointed one could be City Councilor Jonathan Lothrop.
Several Republicans have accused Speranzo of unethical, unconscionable behavior and lack of transparency. Michael Case, the Republican candidate in the 2nd Berkshire District race for the House, said "he wouldn't do that to the electorate." It was clear from my conversation with Pignatelli that he wouldn't do it either.
Ironically, it was Speranzo who won the special election after the aforementioned Larkin threw his constituents overboard so he could become a well-paid lobbyist. Whether the mystery-shrouded Judicial Nominating Commission, which screens nominees whose names are sent to the governor before being routed to the equally obscure Governor's Council for a final decision, has chosen Speranzo is not known. But The Eagle's intrepid investigative sleuth Conor Berry reported that Speranzo was interviewed by the screeners last month. Oddly, there's no deadline for filling the job, and Gov. Patrick could choose to leave it unfilled.
The clerk-magistrate is not exactly an essential worker, certainly not for $110,000 a year-plus. Aided by two colleagues in the Southern Berkshire District Court, the assistants, Linda Barry and David Kearns, have been preparing arrest and search warrants, reviewing applications for criminal complaints, and helping to oversee civil and criminal proceedings, including arraignments and probable-cause hearings, as well as small claims sessions.
Barry and Kearns apparently applied for the top job but were passed over.
Speranzo, who makes $61,439 plus expenses as a state rep, wants a six-figure lifetime job that doesn't look too onerous. All this smacks of inside politics and a fix that's already in. If Speranzo wants to represent his constituents, he should withdraw his name from consideration for the clerk-magistrate's job. Or, he should quit his re-election campaign and let Green-Rainbow Party candidate Mark Miller and a potential Republican write-in candidate vie for Beacon Hill.
Of course that won't happen. No wonder so much of the electorate is disgusted. It's politics as usual, and it does reek.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Columnist, DEP, parrot GE stance"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letter to the Editor, October 20, 2011
In his column of Oct. 16, Clarence Fanto makes accusations about the 100 plus people who were calling for a better Housatonic River clean-up. He uses the words "desire for revenge and retribution" to demand the clean-up be as costly as possible. It couldn't possibly be that the demonstrators' only desire is removing as many toxins as possible. Mr. Fanto states the clean-up decision should "respect the people who enjoy the river as kayakers, canoers or hikers." Many citizens and other environmental groups were present who paddle, clean up the trash, study the science, and love the river. How about our rights under the Clean Water Act?
The Mass DEP and Mr. Fanto mentions a science based clean-up. The state wants to remove only 25 percent of the PCBs leaving massive amounts upstream. Then they meet human health standards by putting up more signs warning of the high levels of PCBs in the river. They want to dredge and clean Woods Pond but then let it get recontaminated. Is this a clean-up?
They also don't want to bring the peer reviewed Ecological Risk Assessment (www.epa. gov/region1/ge/thesite/restofriver/reports/456069. pdf) to light because it is so damning that a much more stringent clean-up would be needed. Read it and see what the scientific studies say is harming the wildlife.
GE, the state, and now Mr. Fanto say let's ignore the ecological science! Has he read the science? The Housatonic River Initiative has been going to PCB meetings for 20 years. We have fought for a comprehensive clean-up because the PCBs have not only destroyed our river but are one of the most toxic chemicals in the entire food chain of the earth. We participated in all of the peer reviewed science sessions. HRI has championed using new technology which could result in lowering the cost of the clean-up. We have a world renowned PCB risk specialist helping us to participate. But instead of Mr. Fanto learning about HRI he just attacks.
MASS DEP says "We must make GE remedy the damage it has caused, but we must not destroy the river in order to save it." Clarence Fanto says "But let it not be said by future generations that we destroyed the river in order to save it." Who guides them? From GE's Corrective Measures Study: "When it comes to the Rest of River, less really is more. The least intrusive approaches to cleaning up river sediment and floodplain soil will meet EPA's human health criteria, are protective of the environment, and are far more likely to achieve that goal without destroying a river to clean it."
The writer is Housatonic Riverkeeper executive director, Housatonic River Initiative.
"State needs to get back to being a role model"
By Clarence Fanto, Special to The Berkshire Eagle, 2/9/2014
LENOX -- What took so long?
Gov. Deval Patrick finally stepped up this past week and acknowledged, with the inevitable apology, what has been obvious since last October.
The state’s online health-insurance marketplace, formerly a role model for the nation, is barely functioning. There’s plenty of blame to go around, starting with CGI, the Montreal-based tech firm assigned to revamp the Massachusetts Health Connector website so that about 150,000 residents who qualify for subsidies can apply or re-enroll for new coverage that lines up with the federal Affordable Care Act.
CGI, the same firm responsible for the disastrous roll out of the national healthcare.gov site last fall, is now "on a much shorter leash," Patrick told reporters on Thursday. Never mind the leash -- he should have cut CGI loose.
Instead, he’s bringing in another tech company, Optum, to clean up the CGI mess that forced thousands of people to give up trying to apply for coverage online. Instead, many filed paper applications, but there’s a two-month backlog of unprocessed requests. Optum is hiring 300 insurance specialists to plow through all that paperwork.
Since Optum helped straighten out the deeply flawed federal insurance site, which is now working much more effectively, there may be reasons for optimism that it can wave a magic wand for Massachusetts.
"The point is to catch up on the backlog and deliver a system that will give our residents convenience and confidence when it comes to health care coverage," Patrick said.
The Optum bailout will cost the state nearly $10 million over the next month; the payments will come out of CGI’s $68 million contract. So far, CGI has been paid $15 million for its pathetic efforts. Not a penny more should go its way, and Patrick might have declared the company’s contract null and void because of gross incompetence.
Where does all this leave the estimated 124,000 state residents whose already existing, subsidized coverage was extended from Dec. 31 until March 31? In limbo, for now, though Patrick has assured them that "those who have coverage will not lose it, and those who are seeking coverage will get it."
A reprieve beyond March 31 may be needed until the state website is repaired.
When a reporter asked Patrick if he regretted not acting sooner, he contended that the website’s problems were not clear until the end of November. But months before the site’s crash-and-burn liftoff in October, the warning signs were obvious that CGI was unable to meet its deadlines.
According to a report from an independent tech company, MITRE, assigned by Washington to investigate the problems with the Massachusetts website, state health officials as well as the UMass Medical School, which was responsible for overseeing the CGI work, all shared the blame. Patrick relieved the medical school of any further involvement with the CGI contract.
Why didn’t Patrick fire CGI? He blasted its work as "consistently substandard," adding that it "failed to deliver the system we hired them to deliver." It turns out the state needs CGI to help fix the website because the tech firm owns the computer code for it.
Patrick’s determination to set things right is praiseworthy, but his administration seems reluctant to admit mistakes until whistleblowers come forward.
As has been chronicled extensively in The Eagle and the Boston Globe, John Barrett, former director of the BerkshireWorks career center in Pittsfield, tried to alert the state last spring to deep flaws in the new unemployment-benefit website designed by another trouble-prone tech firm, DeLoitte Consulting.
For his efforts, which included taking his concerns to the public, Barrett was scolded by an angry Labor Secretary, Joanne Goldstein, who’s now ensconced at Northeastern University in an administrative post.
"She obviously tried to neutralize me," Barrett declared last week. Clearly, state officials were more concerned about bad publicity tarnishing their image than addressing the problems Barrett and other career-center leaders had identified.
A temporary spokesman for the Labor Department put out a statement a few days ago claiming that the state offered career centers extra staffing and support to cope with stymied seekers of unemployment benefits.
In an apparent contradiction, the spokesman, Robert Oftring, declared that "career center directors were encouraged to voice their concerns and offer suggestions about how to best structure the launch" of the website last July. But he added that Barrett and other directors were "encouraged to coordinate their public statements" with the state’s Department of Career Services.
The pattern seems obvious: Spin control takes priority over confronting and resolving problems that cause the public to lose confidence in government at all levels, from Washington to Boston to City Hall and Town Hall.
Deflecting blame and denying problems are obvious human traits. But we expect better of our elected or appointed leaders. Despite their vows of transparency and openness, too often their actions seem to be opaque and secretive.
"Reality of poverty hits close to home"
By Clarence Fanto, Special to The Berkshire Eagle, Opinion, 3/28/2014
One out of five children in Berkshire County lives in poverty.
That’s not a misprint. To be precise, it’s 21 percent, the third highest countywide poverty rate in the state for youngsters under 18. That grim news, and much more, is in the just-issued annual national report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, working with the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute. It’s the fifth year the foundation and institute have released statistics on economic and health indicators covering just about every county in the U.S.
Only two other Massachusetts counties have higher childhood poverty rates: Suffolk (Boston, Chelsea, Revere, Winthrop) with 26 percent and Hampden (including Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke and 20 more) with 31 percent. The statewide rate for youngsters is 15 percent. All figures announced this week are based on surveys compiled in 2012.
Another startling finding: In 2007, the child poverty rate in the Berkshires was 15 percent. Despite the supposed economic recovery since the Great Recession, we’re backsliding on this and other key measures of the county’s economic and physical health.
The report, well-worth checking out at the user-friendly website countyhealthrankings.org, includes many other measures of economic and social distress in our county, state and nation.
* The teen birth rate in Berkshire County, at 24 percent, is well above the statewide figure of 19 percent.
* Excessive drinking affects 21 percent of our county’s adults, compared to 10 percent in the state; the rate of auto-accident fatalities caused by impaired drivers is 28 percent in the Berkshires, double the 14 percent figure for Massachusetts.
* The national poverty rate for children was 23 percent in 2012, up sharply from 18 percent in 2007.
* 30 percent of children in our state live in single-parent homes; in Berkshire County, it’s 35 percent.
* Nearly 25 percent of U.S. families have inadequate or unaffordable living quarters. In Berkshire County, 17 percent of households report at least one severe housing problem, slightly better than the statewide rate of 19 percent.
* The national obesity rate for adults has soared from 18 percent in 1995 to 28 percent in 2012. In the Berkshires, it’s 22 percent, again a minor improvement from the state’s 24 percent rate.
Commenting on the national report’s findings, Abbey Cofsky, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told USA Today: "It sounds like it could be the 1800s or a Third World country."
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation encourages countywide cooperation for programs to battle childhood poverty and other problems. But Julie Wilson, a faculty specialist in poverty and family policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, has pointed out that historically, Massachusetts has resisted countywide solutions for community problems.
"Increasingly as we are watching poverty grow in the suburbs, a lot of the services for families are still in cities," Wilson told the Boston Globe. "In the western part of the state, you have a transportation problem. Think of how far you have to drive to go to a clinic or doctor, if you can even afford it, and about the cost of insurance and gas."
Wilson’s comments came before the shocking revelation on Tuesday that North Adams Regional Hospital and related medical facilities are slated for shutdown today.
Remarkably, economists continue to quibble over whether it can be proven that the tidal wave of income inequality sweeping our nation has a negative impact.
According to Prof. Christopher Jencks, a social policy specialist at Harvard, it’s hard to find specific evidence. But, in his recent book, "The Price of Inequality," the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote that "we are paying a high price for the inequality that is increasingly scarring our economy," adding that the income gap hampers growth and fosters economic instability.
Princeton economist Alan Krueger, former chief economic adviser to President Obama, popularized the "Great Gatsby Curve." As described in The New York Times, it argues that the wider the economic gap, the more likely children of poor parents would remain enmeshed in poverty as adults.
Some social scientists contend that severe inequality frays social bonds and impairs physical and mental health, while contributing to obesity and teen pregnancy, reduced life expectancy and a higher crime rate.
Commenting on the to and fro economic debate, New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter makes the case for closing the income gap, also known as redistribution of wealth, by pointing out that an extra $10,000 of annual income has a much greater impact on a middle-class family than losing the same amount would have on a billionaire.
"While the effect of widening inequality may be exaggerated by some research," Porter wrote this week, "there is decent evidence that it leads to other inequities -- in health and education, for instance. Given that much inequality is inherited, this strikes many of us as fundamentally unfair."
It’s hard to dispute statistics showing stagnant salaries for the lower and middle classes for the past 40 years, when adjusted for inflation, while the top 1 percent has thrived while purchasing political power through campaign financing, ensuring that the income gap will continue to widen with little or no hope of a change.
Even Jencks, the skeptical Harvard professor, told The Times: "Something that looks bad is coming at you. Saying that we shouldn’t do anything about it until we know for sure would be a bad response."
From this vantage point, that seems like tip-toeing around the truth. Denial of income inequality’s devastating effects is a head-in-the-sand reaction worthy of an ostrich. We can duck and run from reality, but we can’t hide.
"Berkshire population decline a growing challenge"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, December 27, 2014
LENOX - As Berkshire County leaders look ahead to 2015, they are confronting a challenge that seems to defy solutions while affecting nearly every aspect of life hereabouts: the wide-ranging impact of a shrinking population.
It's not a new problem, but it seems irreversible, at least for the time being. According to U.S. Census and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission studies, the county continues to lose residents at an accelerating rate.
In fact, according to the Boston Business Journal's deep dive into federal census profiles, the 10 Massachusetts communities that lost population the fastest between 2010 and 2013 are all in Berkshire County.
The five suffering the biggest declines — 2 percent — are, in order, Williamstown, North Adams, Hinsdale, Adams and Lanesborough. Five more saw declines of 1 percent: Richmond, Pittsfield, Great Barrington, West Stockbridge and Clarksburg. Pittsfield has the dubious distinction of losing the largest number of residents of any city or town in the state — 653 people departed between 2010 and 2013, leaving the current estimated total at 44,057.
Berkshire County as a whole lost about 1,300 people during that period, joining Franklin County just to our east as the only shrinking areas in the state.
Career prep crucial
In our exit interview with Gov. Deval Patrick, he noted the disparity, acknowledged a mismatch of job skills to available positions, and urged a step-up of career-preparation programs at Berkshire Community College for openings that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college's bachelor's degree.
In South Berkshire, there's an intense focus on figuring out how school districts and towns can share services in order to keep their budgets fairly level and avoid hefty property tax increases that are already bedeviling towns such as Great Barrington.
Lenox and Lee are actively exploring collaboration between their two steadily shrinking school districts. A joint meeting between the school boards of the two towns on Jan. 12 may provide some early clues.
"We should consider everything across the board, not just the schools," Lenox Select Board Chairman Channing Gibson said in a recent interview. "We have to make smart choices and when it comes to working with other towns, we should be taking every step we can to see if there's an opportunity to work together."
In his view, territorial concerns should not block the brainstorming. "It's a tough issue, a real challenge and a central concern of this Select Board," he said. "We hope we can find economies of scale wherever we can. Anything we can do to cut down on town expenses is important."
While he knows of no "magic bullets," Gibson cited the town's planned solar energy installation and a drive to increase rooms and meals tax revenue as steps that could help.
"I hope that no parochialism will keep us from at least having the discussions," he said. "Why not talk about it all, there might even be opportunities we haven't thought of yet. We have a great relationship with the municipal government in Lee, it just makes sense for us to be talking together."
Consolidation a given
Gibson believes it's inevitable that school consolidation will emerge sometime in the future, as the population decline continues. Unless that trend reverses dramatically — and there's no sign of that — it's hard to imagine that the state will continue to support four high schools south of Pittsfield, he asserted.
Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen sounded a similar theme. "We need to be aggressively looking at opportunities that present themselves," he said. "It's a conversation my counterparts in other communities and I have all the time, seeing when there are opportunities to consolidate and economize, municipal and schools. There's some right-sizing that has to take place at some point."
"Maybe we're treading water," he said of Lenox, "but we're surrounded by everything. Our population is static at best, and if you broaden it out to decades, we're on a downward population trend overall."
Regional planners predict a quickening of the population decline over the next 15 years and by 2060, unless trends are reversed, the county could see a loss of 50,000 people, bringing the total down to a worst-case scenario of 80,000.
Presenting commission findings to various groups around the county, Mark Maloy of the BRPC has linked the aging of the population to the continuing departure of people between 20 and 40, with very few young families arriving from outside the county.
"If demography is destiny, Berkshire County has a massive challenge that needs to be confronted and not deferred," Ketchen said.
The best and the brightest municipal, business and education leaders across the county might consider convening a wide-ranging summit meeting in the months ahead to seek some answers that could help us navigate through rough waters that threaten our area's future prospects.
Contact Clarence Fanto at email@example.com.
December 27, 2014
I read your latest column, above, about the decline in population in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. When I was a young man, 27, in late-May 2002 - mid-June 2003, I looked for a job in Pittsfield for over one year of my adult life with no success. I would go to BerkshireWorks on North Street in Pittsfield several times per week, go to job interviews, but no one in Pittsfield would offer me employment. I am going to be 40 next summer of 2015; I have lived in Southern New Hampshire since I was 28 in the Spring of 2004, or for the past decade. I now receive monthly annuity pensions from the Veterans Administration and Social Security Administration. I am a 100 percent disabled Veteran who served our nation Honorably in the U.S. Army from the Fall of 1999 - Summer of 2001. I was separated from the military two months prior to 9/11/2001. I wonder if I stayed in the Army, if I would have been deployed to a combat zone after 9/11/2001. Would I still be alive and turning 40? I also wonder if I had better odds of winning the multimillion dollar state lottery jackpot or finding a full time, living wage job in my native hometown of Pittsfield? I believe I had better odds winning the lottery! Those are horrible odds! To get a good job in Pittsfield, you have to be part of the Good Old Boy network. To be part of the Good Old Boy network, you have to come from one of the select multi-generational, interrelated, low gene pool Pittsfield families. My illustrative example is Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr. Nuciforo's late-dad was a Pittsfield State Senator and Probate Court Judge. Nuciforo's late-Aunt was a former Pittsfield Mayor and BCC Professor. Nuciforo's Uncle was a Pittsfield State Representative. No one (but me) in Pittsfield would dare speak out against all of Nuciforo's corruption and abuses of power in Pittsfield because he was feared. In the late-Winter of early 2004, I collected nomination signatures in Pittsfield to oppose Nuciforo for Berkshire State Senator. More than a few people told me they would have liked to sign my nomination papers, but they declined because they feared losing their jobs in Pittsfield. That is how politics and business is done in Pittsfield! Local people live in fear of people like Nuciforo and other Good Old Boys who control the system. No wonder Pittsfield is losing its population. We live in a free country, but not a free community in Pittsfield, Massachusetts! Look at this past year's elections in Berkshire County. Ben Downing, "Smitty" Pignatelli, and the rest of the Berkshire delegation all ran unopposed for re-election to Beacon Hill. The Berkshire District Attorney also ran unopposed in 2014. The Congressman from Springfield also ran unopposed in 2014. The game is rigged in Pittsfield politics. The system is corrupt and ran by local powerbrokers who rule by fear. As for me, I am happy I don't live in Pittsfield anymore because I was intimidated by top-down Pittsfield politicians like Nuciforo, who tried to jail me and get my dad fired from his Pittsfield courthouse job in the Spring of 1998 when I was 22. I was also the target of vicious, slanderous rumors by the Nuciforo network of henchmen bullies. Thank goodness there is a bigger World than little old Pittsfield!
- Jonathan Melle
“Cautious but meaningful first step for Lee, Lenox”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, 3/28/2015
LENOX - After six years of on-and-off, informal conversational tip-toeing about exploring shared services for two slowly shrinking school systems, the Lee and Lenox School Committees took a cautious but meaningful first step this past week.
In a 22-minute joint meeting, members voted unanimously to begin scoping out prospects for some form of collaboration, given the reality of budget challenges in the years ahead as costs go up while enrollment continues to decline.
No later than this October, a working group of six — three from each town's school board composed of the superintendent and two committee members — will report back on a potential shared services agreement.
On the table for discussion: Cost efficiencies, including some limited sharing of staff and possible central office collaboration.
Off the table: Regionalization and a shared superintendent, since the Lenox School Committee has promoted Timothy Lee from an interim appointment to a full contract through June 2017. The Lee board hopes to extend interim Superintendent Al Skrocki, retired head of the Adams-Cheshire district, for a third and presumably final year as it seeks a longer-term solution.
Bottom line: Each school district will maintain its own identity and full independence, a top priority of residents surveyed by each town in their separate strategic studies.
The progress and end result will be closely watched by Berkshire school districts that confront enrollment erosion and budgetary pressures. If Lee and Lenox reach a meaningful agreement, it could serve as a model for other school systems.
All this is supposed to unfold with full transparency in public meetings, consultations with faculty and staff, sessions with their bargaining units as well as with legal counsel for each school committee.
Any cross-district collaboration is uncharted territory, and there's no guarantee of a successful outcome.
But there's no denying the significance of the effort to make each district financially sustainable while maintaining individual strengths. The school budgets for 2015-16 to be approved at town meetings this spring appear to be in good shape. But a year or two beyond, it may well be crunch time — in Lenox, town leaders are already discussing how to close a likely budget gap in 2017-18 and beyond.
The Group of Six will submit their findings to each town's school board for consideration. The three reps from Lenox are Superintendent Lee, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan and committee member Francie Sorrentino. The Lee committee will appoint two members to join interim Superintendent Skrocki.
At the joint meeting of the two committees, as seen on CTSB's on-demand telecast, Chairwoman Susan Harding of the Lee board made it clear that her town's proposed school budget for 2015-16 is secure.
"We are happy to say we are not operating from a position of feeling like the building's on fire, we're in good shape," said Harding, noting that staffing, services and programs are preserved.
The Lenox budget plan also maintains services and staff at current levels, thanks to deft financial planning by the administration and a close working relationship between Superintendent Lee and Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen.
Significantly, each town comes into the search for collaboration without any imminent sense of crisis.
But there should be a sense of urgency to avoid a day of reckoning as hard-pressed taxpayers seek to stem year-by-year rate increases.
Harding emphasized this point, citing a push from Lee residents to attack unsustainable expenses and to review the structure and operating methods of the town's school system through an aggressive investigation of potential savings with Lenox.
"Everybody agreed something had to change," Harding explained, "but there was absolutely no clear consensus on which way we should go."
A shared services goal is also a likely priority once the Lenox School Committee completes its review of the strategic study that began 18 months ago.
The ideal outcome of the Lee-Lenox discussions would be a clear agreement that both towns could embrace in time to plan their 2016-17 school budgets.
If the deal is meaningful with significant staff sharing wherever possible and appropriate, the payoff is bound to benefit residents of both towns who have signaled that positive change is not a choice but a necessity.
Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto.
March 28, 2015
Re: Open Letter to Clarence Fanto
Dear Clarence Fanto:
I read your latest column about possible collaboration between Lee and Lenox School Committees regarding their shrinking school districts. You write that costs are going up, while enrollment continues to decline. Their collaboration may serve as a model for other Berkshire County school districts. Lenox town officials are forecasting future budget deficits. Local financing of school districts will be unsustainable in the future. Shared services among municipalities may offset these future costs.
When I was a graduate student at U Mass Amherst in 1998, I did a term paper on how the 1980 referendum state law Proposition 2.5 impacted local governments. From what I recall of my research, a unit of local government should set an optimal tax rate to manage and fund its public services, especially its public school system. When Proposition 2.5 was implemented in 1981, Massachusetts took away its only main funding source for its public schools. To this date in the Spring of 2015, Massachusetts never replaced this main funding source. Ergo, Proposition 2.5 fails to allow local governments to set an optimal tax rate, and there is no reliable funding source for public education in Massachusetts.
There are very wealthy suburban municipalities in Massachusetts outside of Boston, in addition to wealthy private secondary schools. To buy a home in Wellesley, the median price is around one million dollars. The average working stiff can't afford to live there. Yet, these kind of suburbs off "public education" with performance results better than their private school counterparts. Proposition 2.5 serves these wealthy Massachusetts communities well, while doing a disservice to constrained communities.
The answer to maintaining adequate public schools in Massachusetts is to repeal elitist laws like Proposition 2.5, while implementing a reliable funding mechanism that allows municipalities and school districts to set an optimal tax rate.
"Lenox budget sees slight tax hike for 2016, red flags for future"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, March 30, 2015
LENOX - With some additional tweaks, the town's final budget proposal to be submitted to annual town meeting voters continues to project a 1.5 percent tax increase for property owners with no change in municipal services.
Under that scenario, current capital improvements can be funded, as well as a payment into the $1.4 million fund set aside for municipal retirees' health insurance, while avoiding a dip into the town's $4.2 million in reserves, said Town Manager Christopher Ketchen in a recent update for the Select Board.
But he sounded a strong cautionary note beyond the upcoming fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1.
"The struggle for Lenox is not FY '16," he emphasized. "We continue to look down the barrel of fiscal challenges, primarily in FY '18 and beyond. Fiscally, we can keep doing what we've been doing in '16, successfully in a responsible way. But it's the out years that have me concerned, and it's a structural issue. We're getting hit on multiple fronts and we need to start planning now."
Filling the gap with reserves is not an option, Ketchen said.
He cited a $350,000 hole projected for the fiscal 2018 budget and every year thereafter because state reimbursements for the town's 1998 middle and high school building expansion project will be ending as the 20-year bond is paid off.
Other factors include rising health insurance costs. "We were able to get over that speed bump," he said, "but it's going to come back next year and there will be other inflationary pressures."
Future infrastructure needs also play into the scenario, Ketchen added, as well as any strategic projects the town might consider.
But for the upcoming year, he said, "we'll do right by the taxpayers on the tax rate," while town sewer and water users will face no rate increase for the first time in 20 years.
The fiscal 2016 town budget request is for $27.7 million, up $300,000 or 1.1 percent from the current year. School Department spending would be $11.9 million, about 42 percent of the town budget, not including benefits. The proposed school budget increase is 4.1 percent above the current year.
For the average home valued at $372,000, the tax bill is expected to be about $4,740.
Looking several years ahead, Select Board Chairman Channing Gibson said he does not want to fill that $350,000 shortfall through tax increases.
"We'll be looking for efficiencies, trying not to change services," he said, "but I don't want to say, 'Oh well, that's 2 percentage points on your taxes;' that's not the way I want to approach it."
Approaches from the Lee School Committee to consider sharing school services with Lenox have put "more pressure on us to be receptive, to take a hard look at those offers and try to work with other communities so that we can in fact save money without putting extra pressure on the local taxpayers," Selectman David Roche said.
Gibson voiced fear that if offers from other towns to achieve efficiencies are spurned, opportunities will be lost.
"The other communities like Lee are talking to us for a reason," he said. "They need to fix a structural problem in their budgets and if we're not going to be a partner in those solutions for them, then they'll find another partner and I don't know what we're going to do."
"We're going to be an island with rising water," Roche said.
Frank discussions with all the town's department heads are needed, Selectman Edward Lane said. "Maybe there are different ways to do business, hire things out rather than do them in-house," he said. "There are so many different things we can do, but we can't be afraid of change to plug this hole. We have to look at it and get everybody on board."
He also cited streamlined economic development through proposed zoning revisions and expected growth in lodging tax revenues to help boost the town's bottom line.
Gibson called for detailed information to be presented to the public, adding that he's pleased that the Select Board is seeing "real budget projections" prepared by Ketchen and his staff.
"We're ahead of the game," he said. "So now is the time to start finding solutions to some of these curves in the road that we know are lying ahead of us."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551. email@example.com @BE_cfanto on Twitter.
“Open Meeting Law aims to prevent disruptions”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, April 11, 2015
LENOX - It may come as a surprise to some, but speaking out at a city or town public meeting is a privilege, not a right.
Those who take undue advantage of the privilege, or abuse it, should take note of the state attorney general's Open Meeting Law document, which is easy to peruse online.
In an era when the bounds of civility and decent behavior have been sorely tested, meetings of the Pittsfield City Council and the Hinsdale Select Board, among other communities, have been disrupted too often.
Elsewhere, on controversial proposals from resort developers, opponents have been allowed to ramble on and on.
In one particularly egregious example during a Lenox zoning board public hearing on the still-unresolved Elm Court Resort special permit application, a local resident impugned the integrity of town officials.
He also claimed, inaccurately, that board members had failed to read all the correspondence from the public. For that, he was set straight by the acting board chair, Shawn Leary Considine.
The Open Meeting Law states in plain language that "an individual may not address the public body without permission of the chair. An individual may not disrupt a meeting of a public body, and at the request of the chair, all members of the public shall be silent. If, after clear warning, a person continues to be disruptive, the chair may order the person to leave the meeting."
The law also states that if the disruptive individual does not leave, the chair "may authorize a constable or other officer to remove the person."
That actually happened in Hinsdale, the scene of many fractious meetings, when Board Chairwoman Bonnie Conner had to call in the state police to restore order. For that, and for limiting public comment, she has been pilloried by some in town and faces a recall election in June or July that could remove her from the position.
To be clear, while public comment is governed by a board chairman, the attorney general "encourages public bodies to allow as much public participation as time permits."
That's essential to New England-style grass-roots democracy, and as long as the public abides by the rules of decorum, reasonable discussion is a welcome element of local government.
In Pittsfield, City Council President Melissa Mazzeo should be applauded for her plan to propose new rules on public discussion. No wonder, since local resident Craig Gaetani, now a candidate for mayor, refused to abide by the three-minute comment limit at council meetings, claiming he had been chosen by five other residents to speak on their behalf for up to 15 more minutes.
Mazzeo intends to seek formal adoption of the Open Meeting Law section on public comment — in effect, underscoring and emphasizing the importance of the state's rules. It's unfortunate, but probably necessary in light of recent experience, that she also seeks to have a police presence at all meetings.
Surely, as a recent Eagle editorial suggested, no election campaign speeches can be allowed, nor can a speaker seek to represent others by proxy.
As The Eagle's Jim Therrien reported, at the March 24 meeting when Gaetani refused to yield the microphone, Mazzeo and a police officer who was there on another matter warned Gaetani that if he continued to be disruptive, he would be ejected. That settled the matter, and the council's discussion of the city's business resumed without further incident following a brief recess.
Gaetani has a history of verbal disputes with Mazzeo and also disrupted a Pittsfield Human Rights Commission meeting last July, forcing it to adjourn after he declined to yield the floor.
These cases alert the public that meetings cannot be a verbal free-for-all. Council and board chairs have the right to set time constraints on comments, and they should — whether it's three minutes, five or some other limit.
On powder keg issues such as resort proposals that require multiple meetings, individuals should have the right to make their case, pro or con, but once. Allowing diehard opponents and proponents to reappear time and again, restating their already familiar augments, only delays decisions.
Even developers have the right to due process. Anyone who seeks to hijack a public discussion needs to be reminded of the law. If, despite warnings, they refuse to abide by the rules of the game, they should be thrown off the playing field.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org
April 12, 2015
Re: Clarence Fanto and the iron rule of Oligarchy
Clarence Fanto endorses police state politics in local government meetings in Pittsfield to control citizens who speak out against his or her perceived problems with Pittsfield politics. What Clarence Fanto is really endorsing is the iron rule of Oligarchy, which means that a few wolves always lead the many sheep. No matter what form of government is in place from Hitler’s police state in 1930′s Nazi Germany to the most grassroots New England town meeting where everyone is encouraged to participate, and every other system in between the two, the iron rule of Oligarchy puts the power in the hands of a few powerful people, while everyone else follows.
My dad and I upset the powers that be in local and state politics in Western Massachusetts a little less than 20 years ago when we spoke out about the state’s takeover of Berkshire County government. Of course, the Berkshire Eagle was on the side of the state government; nothing changes there. The local and state Oligarchs made life tough for me and my family back then. Since the Spring of 1996 when I was 20 years old, the Nuciforo network had people bully me without leaving behind the powerbrokers’ own fingerprints. From the Fall of 1997 to the Spring of 1998, the Nuciforo network file multiple “ethics” complaints against my dad to attempt to get my dad fired from his then state government job at the Pittsfield courthouse. When that didn’t work, the Nuciforo network filed false complaints with the Pittsfield Police Department in the Spring of 1998 to try to put me in the Berkshire Sheriff Carmen Massimiano’s Pittsfield jail. From the Spring of 2002 to the beginning of Summer of 2003, I spent a little more than one year of my adult life looking for a job in Pittsfield, but no one offered me employment. I felt like I was blacklisted by the Oligarchs. In 2005, the Nuciforo network spread vicious false rumors against me to the people of Pittsfield. Until this day, no one from the Nuciforo network has apologized to me or my family.
What’s my point? The local and state government Oligarch’s retaliate against citizens who participate in their government. If a local citizen participates in their government, they may lose their job and financial security. If he or she really upsets the Oligarchs, they may be blacklisted from finding a new job. I experienced it all as a young adult living in the Pittsfield area. Now, Clarence Fanto believes further reinforcing police state politics will improve the political process in Pittsfield politics. What about the fact that last year in 2014, not one of the state government elections were contested. Ben Downing, “Smitty” Pignatelli, et al, all ran unopposed. If Ben Downing or “Smitty” Pignatelli has a challenger in next year’s election of 2016, perhaps Clarence Fanto will support a police officer standing next to the citizen in the voting booth to ensure “proper procedures” are followed.
As long as the Oligarchs are in line with Clarence Fanto’s views, let Pittsfield politics implement police state politics to ensure an efficient, effective, and unaccountable procedural system of government. Clarence Fanto stands not for democracy and citizen participation, but rather, he supports the iron rule of Oligarchy that plagues every system of government known to humankind!
- Jonathan Melle
“America fiddles amid cycle of mass killings, hatred”
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, By Clarence Fanto, June 20, 2015
LENOX - "America's disease" was the headline emblazoned across the front page of the New York Daily News on Friday. It was no exaggeration.
The horrific massacre of nine African-Americans during a Wednesday night prayer service at the 1823 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., is among the worst hate-crime rampages this country has seen in at least 60 years. It also demonstrates, yet again, the evils of gun violence in a nation awash in weapons.
The perpetrator, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, has confessed to the crime. He is a white-supremacist with a long history of psychopathic threats.
Roof told a friend six months ago that blacks were "taking over the country" and that he planned to try to start a civil war.
The infamy of Roof's crazed attack that took the lives of a senior pastor who had been a well-respected state senator for 10 years, three ministers, a librarian, a track coach, a recent college graduate, 26, and a grandmother, 87, is reverberating across the country. It recalls the revulsion that swept the nation in March 1965 when peaceful protesters were attacked during a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
Although Roof was acting alone, last Wednesday's Charleston Massacre also reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church in September 1963. Four Klansmen used 15 sticks of dynamite, triggering the explosion killed four young girls and injuring 22 other people.
Dr. Martin Luther King, who later preached at the Charleston church, described it at the time as "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity." Not until 1977 was one Klansman convicted of first-degree murder; two others were convicted in 2001 and 2002, and the fourth who died in 1994 was never charged.
Outside the Charleston jail where Roof was booked on Thursday evening, 15-year-old Hikaym Rivers was spotted holding a sign written in black ink: "Your evil doing did not break our community! You made us stronger!"
Noble sentiments. But sadly, a 35-year-old taxi driver nearby offered a more realistic view. "The question that I have is, is it going to happen again?" asked Jeremy Dye in a New York Times interview "It's always going to be fear. People in Charleston are going to have that fear now forever. It's not going to wash away. They're going to be worried about, 'OK, when's the next church going to get hit?' "
It's hard to avoid feeling despair, given the litany of racial incidents that we've witnessed in recent years. A recent poll found that 61 percent of Americans view race relations as "bad," the most negative outlook in 20 years. There were 5,928 hate crimes in the United States last year, according to the FBI. Many more go unreported.
For the 14th time during his presidency, a somber Barack Obama appeared at the White House as Consoler-in-Chief, but this time his words reflected frustration bordering on well-contained outrage before his obligatory, inspirational effort to rally the nation's spirits.
"There is something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship," he said. "Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery. This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America."
Noting the history of attacks on black churches, "a dark part of our history," the president acknowledged that "hatred across races and faiths poses a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals."
"I've had to make statements like this too many times," he continued. "Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun."
Then, in the most widely shared sound bite, Mr. Obama declared: "At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it."
But we live in a nation where the Senate refused to approve modest gun-safety legislation four months after the Newtown, Conn., massacre of schoolchildren and teachers.
So, President Obama conceded that "the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it's going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively."
But that point is nowhere in sight. The shock of this latest crime against humanity will wear off, and it will be back to business as usual — killing people, often motivated by racism, in a country where it's easier to obtain guns and ammo than a driver's license.
Mr. Obama has 18 months left in office. How many more times will he have to speak out in the grim aftermath of gun violence.
Will anything change for the better? I fear not, but I'd love to be proven wrong.
Contact Clarence Fanto at email@example.com
“Pittsfield leaders need to rise to the challenges facing city”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, August 8, 2015
LENOX - "Things seem crazy in Pittsfield," an acquaintance in law enforcement told me this past week after reading about the Pittsfield father, 47, found dead with his daughter, 11, in what police first described as a possible murder-suicide at a home on Plunkett Street.
The mysterious case is the third major violent crime this summer. Many local residents appear to be badly shaken and there's widespread concern elsewhere in the county about public safety and security in the city's downtown area.
The first incident involved a pair of late-night July 4 shootings that left Ronald Pinel, 25, dead and four other people wounded on the city's West Side, a block from North Street. The circumstances and motives remain mysterious, apparently because people who may have information have not cooperated with police investigators.
'SILENCE IS THEIR ALLY'
As District Attorney David F. Capeless put it, "gunplay and violence are abhorrent to any community, but silence is their ally." As of this writing, no arrests have been made.
If anything, the midday shooting near 147 Tyler St. on Friday, July 31, was even more disturbing to people in the commercial area adjacent to the Morningside residential neighborhood. The outbreak claimed the life of Keenan S. Pellott, Jr., 18, and wounded a second male victim, 17. It took place near a popular ice cream stand and other businesses frequented by many passersby, including Berkshire Medical Center workers on their lunch break.
At least in that case, a suspect, Thomas Lee Newman Jr., 18, is being held locally without bail after his arrest in Utica, N.Y., last Sunday.
But people in the area, and beyond, were deeply upset at the thought of bullets flying at lunchtime in the downtown area's second-busiest main drag.
"There's a lot of people coming in here saying they're fed up with it," an employee of a nearby variety store said. "These kids are getting out of hand. And that's the thing: They're kids. [Authorities] need to start going after the guns and busting up these so-called gangs."
After the incident, Mayor Daniel Bianchi was quoted as saying he did not consider the shootings "to represent a threat to the general public."
That aroused the ire of a Dalton resident who works at the BMC emergency room. In a letter to The Eagle, she wrote that she and her colleagues were "working frantically under a lockdown in fear that there may be retaliations at our workplace. Resources are desperately needed to turn this level of violence around! It's time to take your head out of the sand!"
In fairness to the mayor, he probably meant that he believed there was no shooter at large in the city bent on targeting random citizens, though the suspect was still being sought. But some people considered his reaction tone-deaf at best, and complacent or uncaring at worst.
The image and perception of Pittsfield is in sad shape. One can only imagine how the owners of the newly opened Hotel on North feel, as well as the leaders of Barrington Stage, whose second, small playhouse is uncomfortably close to the scene of two late-evening July 4 shootings, less than an hour apart.
The city's downtown resurgence, aimed partly at tourists, is jeopardized if potential patrons of the theaters, cinema, restaurants, shops and the hotel believe they are not safe.
Complicating the issue is the campaign season with its hotly contested mayoral race. Any effort to turn the summer of violence into a political football only adds to the sense of unease.
In my opinion, city leaders have to snap into action. Bianchi and his leading challenger, City Clerk Linda Tyer, should put partisan differences aside and convene a task force of highly motivated leaders. The 10 or so members must include Police Chief Wynn, Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler (a former city police detective), DA Capeless, city councilors representing the West Side and Morningside areas, and carefully selected representatives of churches and neighborhood groups.
They should hold a series of emergency sessions, with at least one open to the public under strict rules of civility, and meet as long as it takes to come up with a multi-point, credible action plan that commits more resources to public safety and forges closer connections with community members who can offer constructive suggestions.
There are gangs in the city and a scourge of heroin and prescription drugs. Citizens will be reassured only when they see specific steps being taken. Additional "zero tolerance" patrols in the two neighborhoods, announced Friday by the mayor, could help, but beefing up the understaffed city police force should be seriously considered.
Candidate Tyer's proposals to step up code enforcement, fight neighborhood blight, and commit up to $500,000 for a crime prevention program are worth exploring. Her ideas carry the endorsement of the esteemed former police chief and ex-City Council President Gerald Lee, and that carries a lot of weight, in my view.
Granted, it may be unrealistic to expect that politics won't play a role.
After all, voters will judge severely an incumbent if he's perceived to be all talk and no action — as unfair as that may be. They will be unimpressed by challengers who fling accusations at the mayor without following through on their own specific proposals to restore calm to a roiled city by enhancing public safety. Never mind the well-intentioned reassurances.
If leaders are serious about restoring the city's damaged image, the burden of proof is on them to confront and deal with the reality that Pittsfield is seen as crime-ridden.
Our communities have always been considered a relatively safe harbor from so much that's wrong elsewhere. Let's keep it that way.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
Clarence Fanto: “Talking heads are no saviors for struggling middle class America”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, September 19, 2015
LENOX - No wonder so many less-than-affluent Americans are frustrated, bitter, even enraged, and are focusing, at least temporarily, on far-out candidates of the right and left and, even more worrisome, to a mogul-entertainer and clearly unqualified presidential wannabes.
The economy is stagnant at best for most folks below the top 10 percent, as a new U.S. Census Bureau report demonstrates in no uncertain terms. That explains why the Federal Reserve decided this past week to keep interest rates scraping along at 0.14 percent, barely above zero.
The details don't make for pleasant reading, but it's important to understand why the middle class and the impoverished feel alienated from the political system and are in a surly mood as they watch the 16 Republican presidential pretenders engage in mouth-to-mouth combat on TV. (Nearly 23 million viewed the marathon CNN debate on Wednesday night.)
Here's the No. 1 takeaway from the Census Bureau study: A middle-income American family makes less than at the turn of the century. In 1999, the median household income was just below $58,000 in today's dollars, adjusted for inflation. In 2014, it was $53,660, down from $54,500 in 2013. And last year, it was 6.5 percent lower than in 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession.
The number of households with income above the median is equal to the number below it, so the statistic is considered the best barometer measuring the economic condition of the middle class.
Among the other eye-openers in the report:
• The poverty rate remains at just below 15 percent of the population (26 percent for blacks, 10 percent for non-Hispanic whites), nearly 47 million people. A family of four with income below $24,230 was classified as impoverished last year — $12,070 for an individual.
• About 10 percent of households had incomes above $157,480 last year, while 5 percent had incomes above $206,570. At the other end, 10 percent of households had incomes less than $12,280.
• The indefensible gap in earnings between men and women has been virtually unchanged since 2007. In 2014, median earnings for full-time, year-round working women were $39,600, 78 percent of men's earnings, which were $50,400. In 2007, it was 79 percent.
These bleak findings may explain some of the political furor going on in the country, according to Lawrence Mishel, president and CEO of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "Anyone wondering why people in this country are feeling so ornery need look no further than this report," he said. "Wages have been broadly stagnant for a dozen years and median household income peaked in 1999."
Although unemployment is at an eight-year low of 5.1 percent, Mishel pointed out that "despite decent employment growth in 2014, the persistent high unemployment yielded no improvements in wages and no improvement in the median incomes of working-age households or any reduction in poverty."
A leading Republican economic strategist, the misguided U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, called the report a wake-up call for Congress to revamp antipoverty programs.
"Rather than just treating the symptoms of poverty, our goal must be to help people move from welfare into work and self-sufficiency," he said in a statement. "Our current approach to fighting poverty, though well-intended, is failing too many Americans. This disappointing data, five years into an economic recovery, underscores the need for a new effort to modernize our country's safety net programs."
Asked to explain the discouraging survey, Edward Welniak, a Census Bureau income statistician, pointed to a 1.2 million increase last year in non-family households, which typically have much lower income than family households.
"This increase in households at the lower end of the income distribution tended to hold down median household income," he told reporters.
Presidential hopefuls from both parties are falling all over each other to portray themselves as saviors of middle America.
Their proposed solutions differ drastically, of course, and if the moderators of TV news debates would stop goading the candidates into blood-sport gladiators for the sake of eyeballs and clicks, we could see a meaningful discussion emerge on how to restore the American Dream that's so elusive to so many that they're coming close to giving up on our system.
There's one encouraging glimmer in the Census Bureau survey — President Obama's Affordable Care Act has cut the number of uninsured citizens to 10.4 percent of the population, a big improvement from 13.3 percent in 2013, as nearly nine million people acquired coverage. In Massachusetts, only 3.3 percent lack health insurance.
That's worth cheering, for a moment. But the overall economy is still ailing, and urgent care is called for.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrea Wadsworth, who was appointed to be the new Lenox treasurer, is pursuing an master's in business administration at UMass-Dartmouth. She also is a farmer with show horses and 12 Nigerian Dwarf goats. (Clarence Fanto — The Berkshire Eagle)
“Lenox appoints longtime Lee resident as new treasurer”
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, October 5, 2015
LENOX - She's an award-winning pastry chef with her own business since 1991, A.W. Confections, specializing in wedding and other special-occasion cakes.
She's a farmer with show horses and 12 Nigerian Dwarf goats. She rises at 4 a.m. in time for the 5 a.m. feeding and turnout at the family farm in Becket. Her daughter is an equestrian rider.
"I like to be busy," Andrea Wadsworth said last week after the Lenox Select Board sealed her appointment as the new, full-time town treasurer.
Wadsworth, a 1989 graduate of Lee High School and a resident of the town since her early teens, also is chairwoman of the Lee School Committee.
Until recently, she had served for nearly five years as the senior accounting coordinator and business office accountant in the Stockbridge central office of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. She has been a cheerleading instructor at Monument Valley Middle School in Great Barrington, owner-operator of the Spin Studio in Lee, and is a nationally certified aerobics instructor.
Recommending her appointment to the Lenox Select Board on Wednesday night, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen noted that recruitment for the treasurer's position began in July, in line with the town's succession strategy aimed at a "substantial period of overlap between tenures."
"We received a very robust response," Ketchen said, with about 20 applications received followed by interviews with several "highly qualified" candidates.
"Despite the broad net that was cast not only locally but statewide, there was an application and interview that clearly rose to the top," Ketchen said. "She is highly qualified, not only in terms of her financial skill and acumen but also in her continued pursuit of additional professional credentialing."
As Ketchen put it, "She has a dedication and passion for public service and is an outstanding candidate in what was a very competitive applicant pool."
A 1989 graduate of Lee High School, Wadsworth earned an associate degree in business administration from Berkshire Community College in 1991, and a summa cum laude bachelor of science degree, also in business administration, from Westfield State University earlier this year.
She is currently pursuing a master's degree in business administration from the UMass-Dartmouth and may seek a Ph.D in public administration from Penn State University.
Wadsworth began her career as financial analyst for Mead Corp. in Lee from 1987-93 and was business manager for the College Internship Program, also in Lee, for two years beginning in October 2008.
She succeeds Marie C. "Claudie" Duby, the current town treasurer and assistant town clerk. Duby, who is retiring in January, was elected part-time treasurer in 1987, was appointed to the post in 1994 following a change in the town charter, and became the full-time treasurer and clerk in 1998.
"I'm very excited to work here," Wadsworth told enthusiastic members of the Select Board, citing the "opportunity to work with Claudie before she leaves; she has a bevy of information I can absorb, listen to and take in. There's huge, huge value in that. It's great that can happen for the town of Lenox."
Acknowledging her love for numbers, she described herself as "a great people person, so it gives me a unique perspective on things."
The Select Board unanimously ratified Wadsworth's appointment as town treasurer-designate as of Oct. 26, and town treasurer, effective Jan. 18, 2016.
"Perfect, I'm excited," said Wadsworth. "Thank you very much, I'm honored."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551. email@example.com @BE_cfanto
“In light of Sabic's departure , leaders must attract new business”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, October 10, 2015
PITTSFIELD - Yet another severe blow to the Berkshire economy — that's the only way to describe confirmation on Thursday of what many employees of Saudi Basic Industries Corp. have been talking about for many weeks.
The announcement that Sabic Innovative Plastics, majority-owned by the Saudi government, is leaving Pittsfield as part of its 10-year global strategy came as a shock, even though speculation has been swirling about the plan to relocate the North American headquarters to its company-owned facilities in Houston. The company has been leasing the former GE Plastics complex here since it bought the business for $11.6 billion in 2007.
The loss of at least 300 jobs is the biggest setback for the county since the shutdown of North Adams Regional Hospital in March 2014 (530 full- and part-time jobs cut, though many people were rehired by Berkshire Health Systems) and the demise of KB Toys in early 2009, putting about 270 staffers out of work.
How many of Sabic's Pittsfield employees will be offered transfers to Houston remains unknown. Relocating to the Texas metropolis may prove too much to bear for some, since that city is almost like another planet — as opposite to Berkshire lifestyle, climate, culture and environment as can be imagined.
Some Sabic staffers hope for relocation to Selkirk, N.Y., just south of Albany, where the company plans to maintain its existing plant.
THREE DISTINCT 'ROLES'
Sabic divides its employees into three distinct "roles," according to what we hear. Those who deal directly with sales and customers, the front-line staffers, are the most likely to be offered transfers to Houston, the energy and petrochemical center of the nation. Back-office types who deal with technology and other services face an uncertain future, unless some can be transferred to Selkirk. Those whose jobs are specifically tied to the Pittsfield complex may be out of luck.
The corporate reorganization is expected to be completed by Jan. 1. Jodi Kennedy, the company's local spokeswoman, told reporters that by mid-2016 no one expects Sabic to retain a presence in Pittsfield of any significance.
Kennedy also told the Times Union newspaper in Albany that some employees not offered posts in Houston may go to other existing Sabic facilities, though she added, "some roles may no longer be needed."
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, declared flatly that "by the middle of 2016 there will be no more Sabic jobs in Berkshire County. It's so disappointing because we've worked so hard to draw these jobs."
In addition to cost-cutting, according to the trade publication Plastics News, the decision was driven by "the differing technology priorities of commodity and specialty businesses" and by making the company "more responsive to customers' needs."
"It's absolutely devastating a punch in the gut," said City Councilor John Krol. "These are 300 individuals who have families, who have kids in our schools, who have been paying mortgages for years in our city, and our housing stock will be hurt."
HELP WITH TRANSITION
Mayor Daniel Bianchi told reporters that "there's a lot of school children that are going to be affected because their moms and dads work at Sabic." He described the company's decision as final and acknowledged that no one at the federal or local level could have altered the outcome. However, state or federal agencies could assist with the transition, he added.
"I feel very confident saying we have some tremendously talented elected officials who are willing and ready to help us any way we need it," he said.
Along those lines, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, posted a statement on his Facebook page: "I share the shock, frustration and disappointment of all upon hearings the news about Sabic's decision to leave Pittsfield. My office will work with any and all impacted to lessen the pain from this blow and help our city recover,"
Remarkably, the subject did not come up at Thursday evening's mayoral debate, but candidate Linda Tyer issued a statement on Friday expressing her dismay over the extensive economic impact and promising "a serious economic development plan with and for our community that is both aggressive and sustainable. Now is the time to rally the best minds and leaders to improve the business environment and showcase that Pittsfield really is a great place to live and work."
At a midday news conference on Friday, Mayor Bianchi emphasized a shift toward smaller businesses, retraining the employees who will choose not to relocate and using the BerkshireWorks job center on North Street and other resources to try to place them in local jobs that match their skills.
Obviously, residents are deeply upset at the news from Sabic. "It's a tragedy for the community," Frank Farkas told NewsChannel13. "It's good jobs, engineering jobs and we need those jobs in the Berkshires."
"It's going to affect local businesses tremendously," said City Councilor Barry Clairmont, a local business owner. "Their sales will go down, everyone will make less money, value of houses will drop. This is a devastating blow to the community."
MORE DIVERSIFIED CITY
It also closes the book on more than a century of history in Pittsfield. In 1903, General Electric Co. bought the Stanley Electric Manufacturing plant and began making plastic resins six years later. For several decades beginning in the 1940s, total GE employment in the city was an amazing 13,000.
Although the county's manufacturing base is deeply eroded, General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems still employs about 1,500 people in Pittsfield.
The city's economy has become increasingly diversified — more small business, tourism, culture and services.
But there's no immediate solution for the Sabic employees who will become jobless, as well as its independent contractors who service the facility. The ripple effect on the city, Lenox and Dalton — where most of the company workers live — will be massive, more like a tidal wave.
As Downing put it in an Eagle interview, "I understand they are obligated to make their decisions based on their global strategies, and the cold comfort is that it had nothing to do with what we have to offer in Pittsfield. But that doesn't help the affected families. It's going to have an impact on hospitals, schools, the housing market and the community."
Once the inevitable hand-wringing is over, the county's government, business and political leaders will need to come up with a strategy. Since there's no rabbit-in-the-hat solution, what's required is a cooperative effort to offer the needed, appropriate incentives to woo new businesses to the region.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Shameful action by Lenox library board”
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters, October 22, 2015
To the editor:
Regarding Clarence Fanto's recent article about the demise of the director of the Lenox Library: For shame!
We have been Lenox residents for the last 27 years and we have found our library to be one of Lenox's greatest assets. The library had been a disaster before Sharon Hawkes became its director. Her departure, for whatever reason, is a terrible disappointment to me and the community.
The library is place for learning, sharing ideas and a wonderful place for solitude. Shouldn't the library board consider this more important than raising money? I do.
Helen Fink, Lenox
Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: “Shared leadership a daunting but worthwhile challenge”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, 2/14/2016
LENOX - One of the most significant Berkshire County stories this year — not necessarily tweet-worthy or likely to go viral on social media, but critical nonetheless — will be the progress made toward shared services among towns and school districts.
There are some promising signs. The driving force involving potential collaborations between adjoining school districts and, most importantly, among the towns of Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, is the need to achieve efficiency and stabilize costs to taxpayers as the county's aging population continues to shrink.
Ongoing challenges include the debate over the cost of the urgently needed rehabilitation of Mount Greylock Regional High School and the cost-sharing involving Williamstown and Lanesborough residents.
Similarly, Monument Mountain Regional High in Great Barrington remains in dire need of major renovations despite rejection by the town's taxpayers of a revamp that would have been largely backed by state funding.
GET IT DONE RIGHT
The Lee-Tyringham School Union was headed toward a potential shared superintendency, either Peter Dillon of the Berkshire Hills district or Timothy Lee of Lenox, until it applied the brakes for another year of study. No criticism: It's most important to get this done correctly, even if it takes another year.
The crucial element for any collaboration agreement, whether it involves schools or town leadership, is buy-in from local residents, and that may prove a stumbling block.
Dillon's application to split his time between Berkshire Hills — whose students come from Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge — and the Lee schools had the enthusiastic support of his school board. In Lenox, Superintendent Lee's pursuit of the same potential collaboration met with some skepticism from that town's school committee.
The cause of the delay appears to be the Lee School Committee's need to take some time to determine whether it wants the town's schools to partner with a similar-size district in Lenox or whether the committee is willing to marry into the larger Berkshire Hills group, with a possible loss of identity and autonomy.
Perhaps the most promising potential collaboration on the not-so-distant horizon is the agreement by town leaders in Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge to begin considering whether a town manager/chief financial officer for all three communities is a workable and desirable idea.
Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen is the obvious candidate, since the greatly admired town administrator in Stockbridge, Jorja-Ann P. Marsden, is retiring in July, and Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason plans to do the same in June 2017.
A FIRST STEP
Last week, the Selectboards in all three towns approved a request for free technical guidance from the State Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services. To the best of our knowledge, a tri-town manager would be a first, or one of the first, in Massachusetts, though smaller towns often share part-time administrators formerly known as circuit riders.
This is a first step, nothing more at this point. While it's not clear whether a tri-town manager would have to be approved by town meetings in each of the three communities, it's obvious that strong public support would be necessary.
Winning that support could be a tall order, but not impossible, especially if taxpayers can be presented with specifics on how the towns would benefit on the bottom line.
We live in contentious times. Some citizens will throw ice water on the idea, arguing that running each town is a full-time job, and then some.
It will be up to the leaders in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge to demonstrate that, with the help of a human resources officer or well-qualified deputy administrators, a dynamic leader could meet the needs of these very different communities.
Difficult, but not impossible. Once residents understand that the town services they now count on cannot be sustained without unacceptable property tax increases or spending cuts in other areas, they may well accept the necessity of sharing leadership at the top, and eventually in other areas such as public works and public safety.
We're only in the opening chapter, the prologue, in what will be a long and difficult saga. When all is said and done, the prediction here is that common sense and logic will prevail. Unified town management will prove to be how to succeed in local government, but it will require really trying.
Contact Clarence Fanto at email@example.com.
Clarence Fanto: “There's no vacancy here for abusive internet trolls”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, February 4, 2017
LENOX — The electronic mailbag has been overflowing with reaction — some civil, some troll-like — to the commentary in this space last weekend about the Trump regime — branded by some critics as the Trump-Bannon administration or the Trump-Putin reign.
The column was written before an additional travesty — the 120-day travel ban affecting refugees and the selective restrictions directed against Muslims from seven countries which had never produced a terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11.
The other shocking development of the past week has been the rise, apparently to co-president status, of the white-nationalist extremist Stephen Bannon, formerly of the website Breitbart News, who has likened his power grab to Dick Cheney, Darth Vader and Satan.
Don't believe it? Here's the quote from his post-Election Day interview with the Hollywood Reporter magazine, widely relayed by other media:
"Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they're blind to who we are and what we're doing."
As the magazine explained, Bannon was referring to his detractors who criticized the far-right, white nationalist movement that Breitbart News and others have successfully rebranded as the "alt-right."
One e-mail correspondent inquired as to why I don't want President Trump to succeed, for the good of the nation.
My answer is that I want him to fail, for the good of the nation. Specifically, I want his policies (with one or two exceptions) to fail — those that would threaten if not destroy the underpinnings of our democracy (or democratic republic, as conservatives prefer to call it) and surely would inflict great pain on those who would lose medical coverage and other safety-net benefits. Trump's core supporters will have a rude awakening when they find out what they've lost.
Then, there's his bellicose stance toward Iraq, Mexico and other nations (all are taking advantage of the United States, in his view) and his contemptuous attitude toward Australia, one of our most loyal, steadfast allies.
And, as an example of Trump's pathological narcissism, his off-topic denigration of Arnold Schwarzenegger's ratings as host of NBC's "The New Celebrity Apprentice." The broadside occurred at, of all places, the annual National Day of Prayer breakfast.
Oh, and there was also the deliberate omission of Jews from Trump's statement commemorating international Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a mini-furor erupted amid accusations of "Holocaust denial," the White House explained that Jews had been omitted on purpose because other victims also suffered and died.
Some of the Nazis' victims were not Jewish, but Hitler's genocidal extermination wiped out about six million people, two-thirds of Europe's Jewish population during World War II.
While this may have been Bannon's handiwork, one wonders how Trump faced his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew and supposedly a close adviser, and his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism after her marriage to Kushner.
One of my more rational e-mail fans asked why I don't condemn the violence that erupted at the University of California's Berkeley campus over a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos. He's the senior editor of Breitbart News who has said that most of the federal government could be shut down and has accused Hillary Clinton of being funded "by people who murder homosexuals."
I do condemn the rioting that forced the cancellation of his appearance — peaceful protest would have been appropriate. Moreover, unless he yells "Fire!" in a crowded theater, or the equivalent, he is protected by our precious First Amendment rights. Perhaps some of my right-leaning friends around here would like to sponsor an appearance by Milo, if a venue could be found. I would love to pose a question or two.
To wrap this up, I welcome all comments, even from internet trolls, as long as they don't cross certain lines, such as threats against the family.
It's understandable that some neighbors are riled up about the massive redevelopment proposed for the DeSisto site on Route 183 in Stockbridge. But one of them, in a letter to the editor, claimed that in a news article about the Jan. 3 Planning Board meeting, I "characterized the behavior of the neighbors who consistently brought up the matter of the DeSisto property, against the instructions of the chairman, as inappropriate and disruptive."
In fact, that description was from a direct quote by the property owner, Patrick Sheehan. Take it up with him.
It bears restating that I don't comment on controversial issues in Stockbridge and Lenox, my primary reporting assignments. I record all meetings and interviews in order to relay exact quotes and, when facts are in doubt, I contact news sources for verification.
The Eagle's editorial pages have carried numerous letters from the developers and neighbors. There was one editorial comment on the proposal. Editorials are the province of the opinion department and the editorial board. Professional news reporters don't write editorials, nor do they take positions in their news articles.
That's basic Journalism 101 and is incorporated in reputable newspapers' codes of ethics.
A couple of housekeeping items.
The folks at Hyatt Hotels want to clarify that not only did they invest $215 million to acquire the Miraval brand and its upscale, wellness resorts in Tucson, Ariz., and Austin, Texas, but they're spending an additional $160 million over the next two or three years on the Miraval group, including last week's purchase of Cranwell Spa and Golf Resort in Lenox for $22 million from CampGroup, LLC, and a $60 million upgrade and expansion of the property by mid-2019.
In a recent resort roundup, Hyatt wasn't given full credit for its massive investment. The Cranwell expansion is expected to begin full-throttle in a few weeks.
Finally, as Stockbridge approaches a hectic election season with 13 positions on the ballot, it turns out that the key posts of town treasurer and town collector were not literally "vacant," as reported. Nancy Socha, the current collector, and Karen Williams, the treasurer, have taken out nomination papers to run for re-election.
Here's hoping for a robust list of candidates to fill all the town's positions, vacant or otherwise.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org but keep it civil. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
“Paying for education is tough across the Berkshires”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, March 25, 2017
LENOX — Since a local school is the beating heart of a small town, especially in our region's rural areas, a loss is keenly felt and results in a significant blow to community spirit and pride.
No wonder the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District's 4-3 vote earlier this month to end Cheshire Elementary's nearly century-long presence in town has enraged townsfolk. Some families may send their students over the mountain to Lanesborough Elementary, thus abandoning the district and making its enrollment decline even steeper.
Others vow a fight to keep their school open at considerable cost to taxpayers.
From this distance, I'm not about to second-guess the school board's decision to consolidate elementary students in Adams, with kindergartners through third-graders attending the C.T. Plunkett School while fourth- and fifth-graders join Hoosac Valley Middle and High School, just over the town line in Cheshire.
Plunkett is larger, but keeping Cheshire Elementary open after next year would have saved the district at least $60,000 annually through state reimbursements for busing Adams kids to the adjoining town.
Parents keen on splitting Cheshire off from the two-town school district would face an extended, complex challenge. According to Carol Francesconi, who has been a Cheshire selectman since 1989, the town's taxpayers would face an annual cost of nearly $500,000 to keep the elementary school open.
For the owner of a median-priced home at $212,000 (as of 2015, according to city-data.com), the additional annual property tax burden would amount to $318. For less than $1 a day, the added expense may be viewed as well worthwhile by some, perhaps many, residents.
But it's not as simple as that, as Superintendent Robert Putnam has pointed out. Keeping all three district schools open would impact Adams taxpayers as well, since the towns will confront a 9 percent increase in their school assessments.
Communities survive the loss of their elementary schools, of course — among them: Cummington, West Stockbridge, Stockbridge and Alford over the years. But the damage to the social fabric is impossible to calculate.
Residents in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, based in Sheffield, have kept New Marlborough Central open (pre-K through fourth grade). But the tiny Monterey School remains "suspended," while the South Egremont School has 15 kindergarten and first-grade students this year. Whether it will remain open next year is still undetermined.
Berkshire Hills Regional, which includes Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, is wrestling with inequities affecting taxpayers. Barringtonians shoulder the bulk of the burden — a 6 percent increase in public education costs for next year — as it sends more students to the school than the other towns, by far.
Stockbridge's cost will increase by only 1 percent while the West Stockbridge assessment declines by 5 percent. Those two towns send fewer students to the district each year.
Dan Bailly, a Great Barrington Selectman, believes "we're about one right turn from the wheels falling off of this thing" and he finds it hard to achieve "a reasonable budget that allows the town to function." But his proposal to slash hard-working administrators' salaries across the board is no solution. The Great Barrington Select Board and Finance Committee just approved next year's budget by 3-1 votes.
There's only one way to relieve taxpayers of a burden that may become unbearable in the not-so-distant future. Ironically, it's the hardest one for residents to swallow.
Shared services, leading to eventual consolidation and regionalization of adjoining school districts, must be explored seriously, as the Berkshire Education Task Force is doing at its monthly public meetings. The group's advisory recommendations are eagerly awaited.
Potential partners one can imagine include Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire as well as Lee and Lenox (despite failed attempts to share a superintendent).
In Pittsfield, sadly, a solution to the public school budget crisis requires a wiser head than this one. With a potential $1.7 million budget slash in the works and the loss of 65 out of 1,200 employees, the straits are dire even if one-third of the layoffs can be accomplished through retirements and voluntary departures. Soaring health insurance costs are a major culprit.
Without new growth, the city is at the limit of its taxing capacity, not that its older and less affluent citizens can handle year after year of higher bills.
If Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and schools Superintendent Jason McCandless can come up with a prescription that preserves the quality of the city's schools without a budget-busting tax burden, they'll deserve major kudos.
The bottom line: Unless more young families can be attracted to the county and choose to enroll youngsters in our public schools, the handwriting, regrettably, is on the blackboard.
Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
Clarence Fanto | “PCB cleanup endangered by Trump's anti-environmental policy”
By Clarence Fanto, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, June 3, 2017
LENOX — The 24/7 White House horror show reached new heights of horrification this past week as the environment took a beating, globally as well as here in our backyard.
On Thursday, we learned that as part of an order by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration is on a mission to water down GE's cleanup of the Housatonic River as ordered by the EPA before Pruitt set out to hollow out the agency.
A week ahead of the Environmental Appeals Board hearing in Washington to hear GE's argument to reduce the scope and cost of the PCB cleanup on the river from southeast Pittsfield to Great Barrington, Pruitt called for a 90-day delay so the EPA and the company can "settle" their considerable differences.
That was supposed to be the role of the appeals board, a three-judge panel that functions much like a court.
The EPA had ordered a $613 million, 13-year dredging, removal and capping of the probable cancer-causing contaminants from Housatonic "hot spots," primarily between Pittsfield and Woods Pond in Lenox.
GE, which blasted the plan as "arbitrary and capricious," is dead-set against the EPA's requirement to ship the PCB sediment to a federally licensed out-of-state facility, as required by Massachusetts regulations.
The company claims it's perfectly safe to create a dump site for the contaminants near the river, pointing out that local disposal would save GE anywhere from $160 million to $245 million.
Sites targeted by GE include a Lane Construction Co. landfill in Lee near Woods Pond, just over the town line from Lenox. Other potential locations are off Forest Street in Lee and near Rising Pond in the Great Barrington village of Housatonic.
As reported by Larry Parnass, head of The Eagle's investigative team, environmental leaders were blindsided by Pruitt's intervention on behalf of GE. Dennis Regan, Berkshire County director of the Housatonic Valley Association, warned, "We're in the dark ages right now for the environment."
Whether the Environmental Appeals Board judges will go along with this last-minute Trump administration effort to weaken the cleanup order should become clear at the hearing this Thursday.
According to a May 22 memo from the EPA, "The administrator [Pruitt] has expressed a strong policy interest in expediting and finalizing resolution at Superfund cleanups" costing $50 million or more.
Under Pruitt's anti-environment agenda, he would personally control expensive projects such as the Housatonic "Rest of River" cleanup and set up a task force to ease the costs and burdens on companies such as GE while cutting back the EPA's supervision of the PCB removal.
Nat Karns, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's executive director, suspects the company seized an opportunity to get off the hook and wiggle out of the EPA's original mandate for a thorough cleanup.
The Pawa Law Group, which represents Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield, filed an objection to the requested delay of Thursday's appeals board hearing as well as Pruitt's instruction to settle up with GE. Tim Gray, leader of the Housatonic River Initiative, also met the two-hour filing deadline imposed by the EPA administrator.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has unleashed a fusillade of fake facts to justify the worst decision of his presidency so far — yanking the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords, hooking us up with Syria and Nicaragua as the only holdouts as 195 nations act to help slow down rising global temperatures.
It was bare-knuckles politics, a victory for white-nationalist extremist Steve Bannon, back in the president's good graces, as well as for climate-change deniers and the fossil fuel industry. Pruitt dodged reporters who asked whether Mr. Trump still considers climate change a hoax.
The president acted against the advice of Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and a long list of key business leaders, governors and mayors — not to mention his supposedly influential daughter, Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.
In his Rose Garden speech outside the White House, complete with a cheering section of staffers, senators and other acolytes, Trump's misstatements and false claims were numerous.
His insistence that the Paris accord victimizes the U.S. and imposes an economic burden on the nation is without merit — as former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the agreement, explained.
"Donald Trump is not telling the truth to the American people when he says `We have this huge burden that's been imposed on us by other nations,' " Kerry told CBS News. "We agreed to what we would do. We designed it. It's voluntary and the president could simply have changed that without walking away from the whole agreement."
On Facebook, Kerry accused Trump of "unilaterally walking backward from science and backward from leadership on behalf of polluters and fringe ideologues," and said it "may be the most self-defeating action in American history."
Instead of killing American jobs, as the president claimed falsely, more than 2.5 million jobs have been created in the clean energy sector.
Trump's claim that the Paris agreement would have yielded only a tiny 0.2 degree decline (Celsius) in the rate of global warming by 2100 relied on an outdated MIT study. The current MIT estimate is that planned reduction in carbon emissions can cut the increase by more than 1 degree, a statistically significant measure.
Fortunately, a growing list of governors — including Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jerry Brown of California (the world's sixth-largest economy) — intend to pursue the goals of the Paris agreement. They will be joined by at least 100 leading corporations, including ExxonMobil, General Motors and Ford.
The pushback against Trump's irrational decision, which is sure to please only his gradually narrowing base of supporters, has been impressive and encouraging.
On the day after the November 2020 election, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement becomes final. So there's a ray of hope that the next president could begin to undo the considerable damage to the planet, and to this nation's standing in the world.
Unless the next president's initials remain DJT.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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