William Smitty Pignatelli
Rep. Pignatelli's first vote on Beacon Hill was a vote for Tom Finneran for Speaker!
The Heroes Among Us award is a program of the Boston Celtics, presented by the Mass State Lottery.
March 7, 2008 - Massachusetts State Representative Smitty Pignatelli
Like many of us, Mass State Representative Smitty Pignatelli was distraught by the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. What separated Smitty was his unyielding will to make a difference for those that needed help the most!
After hearing about the Stewart family of fourteen who lost everything in the storm, Smitty was amazingly able to raise over $150,000 and recruit a volunteer staff of 25 to accompany him on the 1,500 mile trip to New Orleans.
After just seven days, Smitty and his team of volunteers rebuilt the home giving the Stewart family a real chance to rebuild their lives.
For his unbelievable generosity and life-changing gift, please join us in welcoming Smitty Pignatelli!
"Southern Berkshire Regional Schools: Second mediation session set: Nov. 29"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, November 09, 2007
A second mediation session between the five member towns of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District has been tentatively scheduled for Nov. 29 at Berkshire South Community Center at a time to be determined.
Meanwhile, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said yesterday that he is not completely certain that the state's announced Dec. 1 takeover of the district will occur.
"I think if we show the state Department of Education that the five towns are making a good-faith effort to resolve this, I think we can avoid a takeover," he said. "I do not want to see the state in here, and I don't think school officials want that, either.
"To be honest, I don't know if the DOE wants to take the district over. They've never done it before. I don't know how eager they are to start now."
'An open forum'
Pignatelli said that this second mediation session will be public. "It's an open forum for anyone who wants to come," he said.
The school district is under state scrutiny for its failure to pass a school budget in May. Four of the five towns approved assessments based on a regional formula, while Sheffield voters approved an assessment based on a state assessment formula.
This schism does not appear to have been repaired in the five months since the district towns held their annual town meetings.
At a recent School Committee meeting, the committee's four Sheffield members voted to support the state's assessment formula, while the rest of the district opted to sponsor the regional assessment agreement.
The initial mediation session, with a state mediator, generated questions to the DOE about Sheffield's withdrawal from the regional agreement.
The school district currently is on a month-to-month assessment schedule, using the state formula. DOE officials have said that they would implement the budget passed by the School Committee in May in an attempt to facilitate the day-to-day operation of the district.
Dear Honorable State Rep. "Smitty" Pignatelli:
I have told you before many times, and I will say it again to you today:
YOU ARE A GOOD MAN!
In admiration of your good nature and our forever friendship,
Jonathan A. Melle
Re: "Smitty" Pignatelli is a good man!
"Pignatelli lends a hand: Helps rebuild New Orleans home"
By Hillary Chabot, Eagle Boston Bureau
The Berkshire Eagle
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
BOSTON — It took only three days for state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, along with 15 other volunteers, to completely gut the home of a New Orleans flood victim last month.
But the work left Pignatelli a changed man, he told his fellow legislators at the Statehouse Monday.
"This was the greatest thing I've ever done in my life," Pignatelli said. He was joined by civil-rights and race-equality activist Richard Lapchick, who organized the volunteer trip.
Both hoped to remind legislators that work in the devastated city of New Orleans is far from done. More than a year after Hurricane Katrina, many people can't move back into their homes.
"They are afraid people are forgetting about their story. They feel abandoned. We want to let people know there is so much more to be done there," Lapchick said.
Pignatelli went to New Orleans the week before Christmas and met up with Stanley Stewart, a resident of the Lower 9th Ward, the poorest district in New Orleans. Stewart's home had been flooded with 14 feet of water within 10 minutes after the levee broke, and Stewart had been trying to figure out what to do with his soggy home every since.
Insurance not enough
Although the house had been appraised at $400,000, insurance had only given him $10,000, Pignatelli said. Stewart just moved in to a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer two weeks before Pignatelli arrived.
Lapchick said Stewart's story, and the story of several other African-Americans who feel abandoned by the government, shows that America still has a serious racial divide.
"I think the whole New Orleans story is reflective of race relations in America," he said.
"There never would have been 100,000 white people at the Superdome or the Convention Center waiting for as long as they waited."
Pignatelli said he feels embarrassed that the government has given aid to repair only 79 homes in the Lower 9th Ward more than a year after the disaster. The group also helped plant a garden and mow Stewart's lawn.
Lapchick, who met with new Gov. Deval Patrick briefly later Monday, said the state took a big step forward in terms of race relations when it elected the second African-American governor in American history.
"It's a great sign," Lapchick said.
For Pignatelli, the half-hour that the new governor carved out to meet with them was also a great sign.
"I think it's another indication of his open door policy that on such short notice he was able to accommodate us," Pignatelli said.
'Big sense of empowerment'
Pignatelli hopes the stories he brought home made others realize they can make a difference.
"Just a little thing like this gave this man a big sense of empowerment," Pignatelli said.
Job growth is up locally
But state ranks 49th in U.S.
By Hillary Chabot, Eagle Boston Bureau
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
BOSTON — Berkshire County has managed to grow jobs in a lagging market plaguing the Bay State, according to a report released by public-policy think tank MassINC today.
Massachusetts ranked 49th in the nation for job growth, but the Berkshires showed growth along with eight other counties, said the report's lead author Andrew Sum.
"When you're 49th in the country, you don't have much to be proud of," Sum said. "We have lost over half of the manufacturing jobs in the state. If the country faced these same numbers, we'd be in a deep depression.
"Even Gov. Deval L. Patrick's proposal to build three resort casinos, bringing an influx of 20,000 jobs, won't save us.
"It's a net wash. If it created so many new jobs, Connecticut would have been a star performer, but it's the only state that did worse than us in job creation."
The report shows that, although the state trails in job creation, worker productivity has soared. The combination means that Massachusetts has a highly specialized economy where well-educated and highly skilled workers are rewarded, Gregory Torres, MassINC president, said.
New Ashford faced the highest unemployment rates, according to the report. The town faced a 64 percent drop in average employment between 2001 and 2006, while Pittsfield had a 2.2 percent drop in average employment. The state averaged a 3.2 percent decrease in the past five years, according to the report.
"Our situation is critical, and the Legislature walked out without doing a thing about it this year," Sum said.
Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed to the economic development bill passed last year, along with legislation speeding up the permitting process for businesses, as proof that progress has been made on Beacon Hill.
"I would totally disagree, especially with all the investments the state is making in small-based businesses. Expanding broadband, the bond bills and the cultural facilities fund have all created job opportunities," he said.
The trick is expanding job training so that workers are skilled enough to land jobs in the health care and biotech centers, the largest areas where jobs have increased.
Tyler Fairbank, president of the Berkshires Development Council, said the region has been showing growth in the gross domestic product.
"We have seen a real growth in jobs, and we're seeing a growth in the work force, coupled with low unemployment," Fairbank said.
The report suggests that Patrick's administration, along with the Legislature and the business community, must work to speed up the permitting process for new businesses, must match up open jobs with the unemployed and must focus on boosting existing markets.
Robert Halpin, president of the Merrimack Valley Development Council, believes that the state also should court other jobs focusing mainly on delivering services and goods outside the state.
"Massachusetts always lags behind the national recovery ... because we get hit on that manufacturing front," Halpin said. "If we can diversify, that's the road that will take us out of the big boom-bust cycle."
By the numbers:
New Ashford faced a 64 percent drop in average employment between 2001 and 2006.
Pittsfield had a 2.2 percent drop in average employment during that time.
The state averaged a 3.2 percent decrease in the past five years.
— MassINC report
"The boutique economy"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Saturday, December 01, 2007
It's no secret that Massachusetts has been shedding more jobs than it creates, but this week's report that Massachusetts ranks 49th in the nation over the last six years in job creation is particularly sobering. For the Berkshires, the most economically challenged part of an economically challenged state, the report by MassINC and the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University highlights the considerable challenges ahead.
Massachusetts accounted for 2.5 percent of the jobs in the United States six years ago and has absorbed 7.3 percent of the nation's job losses since then, according to the report. The losses have come primarily in technology and manufacturing, the latter, of course, the foundation of the Berkshire County economy when General Electric was in Pittsfield and the paper mills dotted throughout the Berkshires were prospering. The state is building what the report refers to as a "boutique economy" built upon health care, biotechnology and other fields that require employees with bachelor's degrees at the minimum.
From a Berkshire perspective, the report emphasizes how difficult it will be to fill the William Stanley Business Park. The region's relatively high labor and energy costs work against it. It also, however, highlights the importance of cutting-edge businesses like Berkshire Biodiesel, which was visited this week by officials including state Senate President Therese Murray. Clean-energy industries have a great future as the nation belatedly addresses pollution and its dependence on foreign oil.
The value of a college education came through clearly in the report, and the state's public colleges must be given the resources to prepare students for jobs in these new high-tech markets. There are manufacturing jobs in the Berkshires, many in plastics, but they will require increasingly specialized skills.
It was revealing to learn that Massachusetts ranks seventh in the nation in worker productivity. That productivity may attract businesses succeeding in this "boutique economy," but many residents without specialized skills or training will be left out of the picture. If that is the case, Massachusetts won't be improving from 49th in the nation soon.
Job-growth study: Mass. next to last
By Robert Gavin, (Boston) Globe Staff
November 28, 2007
Massachusetts' job growth has lagged all but one state's in recent years, according to a new study, raising the possibility that the state won't regain the jobs lost in the last recession before the next one begins.
The study, released today by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Economy, or MassINC, finds Massachusetts is still far from recovering the jobs lost in the recession that began in 2001. Six years later, the state still has 100,000 jobs to go.
Now, with the economy slowing dramatically under the weight of the housing meltdown, the risk of another recession is growing. So are the chances that the state won't climb back to the 2001 employment peak.
"Time is running out on the business cycle," said Andre Mayer, senior vice president of research at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a business group. "We've been having booms and busts, but this time we may get the bust without the boom."
Even if the nation avoids a recession, a recent forecast by the New England Economic Partnership projects the state won't recover the jobs until 2012 - 11 years after the 2001 peak. That would mark the first time since at least 1940 that the state has gone more than a decade without increasing payroll employment, said Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies and the lead author of the MassINC study.
"We should be embarrassed," Sum said. "The governor, the Legislature have to get back in there and say, 'What are we going to do to create jobs in this state.' Somebody's got to advocate for jobs here."
The erosion of manufacturing, long a ladder to the middle class, and the emergence of industries requiring specialized skills also threaten to create a "boutique economy" that rewards the highly educated and the skilled, but leaves behind broad swaths of the labor force, the study warned.
The state, said MassINC president Gregory Torres, needs "a greater sense of urgency on how to respond to the shifting economy and provide a mix of opportunities for all workers."
The study calls on the state to set targets for creating jobs in industries that sell goods and services beyond Massachusetts, so-called export sectors that bring wealth into the state and typically pay higher wages.
In addition, the study calls for boosting education and worker training to match skills to job vacancies, now about 90,000; cutting energy and other business costs; making it easier for firms to expand; and developing strategies to spread economic benefits, particularly to aging industrial cities.
"We've got to try things," Sum said. "We have to stop taking things for granted."
Kofi Jones, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said the Patrick administration is "focused on expanding economic opportunity and ultimately creating 100,000 new jobs through long-term investments and changing the business culture and climate."
Since the beginning of this year, she noted, the state has added about 25,000 jobs.
Massachusetts, because of its large technology sector, suffered the deepest job losses in the nation after the tech boom went bust in 2001, shedding 6 percent of its jobs, compared to 2 percent nationally. Weak job growth resumed in early 2004 and has picked up modestly over the past year.
Still, only Michigan, which continues to bleed jobs as the US auto industry sinks, has a worse job-creation record. Through the end of last year, Michigan's payroll employment was down 6 percent from 2001, compared to nearly 4 percent in Massachusetts. Only five other states had yet to regain their pre-recession employment peak by the end of last year.
With its mature economy, Massachusetts isn't going to lead the nation in job growth, the study concedes, but the anemic rate of job growth over the long term is cause for concern. Since 1988, payroll employment in Massachusetts has expanded by less than 4 percent, compared to nearly 30 percent for the nation. The MassINC reported analyzed nearly two decades of economic data.
Perhaps more alarming, the study found, Massachusetts is losing jobs in key sectors, such as technology and manufacturing. In 2000, Massachusetts accounted for 4.2 percent of the nation's tech jobs; by 2006, just 3.9 percent.
Its share of manufacturing jobs, meanwhile, slipped to 2.1 percent from 2.3 percent. Among the few sectors that increased the share of jobs was biotechnology, which expanded employment at more than twice the national rate.
As biotech's growth shows, the state's economy is not without bright spots. Its output remains strong, thanks to growing productivity of the state's workers, and incomes are rising at solid rates.
But sectors like biotechnology have not proved to be the job generators traditional industries were. Biotech accounts for about 2 percent of the state's payroll employment. Manufacturing, despite having lost some 100,000 jobs since 2001, still accounts for 9 percent of the state's payroll jobs.
Robert Gavin can be reached at email@example.com.
$13,000 in Emergency Food Program Grants Awarded to Local Food Pantries
- November 29, 2007
Boston- State Representative Denis E. Guyer (D- Dalton) and State Representative Smitty Pignatelli (D-Lenox) announced today that three local organizations received Emergency Food Program Grants from Project Bread.
The local recipients include the Berkshire Community Action Council in Pittsfield, which was awarded $4,000, the Salvation Army in Pittsfield receiving $3,000 and the Hilltown Churches Food Pantry will get $6,000.
Representative Guyer commented on the awards saying, “This funding comes at a time when more people are relying on food pantries to feed themselves and their families. I’m glad to see that these local organizations will get a little extra support to help more people.”
400 Food Pantries in 126 communities throughout Massachusetts received funding though this program. All of the money distributed comes directly from the proceeds from the annual Walk for Hunger. As a result of this funding 42 million meals will be provided to the hungry in the Commonwealth.
Two Local Businesses To Receive Masscap Small Business Loans
- November 30, 2007
State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) and State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) announced today that the state-subsidized Massachusetts Capital Access Program (Mass CAP) has approved two loans to local businesses totaling $83,000: Personal Best, a personal fitness and training entity in Great Barrington ($68,000); and Michael Sciola, professional accountants and tax preparation, located in Pittsfield ($15,000).
“This program helps turn business dreams into reality by providing growing businesses with the resources they need to succeed. Stronger businesses, equals stronger economy and directing our state resources to building our economy is a wise investment,” said Downing.
Mass CAP, administered by the Massachusetts Business Development Corporation, is a state-subsidized program designed to help small businesses secure business loans through local banks. Using cash collateral guarantees for loans up to $500,000 from a loan loss reserve fund, this program enables banks to make loans they might otherwise not be able to finance. Since the start of the program, participating banks have secured over 3,000 new clients and financed Mass CAP loans totaling over $200 million with an average loan of $50,100.
“The backbone of Berkshire County has been with small business and these opportunities are wonderful to increase the economic opportunity here in the Berkshires,” said Pignatelli.
Mass CAP creates loan options for small businesses that fall short of qualifying for more conventional loans. Loans made through this program may be used for many purposes including start-up and expansion costs; real estate purchases; and permanent working capital to ensure continued profitable operations such as equipment purchases, start-up costs, and real estate acquisitions.
Over 50 Massachusetts banks participate in Mass CAP. To view a complete list of participating banks, and to obtain additional information regarding the Capital Access Program and other lending programs please visit: www.mass-business.com.
July 30, 2007
RE: Rep. Smitty Pignatelli is a mixed bag
Dear Alan, Smitty, et al,
I disagree with your opinion, Alan, that Smitty Pignatelli is the best State Representative. My choice would be Dan Bosley with the rest of the State House delegates except for Stan Rosenberg not in contention.
Smitty Pignatelli's first vote as a State Rep to Beacon Hill was a vote for Tom Finneran for Speaker. Moreover, Rep. Pignatelli supports closed door, unaccountable governance. He was quoted as being for this kind of governance as a state Rep. during a period of time when the North Adams Transcript did a case study of "Sunshine Laws" in Massachusetts state and local government. Rep. Pignatelli also goes along with the system or the political machines. He is not a man of the people, but a minion of the special interests. If you want government as usual, a thinker as banal as a robot, and unaccountable governance, then Pignatelli is your man. However, I do give Smitty Pignatelli credit for being a good man, but a mixed bag as a Pol.
At least Dan Bosley is really intelligent and could be an effective Speaker of the House of Representatives on Beacon Hill someday. Furthermore, Stan Rosenberg represents a lot of progressive ideals and may just be the future Congressman after John Olver retires.
Jonathan A. Melle
"Mill deal falls apart: An agreement to make the former paper factory into luxury condominiums doesn't pan out"
By Ellen G. Lahr, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, December 14, 2007
GREAT BARRINGTON — A purchase deal for the dormant Rising Mill in Housatonic, where prospective buyers had planned a 125-unit luxury condominium project on the Housatonic River, is off.
"That's accurate," said a source involved in the negotiations, who asked not to be named. "I know (Neenah Paper) had wanted to get rid of it by fall."
"As far as I know, it's up for grabs," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "I heard the numbers weren't working."
It is unclear precisely why the deal fell through or which side nixed the purchase-and-sale agreement for the historic, 300,000-square-foot property. The agreed purchase price had not been disclosed.
This year, 137 jobs were lost when the specialty paper production operation shut down.
In March, Neenah Paper Inc. of Georgia bought the Lee operation, part of its $52 million acquisition of the privately held Fox River Paper Co., a Neenah competitor. Citing poor profits at the Housatonic mill, Neenah shut down the operation within months.
Neenah is a publicly traded company with plants around the world.
A purchase-and-sale deal followed before summer's end, but reports were that Neenah wanted to sell the site with no contingencies. The prospective buyers had not been identified.
Joseph Carini of Wheeler & Taylor Real Estate, whose firm had represented the would-be buyers, had no comment when asked recently about the status of the deal. Great Barrington attorney Charles Ferris, who represents the would-be buyers, did not return a call yesterday.
In July, Ferris met with the Selectmen and gave an overview of the $50 million, 125-unit condominium project envisioned by his clients. He told the board that the buyers were prepared to make the purchase without contingencies, a risk that surprised town officials and others interested in the property.
The developers were then prepared to buy, not knowing whether the town would approve a zoning change allowing for residential use at the former industrial site.
At the time, Ferris said the deal was set to close, with no contingencies, in 60 days.
"He is the local face, the local businessman, and in light of this news, I hope he could pull it off if he is still interested," Pignatelli said yesterday. "I hope Neenah Paper would be good corporate citizens to view and weigh what's best for this community."
Yesterday, officials from Neenah Paper did not return calls seeking comment on the status of the property.
However, The Eagle has learned that local efforts may be under way to form an investment group that might purchase the property.
Earlier this year, the owner of Boyd Converting Co., a paper machine company in Lee, was in contention to buy the plant.
However, Neenah Paper declined the offer, reportedly because of what was considered a low offer and contingencies sought by Boyd Converting.
Yesterday, Boyd's vice president of marketing, Matthew Boyd, said the company would have no comment on whether Boyd remains interested in the property.
Pignatelli was hopeful that Neenah would reconsider Boyd's offer — that is, if Boyd's offer is still a live one.
"There is such an air of uncertainty with that mill closing and with the mills in Lee," he said.
It was a bad year for manufacturing jobs in South County: Besides Neenah Paper's shutdown of the Rising Mill, the MeadWestvaco paper company in Lee announced plans to close one of two mills in South Lee by year's end, thereby costing some 70 people their jobs. And Schweitzer-Mauduit in Lee, a primary manufacturer of paper used in cigarettes, will begin its shutdown in the spring, phasing out at least 160 jobs.
"Southern Berkshire District Court - District court: Move to Lee likely"
By Ellen G. Lahr, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, December 07, 2007
LEE — The future of the Southern Berkshire District Court, a busy operation anchored for years in Great Barrington, most likely will be in Lee — perhaps as soon as July 2008.
The state's Division of Capital Asset Management received bids last week from owners, agents or developers of three industrial and commercial properties along Route 102, according to several sources watching the process.
Each bid includes a proposal to construct a 22,400-square-foot building for court operations, which would be leased to the state's Trial Court at a price to be negotiated.
The court now rents a century-old 9,300-square-foot building — a former school — from the town of Great Barrington, but it has no current lease.
This year, the town's voters approved the eventual sale of the Dewey School, so court officials have moved ahead with plans for a new building.
The state advertised for locations in Lee and Great Barrington.
Richard Vinette, executive director of the Lee Community Development Corp., said the proposed sites include a parcel at Quarry Hill Business Park, where a real estate agency from Chicopee has taken a purchase option from the CDC.
An agent representing the Lee Bowling Lanes, a 17-acre site owned by Selectman Frank Consolati, also has placed a bid. An agent for the former Berkshire Blues Cafe property, which was leveled by fire earlier this year, also has submitted a development proposal.
Vinette said a fourth Lee bid may have been submitted, but he had no details.
The state agency handling the bids would not release the proposals for review, or comment on them or on whether a fourth was in hand.
Kevin Flanigan, a deputy director of the state's Division of Capital Asset Management, declined comment, citing a policy intended to protect the state's negotiating position with bidders.
However, he said matters could move forward swiftly, as the state Trial Court seeks to occupy a new building by July 2008 with 80 parking spaces, according to its own request for proposals.
The Southern Berkshire District Court's chief justice, James B. McElroy, has said that Lee would be a preferable town for the court. Most of the court's criminal business comes from police in Lee and Lenox, along with the state police at the Lee barracks and on the Massachusetts Turnpike, so the town is more centrally located in South County.
Officials in Lee are keen on the Lee option as well because the relocation of a busy court could bring new employees and court patrons through the town on a regular basis.
"It's a win-win for Lee," Vinette said. "Whether it's our site or another, it will bring a bit more activity to our area."
Years ago, the Trial Court operated a satellite District Court in what is now the Town Hall in downtown Lee, but that operation was consolidated with the one in Great Barrington.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said that, although he is pleased with the number of bids coming from Lee, he had hoped one might arise in the downtown area. Route 102 is more than a mile outside downtown.
"I selfishly would like to see them downtown, since getting court employees, professionals and other people in town is good for business," he said.
However, the specter of a 22,400-square-foot building — more like a new construction project than a building conversion, and possibly on one level — might face hurdles with regard to parking in downtown Lee.
The town's parking shortage and strict parking rules are already in the way of one commercial redevelopment on Main Street, the building that housed the former H.A. Johannson's 5 & 10 at 46-50 Main.
The state Division of Capital Asset Management soon will evaluate proposals and visit the various sites in Lee to gauge their suitability, Flanigan said.
"Reports: Mass. a top US economic competitor: But others contend slow job growth in state clouds outlook"
By Robert Gavin, Globe Staff, December 19, 2007
Massachusetts ranks as the one of the most economically competitive states in the nation, buoyed by innovation, entrepreneurship, and an educated and skilled workforce, a new study concludes.
The study, released today by the Beacon Hill Institute, a think tank at Suffolk University, ranks Massachusetts second only to Utah in the attributes that create and sustain high levels of income for residents. It follows another study, by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank, that measures states' abilities to compete in a dynamic, innovation-driven global economy and ranks Massachusetts first.
These rankings paint a far different picture of conditions and prospects in Massachusetts than other studies that have painted a bleaker outlook, framed by the state's painfully slow job growth. Recently, a report by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassInc, found that only Michigan, battered by a sinking auto industry, has a worse job creation record since 2001.
But the authors of these latest studies argue job creation by itself is not necessarily the best indicator of economic health. Income is a better measure, giving a sense of the quality and quantity of jobs, they said. For example, Nevada leads the nation in job growth, but much of it comes from lower-paying service jobs in casinos, hotels, and restaurants.
"I wouldn't want to build an economy around that," said Robert D. Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "What you want to have is a long-term sustainable economy with high wages and income growth, and I'd rather be Massachusetts than Nevada."
Nevada ranks 27th in the foundation's New Economy index and 28th in the Beacon Hill State Competitiveness index.
Kofi Jones, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said these studies show Governor Deval L. Patrick "is committed to and supports building an innovative, competitive, and creative environment throughout the Commonwealth which moves at the speed of business." Patrick, she said, has pursued a variety of policies aimed at keeping the state innovative and competitive, including a $1 billion initiative to boost the state's biotechnology sector.
Payroll employment in Massachusetts has grown slowly since the labor market hit bottom at the end of 2003, and regained only about half the jobs lost in the 2001 recession. During the same period, per capita income grew at a solid pace, increasing more than 6 percent in 2006, according to Moody's Economy.com, a West Chester, Pa., forecasting firm.
Massachusetts ranks third among states in per capita income, behind Connecticut and New Jersey.
"We would argue that if one has to choose a single indicator as a proxy for well being, income is the best measure you can use," said Jonathan Haughton, author of the Beacon Hill Institute report and economics professor at Suffolk University. "A state that can help people earn high incomes is a state that's successful."
The Beacon Hill study looks at a variety of factors to assess a state's competitiveness, from patents to venture capital to the percent of fourth-grade students that are proficient or better in math. Massachusetts scores at or near the top in several categories, including venture capital, patents, scientists and engineers in the workforce, high-speed Internet connections, and fourth-grade math students.
The foundation's New Economy index looks at similar criteria. In a recent article in Economic Development Journal, published by the International Economic Development Council, a professional association in Washington, Atkinson conceded that high scores in the index don't really correlate with strong job growth.
But high scores correspond with income growth, Atkinson said. "For economic development officials seeking not just jobs, but better jobs, these indicators are worth paying attention to," he wrote.
Andrew Sum, the author of the MassInc study detailing the state's poor job creation, said these indexes identify Massachusetts' strengths, but such strengths are meaningless if they don't bring more jobs to more people, particularly young workers. Unless the state creates more jobs, young, educated, and skilled workers will continue to flee in search of better opportunities, undermining the state's economic future.
"What does it mean to be competitive when you're not capturing jobs?" said Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies. "We do have desirable jobs, and we do have the best educated workforce, but we're not able to generate enough of those jobs to keep people here."
Theoretically, income and job growth should go hand in hand, said Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University economics professor. But the state's tight housing supply and subsequent high housing costs break the link.
This lack of housing keeps out workers who might otherwise be attracted to higher wages in Massachusetts, he said. Ultimately, jobs only increase if the population grows. "The number of jobs is pretty much connected to the number of people," Glaeser said. "If there's no new housing, there's no new bodies."
Robert Gavin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Ex-mill workers gain aid: Employees eligible for job retraining"
By Ellen G. Lahr and Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff Special to The Eagle
Sunday, December 30, 2007
LEE — Laid-off workers from MeadWestvaco Specialty Papers are now eligible for extended unemployment and job retraining benefits, as are their counterparts at Schweitzer-Mauduit Paper International across town, which will begin shedding its paper workers in May.
The federal benefits were granted to MeadWestvaco this month following a petition by workers to the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which boosts financial help for workers whose jobs are lost because of competition from cheaper foreign imports.
The "trade readjustment allowance" extends unemployment benefits for up to two years for workers who enroll in job retraining. For those who opt out of retraining, benefits are extended from the usual 30 weeks to 52 weeks.
MeadWestvaco has closed one of its two Lee mills, with 70 jobs eliminated from the Laurel Mill in recent weeks. The company's historic Willow Mill remains up and running, with some employees transferred to that site.
The Laurel Mill is among three South County manufacturing operations to close or to announce closures this year. Neenah Paper of Alpharetta, Ga., laid off 137 workers after it purchased the former Fox River Paper Co. mill in March.
Schweitzer-Mauduit announced this year that it would begin to close four Lee mills in May 2008, eliminating 165 jobs; a first wave of layoffs occurred in 2006.
Mill jobs tough to find
By all accounts, the mill jobs reflected higher-than-average salaries for the area, stability of employment and strong benefit and pension programs. Former mill employees are having trouble finding similar level manufacturing jobs in the Berkshires now.
MeadWestvaco workers applied for the federal determination in October.
The U.S. Department of Labor surveyed the company's major customers regarding their purchases of wear-resistent and overlay paper of the sort produced in Lee — decorative paper used in making Formica and other laminate products — and found "increasing reliance on import purchases of both products."
The Department of Labor decision states that "a significant number of workers at the firm are age 50 or over and possess skills that are not easily transferable. Competitive conditions within the industry are adverse," resulting directly in the layoffs at the Laurel Mill.
Calls this week to the South Lee company were not returned.
Workers at Schweitzer-Mauduit received extended federal benefits more than a year ago. That's when some 70 workers were let go because of declining demand for American-made cigarette paper products, the key product of the Lee mills.
Of the 165 employees, about 140 are unionized manufacturing workers.
Roger Scheurer, plant manager, said a foreign competition for the Lee mill comes from within the Schweitzer-Mauduit corporation itself, which produces cigarette paper in Asia, South America and France.
"Foreign competition was coming from within our own company, so we got that Trade Adjustment Assistance," said Scheurer. "It's cheaper to import the product than to manufacture it here."
He is aware of several success stories of Schweitzer-Mauduit workers who took advantage of the job retraining offers: One went to nursing school, another entered a training program for electricians, and others learned the trade of heating, ventilation and air cooling.
Another sought commercial driver licensing and is now working for the town of Lee, Scheurer said.
"That's one of the great benefits of severance, and if there's a single employee who doesn't take advantage of this, they're out of their mind," he said. "It's a robust program and very supportive."
Severance benefits sought
Although workers at MeadWestvaco have maintained a relatively low profile since layoffs began Dec. 1, the workers at Schweitzer-Mauduit want it known that they have been hard at work to secure company severance benefits.
Jim Johnson, 56, a 36-year Schweitzer-Mauduit employee and president of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers, said a final meeting with the company and the union is set for Jan. 4. That meeting will, hopefully, button up details of the severance package in particular, a thorny pension issue.
He declined to elaborate on the details, but said he hopes the agreement will be on par with that offered to workers at MeadWestvaco.
He said mill employees from both his company and MeadWestvaco have been urged to attend the Lee Selectmen's meeting Jan. 8 at the Lee Elementary School auditorium to air their concerns.
"The public should know that they are losing two mills, and people should know how the workers are being treated," Johnson said.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he is not happy with what he is hearing about the Schweitzer-Mauduit severance deal, particularly regarding pension benefits.
"Where does a 55-year-old man go in Berkshire County, knowing he will retire in several years? Who will invest in retraining that person?" he said. "They will also be losing their health insurance in a state that now mandates health insurance."
Johnson said that, although the federal job benefit program is a good one, the local market for employees is becoming saturated with laid-off mill workers, which could drive down wages.
"The market is getting flooded, and people may have to move out of the area," he said.
Incentives to stay
Scheurer, the plant manager, said the company is doing all it can to assist employees who may want to leave ahead of the May layoff target date. On the other hand, he said, the company wants to keep as many employees as possible, to fill remaining orders.
"There are some incentives to staying on, and it's our goal to retain people through closing," he said. "It's a mixed thing. We want to retain people, and we are also helping people find new jobs."
Of the Jan. 8 meeting, Pignatelli said a public show of support for mill workers — who have historically been the backbone of Lee's economy — is essential.
"We need to be there to support people who are losing their jobs, and get the community to address potential options for the properties," he said. "It's not like the old days, where you went across the street to the next mill."
To reach Ellen G. Lahr: email@example.com, (413) 496-6240
"Stiff price to pay for health care reform"
By: Ryan Burgess
NORTH ADAMS, MA- "The goal was to get every man, woman, and child covered by health care," said Fourth Berkshire District State Representative Smitty Pignatelli (D).
The goal he's talking about is Massachusetts health care reform. And the Bay State means business. If you don't have coverage, you'll pay a fine stiff enough to send you to the Emergency Room. No coverage for 2007 cost violators $219.
"For 2008, the fines could potentially be much higher. They would range between just over $200 a year to $900 a year," said Ecu-Health Executive Director Chip Joffey-Halpern.
That's the fine for an individual. For a couple who remains uninsured, you can expect to pay over $1,800. Remember that's $18,000 in fines. It's big price to pay, but that threat has produced results.
"In Berkshire County, we've enrolled probably a little over eleven-thousand people into subsidized health insurance programs," said Joffey-Halpern.
It's a heavy price to pay for not having health insurance. And as our bureau reporter Ryan Burgess tells us, if you haven't enrolled in health insurance in the Bay State yet, be prepared to pay.
Programs like his help those who can't afford coverage to get enrolled. But it's not just the lowest tax bracket that needs help. What about the middle class or a family that's struggling to make ends meet? Is it fair to make them pay a fine on top of not having health insurance?
"They may not qualify for a subsidized program, but I think there's products out there, based on your income, that show the affordability factor," said Pignatelli.
So with the cost of coverage not affordable for many, is the program working?
"When people ask me if it's successful, it's not an all or nothing deal. It's somewhere in between," said Joffey-Halpern.
It's about counting the dollars to make some sense.
"It's definitely working. The long term viability is what's really going to be interesting. We need to make sure the affordability is built for the long run," said Pignatelli.
But for now, the experts say, everyone benefits from having insurance, even if there's a penalty.
"I think it's a small price to pay," said Pignatelli.
But big enough to get you enrolled.
"The great pot debate: Use of marijuana a hot topic, with ballot question possible"
By Benning W. De La Mater, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Sunday, January 06, 2008
The debate over marijuana is a cloudy one.
It's an illegal drug ... used by presidents.
Heads get high ... cancer patients get hungry.
Most pot smokers don't try heroin ... most heroin addicts tried pot first.
One thing's for certain: This debate is coming to a water cooler near you.
The people behind the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, a Boston-based advocacy group, have cleared the first hurdle to reduce the state's penalty for minor pot possession from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction.
In their world, walking down North Street with an ounce of marijuana in your jeans — a sandwich bag full of pot in your pocket — is the same as speeding on the Turnpike.
The committee secured enough signatures (81,758) on a petition this past fall to pass it on to state legislators. If politicians don't make it a law this spring — which they can do but which rarely happens — the campaign will need 11,099 additional signatures by July 9 to push the referendum onto the November ballot. Then, the voters of Massachusetts would decide.
The committee's martyrs are youths who get criminal records attached to their names for life and the $24.3 million it says is wasted by police each year in busting and booking marijuana offenders.
Berkshire law-enforcement officials are against the campaign and say that reducing the penalties would foster a blasé attitude toward the drug, one that would tempt more people — especially children — to try it.
The state issue also has a local twist: The chairwoman for the marijuana committee, Whitney Taylor, a 37-year-old Boston resident, served as campaign director for Judith Knight, the Great Barrington attorney who lost the 2006 Berkshire County district attorney's race to David F. Capeless.
The focal point of that race was the arrests of 19 teens and twentysomethings who were charged during a 2004 drug sting in the Taconic Lumber parking lot in Great Barrington.
Taylor also was an active member of Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice, the group that galvanized after the arrests and lobbied Capeless for lenient prosecution during the trials.
A 16-year-veteran of championing drug reform from California to Maryland, Taylor said Massachusetts voters — not outdated laws — should determine the fate of the marijuana debate.
"There's support for this from all walks of life," she said. "The fact is there would be both a human savings and a fiscal savings. It's just smart public policy."
Taylor backs up her claim of support with numbers. More than 81,000 registered Massachusetts voters — nearly 20 percent more than the required 66,593 — signed a petition this past fall to move the ballot question ahead. In all, signatures were collected in 350 of the state's 351 towns and cities.
Locally, the number of signatures included 831 in Pittsfield, 482 in North Adams, 161 in Dalton, and four in Alford.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he is strongly opposed to the idea of decreasing marijuana penalties.
"I believe it would send the wrong message to society," Pignatelli said. "If you don't want a criminal record, then don't break the law — it's that simple. That's the lesson kids need to understand — they're jeopardizing financial assistance for higher education."
Pignatelli said he is against mandatory sentences for drug sales near a school zone and is "sympathetic to kids who make stupid mistakes." But he said that decriminalizing marijuana would create "an air of leniency" toward drugs.
"I don't think the attitude of society has changed toward this drug," he said. "I would be surprised if the general populace voted this through. I'm not a big fan of government by referendum anyway, but I just hope that people understand what yes and no mean."
The current penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana are a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. Individuals are arrested and booked, and convicted offenders are entered in the state's Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system.
Under the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy's proposed law change, those caught with an ounce or less would have their marijuana confiscated, be handed a ticket and face only a $100 fine. Offenders under age 18 would have to enter a drug-awareness program.
Taylor said the laws against selling the drug and driving under the influence of it would remain untouched.
According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), 12 states, including Maine and New York, already have reduced penalties for marijuana possession.
"This is not decriminalization in the legalizing sense," Taylor said. "What we're talking about is changing the penalties and putting an end to a system that stops people from moving forward with their lives, getting student loans or even jobs."
Harvard economist Jeff Miron conducted a study on the financial costs of current marijuana enforcement and found that at least $24.3 million is spent each year by police departments across the state in arrest and booking costs. That does not include $68.5 million spent in the courts and $13.6 million in jails.
Taylor said this money should be used to add more police officers and equipment and to fight violent crime.
But local law-enforcement officials point out that not a single warrant has been issued for marijuana possession. Most marijuana possession arrests, they say, are "add-on charges" — meaning they find marijuana in a car or in a home after another crime has been committed.
Capt. Patrick F. Barry, head of the Pittsfield Police Department's detective unit, said his officers usually focus on drug dealers.
"The reality is," he said, "if a cop stops a car for speeding or we're on a domestic-abuse call and we find marijuana, that person will be arrested and charged. We find a roach, a marijuana pipe, a bag in someone's car when we do a traffic stop. But we rarely target marijuana possession.
"I don't want to say it's decriminalized now, but no one is going to jail for a first-time possession drug charge."
Barry declined to state his opinion on the proposed law change. But he did say that dealers could play it safe if lower penalties were instituted.
"If you have a guy with (just over) an ounce right now, that's possession with intent to distribute," he said. "An ounce is 40 joints' worth. That's quantity. If the law was changed, dealers would make sure they only carried around an ounce or less. It could make it tougher for us."
Lt. Joseph McDyer, a state police officer and head of the Berkshire County Drug Task Force, said he is against the marijuana proposal and doesn't believe it would help police departments.
"It wouldn't free us up at all," he said. "All marijuana possession charges result from other police work. All these (marijuana committee) people want to do is get high. They don't see the tragedies. There's a small segment of society that will move on from alcohol to marijuana to prescription drugs and harder drugs."
McDyer said tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana) "is a dangerous drug, and we're now seeing pot with higher THC levels than ever before."
According to a study cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, THC increases heart rates, and the risk of a heart attack more than quadruples in the first hour after smoking marijuana. A Yale University study also found that 50 percent of healthy volunteers given THC showed symptoms of psychosis.
Conversely, the drug has medicinal purposes, and 12 states have adopted legislation or initiatives that permit marijuana use for the treatment of nausea and anorexia associated with cancer and AIDS and for neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
Although Massachusetts passed legislation recognizing marijuana's medicinal value, the drug has never been legal for those purposes in the state.
Capeless said changing the current marijuana penalties would be a setback to the advances made in the war on drugs. He said the justification of saving police dollars is "a ludicrous claim."
"The public needs to understand that we have a very fair and responsible statute right now with regards to possession of marijuana," Capeless said. "On a first offense, we recommend that the matter be dismissed and the person placed on probation."
Taylor said drug interdiction is much different in Berkshire County from what it is in urban areas such as Springfield, Worcester and Boston, "where they are targeting specific groups."
"They do go after possession in a tough way, and these people are getting (put into the Criminal Offender Record Information system)," she said.
Capeless said roughly 4 percent of the cases that go through his office each year deal with marijuana possession.
In 2005, 183 of the 271 total marijuana possession charges involved other criminal charges. In 2006, it was 174 of the 262 total charges, and in 2007 (through Dec. 1), it was 108 of 184.
"I think that shows that marijuana is directly associated with other criminal activity," Capeless said. "This proposal is a very dangerous initial step toward decriminalization. Good, positive work is being done to fight illegal drug use."
Capeless, vice president of the Massachusetts District Attorney's Association, said district attorneys from across the state recently gathered and talked about the voter initiative.
"We've discussed this, and we're unanimously against it," he said. "We will be actively involved in sending out a clear message."
Michael, a Pittsfield resident who asked that his last name not be used and who signed the marijuana petition last fall, said he expects the issue to generate heated debates. He believes there's a generational divide between those who favor marijuana decriminalization and those who don't.
"Outside of the actual 'smoking,' I've never really seen anything harmful about marijuana," he said. "A lot of people smoke marijuana. And a lot of people drink, too. I just don't see a big difference."
NORML reports that more people are smoking marijuana today than ever before. At least 100 million Americans (33 percent) have tried pot, with 25 million people consuming it at least once a year and 15 million using it in the past month.
In 1970, there were an estimated 188,682 arrests on marijuana-related charges. Last year, there were more than 830,000.
This millennia-old mystical plant has been causing a ruckus for decades. It was during the counterculture revolution of the 1960s that marijuana, aka Cannabis sativa, saw a rise in recreational use.
It's been studied by the Nixon administration, used at concerts to heighten the musical experience, and glorified — and vilified — on television and in movies.
In his book, "Hemp: Lifeline to the Future," Chris Conrad lists seven presidents as cannabis users, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They weren't alone. Who can forget former President Clinton's famous "I did not inhale" quote?
The pot debate apparently won't end anytime soon, or perhaps, even with a vote.
Taylor said she believes Massachusetts is ready for a change in the laws.
"(Twelve) states have decriminalized this, and none of the problems have come to fruition," she said. "It's still going to be illegal. We're taking the penalty and making it a civil offense. Let's not punish people for the rest of their lives."
To reach Benning W. De La Mater: firstname.lastname@example.org, (413) 496-6243.
Drug use in the United States wasn't defined as a federal crime until 1914, under the Harrison Act.
By 1937, 23 states had outlawed marijuana. That year, the federal government passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which made nonmedical use of the drug illegal.
At least 7,500 people are arrested for marijuana possession in Massachusetts each year.
Twelve states have reduced the penalties for marijuana possession, starting with Oregon in 1973. The other states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio.
Massachusetts ballot questions have varied in importance over the years, including repealing Prohibition, eliminating income tax, outlawing capital punishment, and enacting campaign finance reform.
Laws passed by states and cities to decriminalize marijuana do not result in the drug being legal. The federal government regulates marijuana through the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Supremacy Clause, any state law in conflict with a federal law is not valid. Federal agents don't normally spend time on small possession charges, though, unless they involve crossing state and national borders.
The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy collected signatures for its Massachusetts marijuana ballot referendum in 350 of the state's 351 cities and towns. The only town that failed to register a signature was Berkshire County's Mount Washington, with a population of 146.
SOURCES: Time Magazine, the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Eagle news services.
"Cultural Mainstay Receives Program Support"
January 07, 2008
Downing & Pignatelli Laud $8,100 Grant to Berkshire Museum’s Little Cinema
Pittsfield - State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) and State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) announce an $8,100 grant through the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities for the Berkshire Museum’s Little Cinema “Film Feast” events.
Senator Downing said, “The Berkshire Museum has long been an anchor to Pittsfield’s cultural community. They provide creative programming that attracts visitors from near and far and their Film Feast events are fine examples of their collaborative spirit, as they partner with local restaurants to strengthen the tourist economy. I applaud the Foundation for choosing this worthy project for their support.”
These funds will support the Museum’s Little Cinema extended run into the off-season with four additional Film Feast events, each of which partners the Museum with a local restaurant. The next Film Feast event will be held Sunday, February 3rd featuring the Stanley Tucci film Big Night and insights from food historian Francine Segan at Berkshire Community College’s Koussevitzky Hall, followed by a gourmet Italian meal at Trattoria Rustica on McKay Street in Pittsfield. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the Berkshire Museum at (413) 443-7171 or visit them online at www.berkshiremuseum.org.
“The Berkshire Museum is again reinventing itself through this new program. Kudos to the Foundation for recognizing this and granting this to them,” stated Pignatelli.
Stuart A. Chase, executive director of the Berkshire Museum said, “It is gratifying to know that the State of Massachusetts and the Berkshire delegation in particular recognize the importance of the humanities by helping to fund programs like the new Film Feasts at the Berkshire Museum. Not only will we be able to present these film programs outside of our regular Little Cinema season, but by partnering with several of the wonderful restaurants in Pittsfield and noted food writes and experts, we will enhance the movie experience, making new connections among film, food, and diverse cultures.”
Funding for this program is made possible in part by a partnership between Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. A total of $96,421 has been approved to be dispersed among 14 projects across the Commonwealth during this grant round.
"Ex-mill workers gloomy on future"
By Dick Lindsay, Special to The (Berkshire) Eagle
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
LEE — Dickie Neales worked 14 years at Schweitzer-Mauduit Paper International.
Unlike the 165 people being laid off by the manufacturer over the next five months, Neales voluntarily left the company 18 months ago when it phased out his position. Since then, he has had a part-time job with UPS and currently is working at a seasonal job for the town of Lee.
"I'm fortunate to have a job with the town, but you guys will have a tough time finding work," Neales told several of his former co-workers, who gathered last night at the Selectmen's meeting in the auditorium at Lee High School.
They were among 40 people who attended the meeting for an update regarding layoffs at Schweitzer-Mauduit and at MeadWestvaco. The closing of the mills will put more than 225 people out of work.
Jim Johnson, 56, an employee of Schweitzer-Mauduit for 36 years and president of Local 78 of the United Steelworkers, was pessimistic about future local job prospects.
"The market is flooded with workers," said Johnson, referring to the more than 200 jobs lost at Rising Paper Mill in Housatonic and at MeadWestvaco in 2007. "There are no jobs around here making $15 to $20 an hour."
Ken Massina of the state's Rapid Response team, which immediately deals with large-scale layoffs, urged the workers to be more optimistic.
"We can't help you if you don't use our services," he said. "We are looking at the local job market and offering training that will cross over to available jobs.
"We will knock down doors and find out what companies are hiring, but we all must work on this together," Massina added. Schweitzer-Mauduit workers also were bitter about the severance package being offered by the company.
"We're getting a bad shake on this," Johnson said. He said the proposal was much less than what MeadWestvaco offered its 70 workers laid off in the past couple of months.
"I believe Schweitzer-Mauduit is discriminating against the union," Neales said after the meeting. The former union president at Schweitzer-Mauduit noted that MeadWestvaco is a nonunion shop.
The future also is uncertain for the soon-to-be-vacant mill buildings. Schweitzer-Mauduit officials said that several companies have expressed interest in one or more of the four mills and that some preliminary discussions have taken place regarding their sale.
"The town must play a role in the marketing of these mills and to keep them afloat," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
Selectwoman Patricia Carlino said the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has assured the town that the agency will work with both Schweitzer-Mauduit and MeadWestvaco to keep permits active "to maintain the affected mills as viable working facilities."
Selectmen Chairman Gordon Bailey said current town zoning allows other uses at the mills.
"But possible reuse doesn't guarantee employment," Bailey cautioned. He said the mill closings will have minimal impact on municipal water and sewer rates but will greatly affect the property tax base in fiscal 2009.
"We are certainly not done with this," said Bailey, as he wrapped up the hour-long gathering. "We will continue to meet with local state lawmakers and business leaders. Our board will have more meetings regarding the mill closings."
"Mass. unemployment rises"
January 17, 2008 08:37 AM
Massachusetts employers shed 2,700 payroll jobs in December, and the unemployment rate rose to 4.5 percent from 4.3 percent in November, the state Department of Workforce Development reported.
Massachusetts added about 24,000 jobs in 2007, a marked slowdown from nearly 35,000 added in 2006. After a strong start, job growth in the state slowed steadily in the face of rising energy costs, a slumping housing markets and a struggling national economy. Massachusetts added an average of about 5,000 jobs a month in the first quarter the year; in the last quarter months, the state lost an average of more than 1,000 a month.
In December, job losses were spread across most sectors. Construction, retail sales and manufacturing -- sectors vulnerable to energy costs, the housing market and slowing consumer spending -- all lost jobs.
(By Robert Gavin, [Boston] Globe staff)
"Soaring electricity prices leave state's manufacturers struggling: Higher power bills contribute to plant closings"
By Robert Gavin, (Boston) Globe Staff, January 18, 2008
State lawmakers will soon finalize energy legislation that aims to promote efficiency and alternatives to fossil fuels. But as legislators iron out differences between recently passed House and Senate bills, businesses say they need to pay closer attention to what many firms consider the real energy crisis: spiraling electricity costs.
Massachusetts manufacturers pay the highest electricity prices in the continental United States, and the gap between their costs and those of competitors in other states is widening, according to the Energy Department. In 2006, the most recent annual data available, industrial users in Massachusetts paid more than double the average US rate, compared to 60 percent more in 2005. Only Hawaii has higher industrial rates.
As a result, Massachusetts manufacturers are struggling to stay in business. Electricity costs have contributed to the shutdown of several plants with the loss of an estimated 2,000 jobs, according to Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state's largest employer group.
Among them: a 200-year-old paper mill in Lee. The mill's owner, Schweitzer-Mauduit International Inc. of Alpharetta, Ga., said electricity played a role in the decision to shutter the plant later this year and lay off about 160 workers. Power costs at the Lee mill jumped nearly 30 percent, or $2.8 million, over the past two years, with electricity accounting for 17 percent of manufacturing costs, said Bill Foust, vice president of administration.
That compares to 5 to 7 percent at Schweitzer-Mauduit's other mills.
"Electricity isn't the only reason we plan to cease operations," said Foust, citing other factors such as falling demand for the cigarette papers produced at the mill, "but rising energy costs have been significant there."
Massachusetts has long had high electricity prices, but several factors contributed to the recent run-up, specialists said. First, the state depends on expensive fuels to make electricity. About 60 percent of New England power plants run on natural gas or oil, and sharp increases in the costs of these fuels passed through to electricity prices, according to ISO-New England, the organization that runs the region's power grid.
Nationally, these fuels account for a combined 21 percent of power generation. Cheaper coal-fired and nuclear plants generate nearly 70 percent of the nation's power.
Other factors driving costs here are growing demand, lagging supply, and inadequate transmission, which creates bottlenecks that further constrain supply. Difficulties at power plants and other facilities, such as liquid natural gas depots, also push prices higher.
"These are constraints that are self-imposed in New England," said Gordon van Welie, chief executive for ISO-New England. "Yet we keep consuming more."
Western Massachusetts has been hardest hit by rising electricity costs, recently pummeled by sharp increases in delivery charges from Western Massachusetts Electric Co., a unit of Northeast Utilities of Berlin, Conn. Those increases, approved in a 2006 settlement with former Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, helped raise power costs for large commercial and industrial users more than 20 percent last year.
Total power costs for large users are projected to rise 11 percent this year, according to the utility.
Under Massachusetts' deregulated market, utilities just deliver electricity, charging delivery rates regulated by the state. Independent generators that make electricity sell it at market prices determined by supply and demand. Utilities pass those prices on to consumers.
Economic development officials in Western Massachusetts say soaring electricity costs are not only pushing plants like Schweitzer-Mauduit's over the edge, but also are hurting efforts to recruit companies. About a year ago, Ice River Springs Water Co. Inc. of Feversham, Ontario, planned to open a bottling plant in Pittsfield. But when corporate officials saw electric rates, they put the building they purchased up for sale and opened the plant in New Hampshire.
Sandy Gott, executive vice president, said her company is working with economic development officials to revive the Pittsfield project. The Berkshire Chamber of Commerce recently formed a cooperative of smaller companies to buy power in larger volumes at lower rates. Gott said Ice River Springs is examining whether those savings will be enough.
"We're kind of in limbo and trying to make a final decision," said Gott. "The electricity prices were quite a shock."
At the Friendly Ice Cream Corp. plant in Wilbraham, soaring prices boosted power costs by nearly $1 million over the past 2 years, gobbling savings from investments in energy-efficient lighting and refrigeration and other projects, said Mike St. Marie, vice president of production and distribution. Friendly pays 14 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity, up from about 8 cents three years ago.
"Rates have really spiraled out of control," St. Marie said, "and it makes us a little uncompetitive."
Ian Bowles, the state's secretary of energy and environment, said the Patrick administration recognizes that high electricity prices hurt competitiveness and is pushing initiatives to lower them. They include investing heavily in energy efficiency; revamping utility rate structures to promote conservation; and developing renewable sources, such as wind, solar, and biofuels, to reduce reliance on natural gas and oil. Significantly increasing efficiency could slice electricity expenses 3 to 5 percent a year, Bowles said.
Robert Rio, senior vice president at AIM, agreed energy efficiency could cut prices. But, he said, policy makers should move carefully in subsidizing alternative energy and other programs.
"We need a policy that puts electricity prices first," Rio said. "All these programs are nice, but we need to constantly ask, 'How is it going to reduce prices?' "
Many of these programs are funded with surcharges on utility bills, typically fractions of a cent per kilowatt hour. Many homeowners barely notice these charges, Rio said. But for industrial users, consuming millions of kilowatt hours a year, they boost costs by thousands of dollars.
M. Brian O'Shaughnessy, chief executive of Revere Copper Products Inc. of Rome, N.Y., said surcharges for energy efficiency, renewables, and other programs contributed to the shutdown this fall of Revere's plant in New Bedford. About 90 workers lost jobs.
New York development programs exempt manufacturers from such surcharges, O'Shaughnessy said, and rates at Revere's Rome facility are half those at New Bedford. "Massachusetts has to recognize that industrial companies have to be competitive with industrial plants around the world," O'Shaughnessy said. "You can't burden manufacturers with higher costs in a region where high costs already make it harder to compete."
(Robert Gavin can be reached at email@example.com.)
"Slowing Mass. economy costs jobs: Unemployment rate hits 4.5% at year-end"
By Robert Gavin, (Boston) Globe Staff, January 18, 2008
The Massachusetts economy slowed considerably at the end of last year, as rising energy costs, slumping housing markets, and the sputtering national economy took their toll on jobs and overall growth.
Massachusetts employers shed 2,700 jobs in December, and the jobless rate rose to 4.5 percent, up from 4.3 percent in November, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported.
For the year, the state added about 24,000 jobs, compared to about 35,000 jobs in 2006. Massachusetts still has 100,000 fewer jobs than it did in early 2001, when employment peaked before the last recession.
With recession again looming, the state could, for likely the first time in modern history, go through an expansion without regaining its previous employment peak.
"We've been a boom-and-bust economy," said Andre Mayer, senior vice president for research at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state's largest employer group. "But when you get the bust without the boom, that's not a good thing."
After picking up momentum early last year, the Massachusetts economy has slowed in recent months along with the national economy, struggling under the weight of meltdowns in housing, mortgage, credit, and financial markets. In December, the nation added only 18,000 payroll jobs, and the unemployment rate jumped to 5 percent, from 4.7 percent in November.
Yesterday, the University of Massachusetts reported that the state economy grew at a 2.5 percent annual rate in November, compared to 3 percent in the third quarter, July to September, and 4 percent in the first three months of 2007.
"We seem to be losing momentum, and losing it fast," said Alan Clayton-Matthews, the UMass-Boston professor who estimates the state's economic growth based on a variety of data, including unemployment, tax collections, and stock prices of Massachusetts companies.
The job market, after getting off to a strong start in early 2007, is also losing momentum. In the first quarter of 2007, Massachusetts added an average of more than 5,000 payroll jobs a month. In the last quarter, it lost an average or more than 1,000 jobs a month.
So far, the hardest-hit sectors here are those exposed to energy costs, housing, and consumer spending.
Manufacturing shed 400 jobs in December and 2,600 in 2007. Construction employment fell by 900 jobs last month and 3,200 over the year. Retailers also cut 900 jobs in December. For the year, retail employment is down 3,100 jobs.
"We're seeing a slowdown in the same areas that they're seeing nationally," said Elliot Winer, chief economist at the state Department of Workforce Development Division of Unemployment Assistance. "The good news is some of our strongest sectors are still doing fine."
Business and professional services, which includes a variety of technology, scientific, and technical firms, added nearly 10,000 jobs over the past year. Education and health services, which includes universities, hospitals, and nonprofits, added 11,000 jobs. Tourism, aided by the weak dollar which is making the currencies of foreign visitors go further, is also helping. The leisure and hospitality sector added nearly 6,000 jobs over the year.
Still, said Clayton-Matthews, these sectors won't shield the state from a national recession. If consumer spending continues to falter, it will lead businesses that produce consumer products to cut back on goods and services, particularly technology. Massachusetts has a high concentration of companies that sell goods and services to other businesses, nationally and globally.
"If the consumer spending slows down, we could see it affecting technology spending," he said. "Then our last leg of the stool gets cut out from under us."
(Robert Gavin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"State makes online tool for missing children"
By Matt Murphy, (North Adams) Transcript Statehouse Bureau
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
BOSTON — More than 30 years ago, 13-year-old Deborah Ann Quimby disappeared, last seen riding her bicycle to her grandmother's home in Townsend.
Quimby's picture and her story have been revisited many times over the years since her disappearance in 1977 as police have receive new tips to ignite a trail long gone cold.
While her's might be one of the more infamous missing child cases in the state, not every family or child gone missing receives the same attention.
A new online clearing house for all missing children in Massa- chusetts would give law enforcement officials a valuable tool for tracking missing youth in what some lawmakers and child welfare advocates are calling a long-overdue step.
Dozens of states across the country already operate similar clearing houses for missing children, including New York state where 21,646 children reportedly went missing in 2006.
In Massachusetts, however, it's impossible to tell at any given time home many children are unaccounted for.
"We don't have a one stop shop where law enforcement officials will know whether a young person who s under 21 has been abducted or is a runaway. Having two daughters of my own, I can't imagine not knowing not knowing where they are at all times," said state Rep. Thomas Golden, D-Lowell.
Golden, along with Sen. Steve Baddour, D-Methuen, has filed a bill that would create a new online clearing house where law enforcement officials and the public would be able to track all reports of missing children throughout the state.
The bill would extend the age for filing such reports on minors from 18 to 21.
Laurie Myers, a child protection advocate and president of Comm- unity Voices, said a clearing house would stimulate communication between local police departments, and aid in finding missing children that are abducted or run away from home quicker.
"This would get the word out much quicker, and help notify other police departments. Right now there just a lot of confusion when kids go missing, and sometimes there's little follow up after a report is filed," said Myers, a Chelmsford resident and former rape crisis counselor.
The new clearing house would be operated by the Massachusetts State Police under the Executive Office of Public Safety. In addition to more stringent reporting requirements, the Web site would also offer helpful advice for parents and community members, and operate a toll-free hotline.
The state already does maintain a Web site for missing children, but Myers said the information available is far from complete.
A year ago, when Community Voice started doing research for the proposed legislation, two children were listed on the state site.
Today there are 30 children listed as missing, all compiled from reports registered with the National Crime Information Center, a database overseen by the F.B.I. and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Quimby and Judith Ann Char- ter, abducted from Chelmsford in 1982 when she was 18, are both listed on the site.
Myers said many local police departments do not always submit information to NCIC when parents or others give a report of a missing child to local police.
"They've been put on the back burner for far too long, and these are kids. They should be taken seriously," Myers said.
The Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security held a hearing on the bill last week, with no discernible opposition to proposal.
Golden called the bill a "slam dunk."
As for why it's taken so long for Massachusetts to do what many other states already have, Golden said he wasn't sure.
"I keep asking that and no one has an answer. The bottom line is we filed this, we're 100 percent behind this, and if we help one more family find their child, that's what we're all about," he said.
"[Massachusetts Governor Deval] Patrick's promises"
By Matt Murphy, Transcript Statehouse Bureau
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick, in a move undoubtedly designed to entice lawmakers to support his casino gambling plan, is dangling some large checks in front of cities and towns to help pay for road and infrastructure projects.
Patrick, in advance of his official budget filing today, detailed $88 million in spending from potential casino licensing revenue next year that could net North Central Massachusetts over $3.6 million for road and bridge construction.
Under the proposal, Pittsfield would stand to receive $630,443 in new Chapter 90 funds, while other cities and towns like North Adams and Great Barrington would see close to $200,000 or more, according to Patrick administration officials.
The governor intends to include $300 million in new revenue from casino gaming in his second budget, a risky move given the fact that his expanded gambling proposal to build three resort casinos in Massachusetts has not even had a formal legislative committee hearing.
Several House leaders, including Speaker Sal DiMasi and Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, have indicated they oppose the spending plan because it is premature.
Rep. Daniel Bosley, a North Adams Democrat, has also been fiercely critical of the govenor's casino proposal, but could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The House and Senate will both produce their own budgets after the governor.
Patrick, according to administration sources, proposes to spend $88 million of that new revenue on increased funding for cities and towns to repair roads and bridges. Another $88 million will go toward property tax relief for 500,000 qualifying households, and the remaining $124 million will cover a projected shortfall in lottery revenue.
"The budget is a political document as well as a financial one, and he is using it in this instance to drive a political issue, and I think that's fair," said Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Panagiotakos supports the governor's casino gambling proposal as a badly needed source of new revenue and job creation, but said it is unlikely he will be able to include casino revenue in next year's Senate budget proposal if the House doesn't as well.
"I'm supportive, quite frankly, of anything that gets this proposal to a full debate on the merits. It s too important of an issue to not have that debate and vote up or down," he said.
Many House lawmakers, however, were not as supportive of the governor's effort to push forward his casino plan forward.
"I think it's foolish and sends false hope to cities an towns that that money would be coming their way. I don't know how you can spend money from something right now that is illegal in Massachusetts," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli.
Lenox would stand to benefit moderately under the governor's plan, taking in an extra $132,838 in Chapter 90 money. While new revenue can be attractive, Pignatelli said it was premature to start talking about how to spend casino licensing revenue — a one-time source — before the House and Senate debate.
"Obviously we're struggling for revenue in the state, there's no doubt about it," he said. "The governor sees casinos as part of the solution, but under the legislature has a chance to go through this it's way too early."
Patrick will unveil his second budget since taking over as governor today, and is scheduled to deliver his first State-of-the-State address before the House of Representatives Thuirsday night on Beacon Hill.
Many of the significant proposals to be included in his spending plan have already trickled out, including a call to increase education spending by $368 million next year, and boost public safety spending by $106 million. He plans to ask for $8 million for local police departments to hire an additional 100 police officers statewide.
In addition to new casino revenue, Patrick also has proposed raising health insurance premiums for 58,000 state employees and closing a number of "unintended" corporate tax loopholes while offering a moderate reduction in the state corporate tax rate.
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center yesterday projected $1.17 billion structural deficit heading into fiscal 2009 thanks to a reliance on one-time revenue sources.
"As recession fears grow, Massachusetts industries hunker down for a tough '08"
By Robert Weisman, (Boston) Globe Staff, January 23, 2008
As problems in the economy mount and talk of a recession grows louder, Massachusetts companies are looking at tougher business conditions this year across a broad range of industries.
Banks are writing fewer auto and commercial loans. Hospitals are finding it harder to collect reimbursements from patients. And even in the high-tech sector, which many in the state had seen as cushioning the pain of a downturn, there are fears that once reliable customers, such as financial firms, will stop buying software, and services.
There are still bright spots, including life sciences, which is less sensitive to economic cycles, and tourism, which has benefited from an influx of foreigners taking advantage of a weak dollar. But there also are fears the economic contagion that has jumped from the housing market into mortgage and lending arenas and, most recently, into consumer spending, will infect other pockets of state commerce.
"If these things spill over, they can contaminate the entire economy," cautioned Michael Lynch, a New England regional economist for the Lexington research firm Global Insight Inc.
It's too soon to say whether yesterday's emergency interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve will calm jittery investors and keep the economic slide from accelerating. After plunging nearly 465 points after the opening, the Dow Jones industrial average rebounded in response to the Fed's move. It finished down 128.11, a 1.06 percent drop, at 11,971.19, its first close below 12,000 since November 2006.
The mixed effects of the slowdown so far can be seen in the financial services industry. Mortgage companies have been battered by the subprime market collapse, but mutual fund firms have held up better as people continue to pour money into retirement funds. Many large banks are weighed down by portfolios of mortgage-backed securities, while some smaller banks still have plenty of money to lend to qualified buyers.
Bristol County Savings Bank in Taunton, which never sold subprime mortgages, is doing a brisk business in home loans in its current fiscal year, which began in November. But the business is being offset by the drying up of the bank's commercial and auto loan markets, casualties of the slowing economy. "The demand just isn't there in those areas," said E. Dennis Kelly, the bank's chief executive.
Hospitals, meanwhile, are finding it harder to pass on their rising costs to insurance companies. "We're seeing a tightening in our negotiations with health insurers," said Joe Kirkpatrick, a vice president at the Massachusetts Hospital Association. "We don't think we'll be able to maintain the [profit] margins we've had in recent years."
At the same time, hospitals are spending more time pursuing reimbursements from patients who are out of work or whose employers have cut back on insurance contributions. "We're all concerned there will be more people who are unemployed or will have benefits that are less comprehensive," said Ellen M. Zane, the president of Tufts New England Medical Center. "We'll still have to provide the same healthcare, but we won't get the same level of reimbursements."
Few high-tech companies in Massachusetts have sounded the kind of alarm heard in other sectors, but some troubling signs are emerging in the industry at large. Last week semiconductor giant Intel Corp., which operates a chip plant in Hudson, reported a weaker outlook because of competitive pricing in the flash-memory chip market.
Meanwhile, the chief executive of Symantec Corp., a security software firm with a presence in Massachusetts, warned the slowdown in the US economy could be spreading abroad. And, the Internet giant Yahoo Inc. is reportedly planning hundreds of job cuts as it continues to lose market share to rival Google Inc. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite exchange tumbled 47.75 points to 2,292.27 yesterday, losing 2.04 percent, nearly double the Dow's loss in percentage terms.
The market's concerns were echoed in the reaction of venture capitalists to a new MoneyTree report showing a flattening in investing in software firms, traditionally the single largest category for venture outlays. That is especially worrisome to Massachusetts, a hub for business software makers. "Financial services firms may be cutting back on information technology spending," said Deepak Kamra, general partner at the venture firm Canaan Partners. "If you see some softness in the economy, you could see some softness here."
But even as Massachusetts lost 2,700 jobs at the end of last year in sectors like construction, retail, and manufacturing, the most recent report from the state Department of Workforce Development showed employment gains in technology-related sectors such as engineering, scientific research and development, and consulting. One reason: Technology firms, which sell their products and services around the world, are less vulnerable to a slowdown in the US market.
"Everything's connected, but some things are connected more strongly to the local economy," said Yolanda K. Kodrzycki, senior economist and policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. "The tech industry is connected to the worldwide economy."
Many in the technology world remain upbeat. "I'm not in a state of panic," said Paul F. Deninger, vice chairman at investment bank Jefferies & Co. in Waltham, which focuses on high-tech firms. "If a recession lasts less than a year, the technology sector will be OK. If it lasts more than a year, then of course there'll be some fallout."
Another innovation-heavy business, life sciences, has been even less affected by the slowdown in housing and consumer spending. Biotechnology companies are continuing to invest in novel therapies, and demand for life-saving drugs and medical devices is as high as ever. Biogen Idec and Genzyme Corp., the state's largest biotech firms, expect to post double-digit profit increases in the next few years.
Still, the stock market retreat has hurt share prices of life sciences firms. And the Framingham research firm Health Sciences Insights last week warned the industry could be ripe for consolidation and cost cutting in 2008 as pharmaceutical giants snap up biotechnology firms to help refill depleted drug pipelines, though there has been little indication yet that has hurt Massachusetts.
"I would say we haven't been immune as a sector," said Drew Fromkin, chief executive of Clinical Data Inc., a Newton firm that's developing genetic tests and an experimental antidepressant drug.
The tourism sector, which can be sensitive to economic trends, has been weathering the slowdown - at least so far.
Buoyed by an influx of tourists from abroad and bookings for conferences, conventions, and special events, the Massachusetts Lodging Association projects occupancy rates will remain stable in Boston-area hotels this year while revenue per room will increase.
"It's not a year of huge optimism," said Paul J. Sacco, the association's chief executive. "But the industry is going strong."
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com. Todd Wallack and Nicole C. Wong of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
"Elderly housing in Lee gets $15K from state fund for repairs"
Berkshire Eagle Staff reports
Friday, January 25, 2008
LEE — The Lee Housing Authority has been awarded $15,000 in technical assistance and emergency capital improvement bond funding from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
The award will supplement the Lee Housing Authority's own capital reserves to design plans and replace the stairwell enclosures at the J. W. Brown Memorial Court development, located at 155 Maple St.
"The J. W. Brown Memorial Court development is an elderly housing complex with 48 units. Continued investment by the state in our public housing stock ensures and improves the safety and comfort of our residents," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, in a statement released today with state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
The amount of the funding award is based on DHCD's preliminary estimate of the costs associated with the project.
During the preliminary design phase, DHCD will be able to more accurately assess the scope of the emergency repairs and actual costs and adjust the award amount as needed.
The Lee Housing Authority's Board of Directors must approve DHCD's contract for financial assistance and related information before any construction can begin.
On December 3, Downing and Pignatelli announced a similar award for the Lee Housing Authority, bringing home $100,000 in similar funding for selective repairs at the J.W. Brown Memorial Court development.
Noting that Berkshire County has a wide range of housing and community development projects pending review by the DHCD, Sen. Downing has invited Housing Undersecretary Tina Brooks to tour the region and meet with state and local leaders to gain a firsthand view and understanding of the unique challenges that many small communities in western Massachusetts face. Brooks is expected to schedule a day-long tour of the county in mid-February.
"Lee tax bills up 8.3 percent"
By Richard Lindsay, Special to The Eagle
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
LEE — Lee homeowners continue to dig deeper into their bank accounts to support town government and services.
The average single family household will pay about $2,918 this year — an increase of $224, or about 8.3 percent, according to town officials.
"Lee people were prepared for this," said Selectmen Frank Consolati looking out over Main Street from his business office. "The $200-plus increase is still not popular, but the town has to pay its bills too."
"We can't cut services," added Consolati. "Residents expect their roads to be plowed. We simply have to keep town spending increases to a minimum."
Fiscal Year 2008 property tax bills were mailed out January 11. The first half of the payment is due by February 11.
Despite the tax rate going down by 50 cents, the average assessed value of a single-family home jumped by more than $29,000 to $248,084. Town Administrator Robert Nason attributed the sharp increase mainly to the state-mandated revaluation of all commercial and residential real estate done every three years, which was completed late in 2007.
Lee homeowners also shoulder more of the tax burden now than they did several years ago. In 2002, Nason said, residential property accounted for 63.2 percent of the local tax revenue; in 2008, it's nearly 71 percent.
Lee has a single tax rate for commercial and residential property, separating it could lessen the burden on homeowners.
"We would have to raise the commercial/industrial rate a huge amount," said Board of Assessors Chairman William Derrick. "The assessors did not think it was a good time to do that considering Lee's economic situation."
"Many of our businesses already give back to the town by supporting our schools, along with children and senior citizen programs," added Derrick.
Town officials worry the residential tax burden could worsen with the closing of Schweitzer-Mauduit International Paper later this spring and MeadWestvaco shutting down one of its two South Lee papermaking facilities last month. Nason said the two manufacturers have constantly been among the top five taxpayers in town. According to the Board of Assessors, the two companies will pay a combined total of $268,000 in real estate taxes this year.
"The impact of the mills closing won't be felt until 2010," noted Nason. "The depreciation of the mills value doesn't hit immediately."
Nason said an immediate solution to boosting local tax revenue could come from the state Legislature and governor. If they approve a bill allowing cities and towns to assess property taxes against Verizon, which owns most of the utility poles in town, Nason estimated another $165,000 in revenue. Telephone companies are currently exempt from such assessments in Massachusetts, while the electric companies can be charged for the poles they own.
Town officials point to the $15 million investment by F.L. Roberts to create a first-class travel center off Exit 2 of the Massachusetts Turnpike that will not only generate new property tax dollars for Lee, but greatly increase the town's hotel/motel tax intake due to a 93-room Hampton Inn.
However, the project isn't scheduled to break ground until September at the earliest.
Potential commercial investment in Lee includes Winstanley Associates of Lenox possibly relocating into the mostly vacant Bookless Block on Main Street. The Lee Community Development Corporation is the lead agency for that and possibly enticing new owners for the mills being closed.
"The CDC has many contacts, including some within the paper industry," said Consolati. "They are working hard behind the scenes and the Board of Selectmen will help them any way we can."
"Locals heading to New Orleans to build homes"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, February 01, 2008
PITTSFIELD — A group of Berkshire County residents, sponsored by Habitat For Humanity, will be traveling to New Orleans in two weeks to build homes in the area.
A total of 29 people will be leaving on Feb. 9, to work for about a week in St. Bernard's Parish, which abuts the Lower Ninth Ward, the hardest hit area in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina two years ago. St. Bernard's also absorbed considerable damage, said Anne Christopolis, the volunteer coordinator for the Central Berkshire Habitat For Humanity.
The financial end
Christopolis said each member of the group had to come up with about $1,000 each to go on the trip. The money covered room and board and the plane flight, as well as other incidentals.
Carolyn Valli, the agency administrator for the Central Berkshire Habitat organization, said the workers will be staying in a nearby hotel. They will also have to rent cars to get to and from the site.
"It's a chance to do something to help," she said. "We told people, take a week's vacation and make a difference, instead of going to the beach."
Valli was working at a fundraiser recently with her daughter, Jacqueline, who is also going.
Jacqueline Valli, 21, will be the youngest member of the group. She didn't have the financial resources the rest of the group had, so she and her mother organized a bake sale to raise some of the needed cash.
"It's a chance for me to make a difference," said Jacqueline Valli. "To make a difference for other people, and to make a difference for myself."
By the way, Jacqueline still needs about $300, said her mother. So anyone who would like to contribute can contact Carolyn Valli at the Central Berkshire Office at 413-442-3181.
Berkshires to the rescue
The Berkshires have been very supportive of the effort to rebuild the New Orleans area. In addition to several church groups and individuals who have spent time down there, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, organized a group of about two dozen tradesmen to rebuild the home of Stanley Stewart, a New Orleans native.
Christopolis said she planned to contact Pignatelli to talk about that trip and ask questions.
Carolyn Valli said yesterday that there is no more room for local people to come to New Orleans, but anyone who wishes to volunteer locally is always welcome. Habitat is working on five units of housing in the Berkshires. Plumbers and electricians are especially welcome to donate their time, she said.
To volunteer or for more information, call 1-413-442-3181.
Beacon Hill Roll Call
By Bob Katzen/ Correspondent
Friday, Feb 15, 2008,
"Smitty's Law is something that we can all embrace."
-Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) jokingly referring to a bill making Norman Rockwell the official state artist. Knapik was referring to Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli (D-Lenox) who in 1969 was the model for one of Rockwell's paintings.
HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK'S SESSION? Beacon Hill Roll Call tracks the length of time that the House and Senate were in session each week. Many legislators say that legislative sessions are only one aspect of the Legislature's job and that a lot of important work is done outside of the House and Senate chambers. They note that their jobs also involve committee work, research, constituent work and other matters that are important to their districts. Critics say that the Legislature does not meet regularly or long enough to debate and vote in public view on the thousands of pieces of legislation that have been filed. They note that the infrequency and brief length of sessions are misguided and lead to irresponsible late night sessions and a mad rush to act on dozens of bills in the days immediately preceding the end of an annual session.
During the week of February 11-15, the House met for a total of nine hours and 48 minutes while the Senate met for a total of four hours and 45 minutes.
Mon. Feb. 11- House 11:02 a.m. to 11:22 a.m., Senate 11:00 a.m. to 11:25 a.m.
Tues. Feb. 12- No House session, Senate 1:37 p.m. to 3:46 p.m.
Wed. Feb. 13- House 11:00 a.m. to 8:07 p.m., Senate 1:55 p.m. to 3:54 p.m.
Thurs. Feb. 14- House 11:01 a.m. to 11:22 a.m., Senate 11:01 a.m. to 11:13 a.m.
Fri. Feb. 15- No House or Senate session.
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Momentum for Jessica's bill"
By Hillary Chabot, Eagle Boston Bureau
Monday, February 25, 2008
BOSTON — A bill that would automatically impose stiffer penalties for convicted child rapists finally is gaining traction on Beacon Hill after years of inactivity.
The bill, which would trigger minimum mandatory sentencing of 20 years for forcibly raping a child under 12, was introduced nearly three years ago. Lawmakers vowed this week to move it forward by March, and although local victims' advocates applaud the advancement, they also wonder why it took so long.
"It will provide a sense of the safety, security and peace of mind in terms of knowing their perpetrator is more likely to be convicted," said Dana Brandon, executive director of the Berkshire County Kids Place & Violence Prevention Center Inc., a victims' advocacy group.
Community VOICES, another children's advocacy group, began a campaign to pressure lawmakers to pass the bill last week, asking residents to send in letters to Judiciary Committee Chairmen Sen. Robert Creedon, D-Brockton, and Rep. Gene O'Flaherty, D-Chelsea, who are currently reviewing the bill.
The bill was modeled after Jessica's Law in the state of Florida, which was passed in about three months after Jessica Lunsford, 9, was killed by a convicted sex offender. Forty states have passed Jessica's Law or an equivalent.
Two incidents involving level three sex offenders released by the same judge have sparked the campaign and may have helped push the bill forward. A level-three sex offender brutally raped a 6-year-old in New Bedford two weeks ago, and this past week another offender was arrested for peeping under a woman's bathroom stall. Both offenders were released by Superior Court Judge Richard T. Moses.
Rep. Karyn Polito, D-Shrewsbury, who filed the bill, said the bill applies only to those convicted of forcible rape and would not apply to juvenile offenders unless they can be charged as adults.
Brandon said Kid's Place handled 150 to 200 cases dealing with sexual assault of a child in Berkshire County last year, and of those, 125 to 165 got forensic interviews. "Berkshire County is excellent in pursuing additional legislation," Brandon said. "I certainly think this crime deserves stricter laws around it."
Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, agrees that sentences need to get tougher. "In the Berkshires, we've been fortunate to have good judges," he said, "but some people (in Massachusetts) are slapped on the wrist when they should be kicked in the butt."
Some highlights from the Bay State's version of Jessica's Law, passed in Florida after 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was killed by a sex offender, are listed below.
1. The bill would increase the sentence for forcible rape of a child under 16 years old to 10 years to life for the first offense and 20 years for any subsequent offense.
2. Those convicted of forcible rape of a child under 12 years old would be sentenced to a minimum of 20 years to life for the first offense and 30 years for subsequent offenses.
3. Those convicted of posing a child in a sexual act would get an automatic 15 to 25 years.
4. Judges would no longer decide whether certain sex offenders have to register with the Sex Offender Registry Board. All offenders convicted of rape by force would register for life.
Source: Rep. Karyn Polito, D*-Shrewsbury / *?-Democrat or Republican?
Keith Richard Radford Jr, Glendale, CA, 2/25/2008 -
In the face of unconscionable public humiliation. by: Keith Richard Radford Jr.
Mr. Dan Lungren, that is what we had before so many people who with so much time to surf the Internet joined together to harm so many people by use of so many Internet company's being forced to post sex offender information through laws created by the ignoring public who for a short wile put faith in government law makers to allow them to place their safety in the hands of government instead of just looking after ourselves and our own family's.[See "M" the movie] Now the many sex offender who have made an effort for years to just get on with their lives in the face of unconscionable public humiliation need a class action suite against the federal government. Can you imagine a world where you do not have the right to your own children? Seems California's Governor and approx. 60% of California's voting public thought this would be fine, till the ugly truth started showing up in the fine print. This started with the Baker Grant funding media and public services to go after sex offenders with a vengeance, as the federal government chimed in to add mucho state dollars to PAC/Special Interest group/Law Enforcement groups like Perverted Justice to seal the deal when early when studies were being hidden that proved contrary evidence to their funding designs on the free money wagon. Now that they have gotten more than they planed for in finding their fundamentally flawed thinking on the subject goes far beyond who lives next door An on slot of world public scrutiny on the immigration issue tied to this discrimination law including illegal renditions all the back to the 80' is not passing constitutional muster. The operation of questionable laws has brought Washington to its knees like Britney Spears in need of connecting with her children in front of a Judge having to suggest her bringing up the constitutional issue having the money to make a federal case of the matter. This brings us full cycle as she was Backer Act-ed to get her to a head doctor when all she needed is more time at home with her kids. So yes this whole idea has be a multi-billion dollar flop of American tax payers money. Now the telecoms industry's 1952 agreement to be fair in broadcasting is hanging in the balance when companies like MSNBC spent a large portion of that money. Seems to me that Micky would come to Britney's rescue under the condition of this situation. The fact remains that no one can take care of our children better, no hospital, orphanage, boy scout group, than their caring parents. They may not were a fine suit and tie our experiment on other humans this way but they and Mom and Dad and god help the person or government who damages that relationship with our kids.
"Veterans' spouses could keep plates: Pignatelli backs bill to honor survivors"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Monday, March 03, 2008
LENOX — State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli is a local sponsor of legislation honoring veterans' spouses by allowing them to display motor vehicle license tags in honor of their loved ones' service in the armed forces.
For many years, Pignatelli said, spouses were required to surrender the veterans' license plates following the death of the veteran, which often compounded the family's grief in an already difficult time.
The current law, passed by the state Legislature in 2006, allows surviving spouses to keep the veterans' license plate as long as they remain unmarried, he said.
Pignatelli said yesterday that the legislation he is supporting would expand this law by reinstating the license plate to eligible spouses who had remarried and previously turned in their plates. It also allows the spouses of deceased veterans to apply for the plate as well as for a commemorative decal.
"This is legislation that honors these families for their sacrifice to the country," Pignatelli said.
He said that, although the plates are largely symbolic, "they are an important symbol. We in the Legislature did the right thing two years ago by allowing spouses to keep their veterans' plates. This new bill just takes it a few steps further, giving back any plate that was turned in before that law went into effect."
He said he believes that it is important to "continue to honor the service of our veterans to this country. What better way to do so than by standing up for those who have always stood behind and supported their loved ones?"
To reach Derek Gentile: email@example.com, (413) 528-3660.
"Artist painted with a new title"
Updated: 03/04/2008, 07:26 AM
By: Ryan Burgess, Capital News 9, Albany, NY
STOCKBRIDGE, M.A. -- "It was so long and we worked wicked hard on it," said Sullivan Elementary School student Madison Marceau.
Her hard work has paid off. She and her classmates helped to give Norman Rockwell, an artist who's been painted with a lot of titles, a new one, Official Artist of the Commonwealth.
"Each step of the way I would say, it might happen, it might not, we won't know , we'll see what happens. And I think there was still some disbelief, but they're obviously very excited, very pleased with themselves," said Sullivan Elementary School teacher Anna Saldo-Burke.
It started as a class project over a year ago, drafting a proposal to get some official recognition for one of the Berkshires most famous residents.
"Many of the paintings from his later life that are so important to us now, such as the civil rights paintings and his paintings about space travel, were painted when he was in Stockbridge," said Norman Rockwell Museum marketing director Kimberly Rawson.
There's one Rockwell painting that you won't see hanging in the museum. It's been missing in action for years. But although the picture may be gone, the person painted in it is still hanging around.
"He picked me out of the lineup to be a model for him as a boy astronaut when man landed on the moon in 1969. So, I'll never forget it. He paid me $40," said State Representative Smitty Pignatelli.
That day may have had a price tag, but many of Rockwell's paintings are priceless.
"If you go to the museum today, the pictures that he drew thirty, forty, or fifty years ago are as poignant today as they were back then," said Pignatelli.
"He exemplifies the American spirit and was a champion of many causes," said Rawson.
A recent champion, thanks of course, to some surprised children.
"It was really surprising because we didn't think it would go this far," said Sullivan Elementary School student Mayan Zungy.
Showing that anything is possible with a little imagination.
Artist painted with a new title
Her hard work has paid off. She and her classmates helped to give Norman Rockwell, an artist who's been painted with a lot of titles, a new one, Official Artist of the Commonwealth.
"School district facing cuts"
By Dick Lindsay, Special to The Eagle
Friday, March 21, 2008
LEE— Saying a tight budget could force the Lee School Department to cut "muscle" from its services, the superintendent this week detailed which employees would suffer from reduced hours or eliminated position.
Superintendent of Schools Jason McCandless said a full-time custodian would be laid off, and the Lee Elementary School art and band teachers, along with the Lee Middle & High School nurse would have their hours reduced — equivalent to one school day.
"That's not trimming fat, that's trimming muscle," said McCandless, who presented the fiscal 2009 school spending proposal of $8.4 million to the town Finance Committee on Wednesday night. "I have trouble swallowing these cuts."
He added that the English as a second language assistant would make $12,000 less, with the district saving another $86,000 by not replacing either a reading resource teacher or a paraprofessional for the high school carpentry program. Both educators are retiring in June.
"Losing a custodian will affect building and grounds upkeep," McCandless said. "Teaching reductions will impact the kids."
The third-year superintendent repeated to the finance board what he has told the School Committee: A huge increase in special education cost and utility bills is driving a $548,000 budget hike. His proposal is based on anticipating no increase in state aid for the new fiscal year.
"If the 7.7 percent increase is necessary, so be it," said Finance Committee Chairman John Graziano. "I can personally support this in anticipation of receiving circuit breaker money a year from now."
Graziano referred to a state program for extraordinary school expenditures. Lee Special Education Director Alice Taverna said the district could get between $44,000 and $64,000 because of three special-needs students who attend very expensive private schools.
McCandless said that the circuit breaker program already funds several school positions, including the director of the autism program.
"We continue to invest in educators who directly impact students so we can avoid costly out-of-district placements," he added.
"I commend what you and your committee have done," committee member Edward Finnegan told McCandless. "But with people in town losing their jobs and homes, we need to tighten our belt."
McCandless said that those communitywide problems are infiltrating the schools: "One reason we're spending more on student counseling services, the stresses of home life are spilling over into our schools."
McCandless said he and the School Committee are not done reviewing the budget, on which they will vote April 8, following a formal public hearing.
Finance Committee members said they want further discussion of school spending before they make their recommendation to the annual town meeting voters in May.
"Lawmakers needed on jobs, energy"
The Berkshire Eagle - Letters
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
It is interesting to me the outrage displayed by our Berkshire County lawmakers about the recent casino bill. Where is the outrage regarding the continuing loss of jobs here? Looking at the economic landscape of Berkshire County, the number of jobs continues to shrink. In the next month 165 jobs will be lost in Lee. I have not heard lawmakers say anything about creating jobs, replacing the lost mill jobs, or anything else about the Western Mass economy.
If they are so against casinos, how do they propose to create jobs? By my count more than 300 jobs have been lost in Southern Berkshire in the past year. I do not see any incentives for companies to come to this part of Massachusetts.
What of the root cause of the lost jobs? The ever increasing cost of utilities. What have they done to curb this? Our neighbors at Jiminy Peak have led the way with an environmental solution to our utility problem. They installed a wind turbine, which puts electricity back on the grid when it creates more than they need. Why don't we have those all over the county? Wouldn't that reduce our reliance on Western Mass Electric and the continuing rising rates?
Why not create our own wind-driven electricity for Berkshire County only? A school system in Iowa gets paid for generating electricity with its wind turbines. It built the first turbine with low income loans and government grants. Have any of our elected officials looked into this? Instead, in the "Gateway to the Berkshires," Lee, the school system is cutting the hours of the art and music teachers largely due to the rising cost of utilities. This may not be the answer, but why haven't any of our elected officials even offered this type of solution? Electricity rates continue to rise and companies will continue to shut down as a result.
This is not a pro-casino letter. This letter simply is an attempt to improve our economy. As a business owner in the county, I have utility costs of more than $30,000 in the winter months. This far exceeds any of my counterparts in the Northeast. Thankfully, I run a business that has been able to overcome these costs. Some others cannot.
Until a solution is developed to reduce the cost of doing business in Berkshire County, the loss of jobs will continue. I would like our elected officials to spend their time finding that solution and stop worrying about casinos, which, by the way, will add jobs.
"A billion dollar state boondoogle"
The Berkshire Eagle - Letters
Friday, April 04, 2008
Gov. Deval Patrick is proposing a massive spending program that will do nothing to help improve the economic climate for our state's largest job creators. Patrick plans to use $1 billion to fund his 10-year life sciences bill. It's what the National Federation of Independent Business, NFIB, calls a $1 billion boondoggle.
This plan to focus so much of our resources on one industry is unfair to small businesses that have weathered the challenges of operating in Massachusetts. According to the NFIB, small businesses employ 1.5 million workers in Massachusetts and create two-thirds of new jobs.
Massachusetts is already one of the most expensive states to do business in. Taxpayer money would be better spent to cut unemployment insurance, business taxes, health insurance, and energy costs.
Reaching across all industries and making Massachusetts more attractive to all businesses will produce better results and attract a wide-range of businesses to the commonwealth. It's a more stable approach and removes the risks of being so one-industry dependent. It's also better for spurring much needed activity in the more rural areas of the state such as Berkshire County.
Until Governor Patrick stops trying to put all his eggs in one basket, we're not going to see much in the area of economic results from the governor's office.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
"Our view: Bill creates another reason for employers to shun Massachusetts"
The Salem News Online, Sunday, April 06, 2008
Consider the following facts included in a recent MassINC presentation to a North Shore business group:
#1 - The share of the nation's jobs located in Massachusetts has declined from 2.98 percent in 1988 to 2.38 percent in 2006.
#2 - From the first quarter of 2001 to the fourth quarter of 2006, Massachusetts ranked 49th in the nation in job creation, ahead of only Michigan.
#3 - Total employment in Massachusetts declined by 3.25 percent between the first quarter of 2001 and the first half of 2007. Of the 10 other states with similar economies, only New York (-0.08 percent) showed a net decline in employment during the period.
#4 - Between 2000 and 2006, 286,000 Massachusetts residents — or 4.6 percent of the state's 2000 resident population — chose to move elsewhere. According to the nonpartisan think tank's analysis, "Job loss has been equally as important as high housing costs in driving out-migration."
#5 - And then there's this from Associated Industries of Massachusetts: "Confidence among Massachusetts employers fell into negative territory in March, as AIM's Business Confidence Index dropped 2.8 points to 47.4 — decisively below a neutral 50 on its 100-point scale. March's 2.8-point loss, the fifth in a row and seventh in eight months, left the Index down 7.3 on the year to its lowest level since May 2003, when the state was struggling to emerge from the last recession."
Given the above, we'd urge Gov. Deval Patrick to veto the bill that arrived on his desk Thursday mandating that companies be liable for triple damages if they end up on the losing end of wage disputes. A similar bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney in 2006, and Patrick has previously expressed reservations about the current version.
There are already laws to discourage companies from withholding employees' pay for malicious or frivolous reasons. The proposed penalty is excessive, and we agree with AIM that if allowed to become law, this bill "will diminish the commonwealth's business climate by serving as another example of the Legislature's insensitivity to employer concerns regarding appropriate public policy and the need to maintain and create employment opportunities for all of the state's residents."
"Officials neglect average residents"
The Berkshire Eagle - Letters
Sunday, April 06, 2008
I don't know what my representatives and senator are thinking. I live in Great Barrington and have to buy gas and diesel fuel to make a living. Gas at today's price was $3.14, diesel was $4.20.
I see all kinds of grants being giving out for all kinds of projects that do not correspond with the way life is here in the Berkshires. Some of us have to make a living and don't get money from the state. The powers that be should re-think their priorities and think about the people that have to make a living here.
I am disgusted to hear all the time that this is a cultural area. We lost how many jobs in the last year? Where will all these people find work that they can live on?
As far as Gov. Patrick stating "don't panic" on April 1, what will he do? Can he help the working people here?
If any of my representatives and my senator vote for a raise on the gas and diesel tax, they can forget my vote when they run for re-election.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
"Housatonic crime patrol gains support: The Guardian Angels make an unexpected appearance at last night's meeting in Housatonic"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Thursday, April 10, 2008
GREAT BARRINGTON — A commitment from the Railroad Street Youth Project, tough talk from the chief of police toward the perpetrators and a surprise appearance by the Guardian Angels last night highlighted a dramatic meeting at the Housatonic Community Center in the wake of a number of high-profile incidents involving young people in the village.
Police Chief William R. Walsh also asked residents to volunteer for a local crime watch program centered in Housatonic. The idea was met with enthusiasm, and Walsh passed out fliers and urged people to contact his department if they wished to sign up.
Last night's meeting drew more than 150 residents, many of whom expressed concern and frustration in the wake of acts of vandalism, assault, graffiti and harassment in Housatonic over the past few months.
District Attorney David F. Capeless and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, were among those in attendance, listening to residents.
Few disagreed when Walsh said that fewer than 10 young people, aged 13 to 21, were the culprits. But as one man said, "We're in fear of them."
Walsh replied that the group is not really a "gang" because it is not that organized. Nonetheless, he said, the juvenile "ringleader" was arrested and is serving time in a juvenile detention facility — "for quite a while."
"And for any of those left out there," he said, "we know who you are, and we'll be keeping an eye on you. And if you slip up, you'll join your ringleader."
Offering a proactive solution to the issue were several members of the town's Railroad Street Youth Project. Railroad Street is an innovative nonprofit group that has had considerable success empowering young people and helping them figure out how to improve their lives.
In fact, Jules Jensen, one of the organization's spokesmen, told the audience that several of the young people in question have attended dances put on by the group and have been no trouble.
RSYP Executive Director Lannie Moore said her organization would be willing to start a satellite office of Railroad Street in Housatonic. But, she cautioned, it would take money and volunteers to do so.
About a half-hour into the meeting, six members of the Guardian Angels, a nonprofit, international volunteer organization of unarmed citizen crime patrollers, made their entrance, lining up along the wall near the entrance to the community center.
Eventually, David Miller of Lenox, a spokesman for the group, explained that his group would be willing to patrol the streets of Housatonic to act as a deterrent to unruly young people. Miller was careful to explain that the group would not operate outside the law but, instead, with permission from police.
"We're here if you need us," he said.
William Gale, chief of juvenile probation in Berkshire County, and Juvenile Clerk Magistrate Laura Rueli urged residents to report crimes, even if they are not victims. The process is anonymous, she said.
"If you see a crime, call juvenile court, and we'll walk you through the process," she added.
Pignatelli urged residents to get involved.
"I have a lot of faith in this village," he said. "I have faith in Railroad Street Youth Project. My one point is, if these kids are dealing with David Capeless or Chief Walsh, it's too late for them."
To reach the Juvenile Court Department, call (413) 443-8628.
To reach Derek Gentile: (413) 528-3660; Dgentile@berkshireeagle.com.
"Our state has company"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Saturday, April 26, 2008
President Bush bristled at a recent press conference when a reporter suggested that the United States was in a recession, insisting that the technical definition of a recession had not been met and the nation was instead in a downturn. The U.S. economy may or may not descend into an official recession in the weeks ahead, but that is a semantical argument best left to economists and academics. If Americans are suffering economically, as they are, the government-sanctioned definition of their misery is unimportant.
As a report released yesterday by the National Conference of State Legislatures observed, "Whether or not the national economy is in recession — a subject of ongoing debate — is almost beside the point for some states." The states, which don't have the luxury of running deficits or printing money, are quicker to feel the blow of a recession, as are the communities and the people within them who rely on the state for funding.
Massachusetts is confronting an estimated $1.3 billion deficit, but misery loves company. According to the NCSL report, 23 states are facing budget shortfalls totaling $26 billion, and roughly two-thirds of the states acknowledged concern about balancing their budgets for the coming fiscal year. California is looking at a massive $16 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Adding confirmation to the NCSL report is one released a week ago from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, which said 27 states are reporting projected budget shortfalls next year totaling at least $39 billion. These budgets must be balanced, largely through combinations of program cuts and tax hikes, and people will be disappointed and unhappy.
A year ago, Pre-K Now, a Washington D.C.-based group that advocates for prekindergarten programs, chastised Governor Patrick for "failure to act" on his campaign pledge to increase funding for those programs. This week, the group promoted the governor to "budget hero" for a proposed $15 million boost in funding that would expand access to pre-K programs from 3,000 students to more than 14,000. No one can dispute the value of these programs, but the House is proposing a more modest $3 million increase in funding, and given budget realities, it cannot be criticized as insensitive to children for doing so.
State colleges are also in line for funding increases of about $22 million to close the gap between operational expenses and what they actually receive in state appropriations. The need for capital improvements at schools like Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield is beyond dispute but the money hasn't been forthcoming. Upper education has to be a high priority because it can have the most tangible and immediate effect on an area like the Berkshires that needs to build a quality work force.
There isn't a state in the union that isn't wrestling with some of the same issues Massachusetts is confronting, and what they all have in common is the burden placed upon them by a federal government that has invested too little in education and infrastructure and too much in war and tax breaks for the well-off. That's why Massachusetts and all of the states have so much invested in the outcome of this November's presidential and congressional elections. Recession or no recession, the states need help and will continue to need help.
'Mayor of Housatonic' dies
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Thursday, May 15, 2008
GREAT BARRINGTON — Alice Bubriski, known for decades as the unofficial "Mayor of Housatonic," died yesterday.
Many residents expressed shock at the news — Bubriski had just attended Monday night's annual Great Barrington town meeting.
"It's really a great loss," said Selectwoman Margaret Beckwith, who knew Bubriski for many years. "Alice was a great person with a heart of gold. I loved her. When there was a problem in Housatonic, she'd be on the phone to me. I think it's an awful thing for Housatonic."
Bubriski, 87, championed a wide variety of causes over the past several decades. And for many years, she had the ear of almost every local and regional politician who had any connection to her beloved Housatonic.
"She was a living legend," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox. "You could never run for public office without talking to Alice. I think she will be very much missed in Housatonic."
Before she was an activist, Bubriski was a decorated educator. In 1976, while teaching at Montclair (N.J.) High School, she was awarded the prestigious Prize for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching by Princeton University for being the finest school teacher in the state.
An educator and politician
She graduated from Bridgewater Teacher's College, now Bridgewater State College, in 1942. She earned a master of arts degree from Cornell University in 1949. She taught school for 35 years at several schools, including the former Searles High School and the West Stockbridge Village School, before retiring in 1978.
Bubriski was also an accomplished coach, guiding the former Searles girls' basketball teams to several successful seasons in the 1940s and 1950s.
Her entry into state politics came in 1984, when former state Rep. Christopher J. Hodgkins named her his campaign manager.
But Bubriski's greatest strength was finding solutions for local problems. She was a coalition builder who was unafraid to stand up to corporations.
She founded Housatonic the Beautiful, a neighborhood improvement society, and led the charge to upgrade the village.
Her most high-profile efforts were her advocacy to renovate the Ramsdell Public Library, a building she considered a "village gem." Bubriski for many years feared the Housatonic library might have been closed as a cost-saving measure.
Saving the library
"Every village needs a library," she said in an interview years ago. "We don't want to lose ours."
In addition to the library, Bubriski also spoke out against various utility rate hikes, and campaigned with local political leaders to try to curtail those increases.
Nothing was too insignificant. One of her most colorful schemes was publicly espousing the use of empty plastic Eagle newspaper bags to pick up dog feces on the streets of the village.
The bags, said Bubriski, were perfect: They were elongated, closed off at one end and easy to tie off. When Bubriski first brought her suggestion to the Selectmen, she pulled this reporter aside.
"Don't worry," she said. "I'm going to tell them to take the newspaper out first."
"Gas spikes legislators' travel costs"
By Ellen G. Lahr, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Benjamin B. Downing's trips to the gas pump are not quite as painful as those of his Statehouse colleagues from the Berkshires: He bought a Toyota Prius hybrid 18 months ago, after his election to the state Senate in 2006.
A compact Toyota Matrix was the choice of state Rep. Denis E. Guyer, D-Dalton, when he downsized in April 2005 from a six-cylinder Ford Escape sport utility vehicle. That was after he heard a worrisome presentation in Boston about the "peak-oil theory."
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, is stuck with his GMC Envoy SUV, which he would love to part with. But he is still making monthly payments, and he can't sell it now — not with 215,000-plus miles on the odometer and its unseemly status as a gas guzzler.
"If I got rid of it now, I would be so upside-down with my loan, I'd never get out financially," he said. "I guess I'll have to drive it until it stops."
At $70-plus to fill up the tank now in the new era of $4 per gallon of gasoline, Pignatelli figures his only move now is to slow down — he has been setting his cruise control to 70 mph on the Massachusetts Turnpike — and to make fewer round-trips to Boston each week.
"I have — ha, ha, ha — a GMC Envoy, which seemed like a good idea at the time," said state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, the veteran of Berkshire-to-Boston travel with 22 years in the Legislature. "I'd love to have something smaller and more gas-friendly. ... I had smaller cars when I first started here, but I went through them so fast, my last three vehicles have been SUVs. They last longer and are durable, but use a lot more gas."
Bosley said he has begun slowing down on those long hauls to Boston on Route 2 — he has the longest commute of the Berkshire delegation and has put 33,000 miles on his SUV since buying it a year ago.
"I needed to slow down anyway," he said, but he grumbled about the struggle of keeping his speed at 55.
Each legislator agreed that any complaints they have about gas prices pale in comparison with the woes of other drivers with big commutes: Berkshire legislators receive an additional $82 to $90 per day as their "per diem" pay on days they work at the Statehouse.
State Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo of Pittsfield is a fan of the daily round-trip: Yesterday, he drove to Boston for a noontime meeting of the Ways and Means Committee and was heading back later in the afternoon.
Today, he will do another round-trip for the day as well, in his 2003 Nissan Altima. He has logged 65,000 miles since his election in 2005, he said.
When possible, he said, he car-pools with other legislators from the Berkshires or Springfield area, but coordinating the return trips is not always practical, he said.
As for the tedium of the drive, he said, he listens to the news in the morning and returns constituent calls on the way back.
"I've been through a lot of headsets," he said.
Mark Petell and Timmy Stanton, both of Schweitzer-Mauduit International Inc., sit in the break room of the mill on their last day working for the company. Petell worked in the mill for 38 years and Stanton for 41. (Photos by Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
"Sun sets on mill era: Company ceases most work in plants"
By Ellen G. Lahr and Dick Lindsay
Saturday, May 31, 2008
LEE — Schweitzer-Mauduit International Inc., the world's largest supplier of cigarette paper, ceased most of its operations at its three Lee mills along the Housatonic River yesterday.
In the wake of the shutdown announced last year, layoffs began this spring and the jobs of 159 employees have been phased out. While some workers have found jobs, dozens of newly unemployed workers are looking for work.
It is the third major manufacturing mill shutdown in Berkshire County in the past 18 months, in which some 400 jobs have been lost to market forces, industry competition and high energy prices. The shutdown also leaves idle thousands of square feet of manufacturing space in the company's three Lee mill buildings.
Schweitzer-Mauduit, based in Alpharetta, Ga., closed its Lee operation as demand for cigarettes in the United States dropped off. Meanwhile, however, the global manufacturer is opening a cigarette paper plant in China, and continues to operate some locations in the United States, Europe and South America.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he was saddened by the company's departure.
"Lee and those mills had a happy marriage for 200 years," said Pignatelli, referring to the company's multiple incarnations as the Union Mill, Smith Paper, and later, Kimberly-Clark Corp.
"It's the end of an era," said Selectwoman Patricia Carlino. "In the last few years, we've lost our identify as a paper mill town, and this really makes it official. It used to be that if you wanted to work in the mill, you just walked in. Then it got harder, and then you were lucky if you got a job there."
Pignatelli said this is an opportunity for Lee to re-invent itself over the next couple of years. He is optimistic that laid-off workers will find jobs, but said it will take them time.
He had high praise for the work of the Berkshire Regional Employment Board, which he credited for being out front to assist displaced workers with their job searches, job training and accessing federal job-loss benefits.
"I know of two people being hired at Crane & Co., two at Sabic (Innovative Plastics)," he said. "People are going to be employed again, little by little. You're not going to find a company that'll come in and hire 200 to 300 workers at once."
Melanie Gelaznik, program operations officer at Berkshire -Works, said several Schweitzer-Mauduit employees have found work with a new armored equipment company in Lee, which may eventually hire more.
Some have entered job-training programs, and some people have relocated, she said.
The Berkshire Regional Employment Board, along with BerkshireWorks, has coordinated job search help, employment fairs, resume help and retraining programs in recent months, said Heather Boulger, executive director of the regional board.
She said that, despite the pace of layoffs in the past year, the market is not flooded with unemployed workers.
Still, some have left town.
"We had one man who is now making $45 an hour, but he was willing to relocate to Pennsylvania," said Gelaznik. "We have another man, and his wife, who became a caretaker of someone's estate in Connecticut."
Others are taking advantage of job training and education benefits available through a federal benefit program afforded to workers at Schweitzer-Mauduit and Mead Westvaco, where 70 jobs were lost in December.
Boulger said the challenge for workers is in trying to match the good wages and benefits they earned at Schweitzer-Mauduit, where the work force had longevity, union wages and access to substantial overtime pay.
Employees from Schweitzer and Mead who are over age 50 are eligible for supplemental wage benefits: If they find work at a lower wage than they made before, the subsidy will add several dollars per hour to their pay, up to $10,000.
Boulger and Gelaznik commended the Lee business community, which began its own grass roots job network, to help workers. Their efforts led to about 80 new job postings with Berkshire Works.
"They committed to contacting friends, neighbors and colleagues," said Boulger.
Richard Aldrich of Lee Bank said he got the idea one day after running into a mill employee who was about to lose his job.
"He said it was the only job he'd ever had since high school, and he didn't know how to go about interviewing or developing a resume," said Aldrich. "Then, coincidentally, I had a conversation with the president of a South County business, who happened to mention the difficulty he was having in finding help. It occurred to me we needed to get employers matched up with displaced workers."
Five local business leaders agreed to start making calls, and got businesses to contact BerkshireWorks.
"The thing that was so satisfying was the reception we got when we called these companies," said Aldrich. "They all went out of their way to help."
Linnea Walsh, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, said the state will remain active with South County workers.
"The Patrick administration is committed to working with partners at the regional and local level to ensure assistance is available and people can take the steps needed to get back on their feet."
"Beyond the mill era"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
The manufacturing industry, personified by the mills that dot Berkshire County, once defined the region as clearly as do its renowned cultural institutions. The mill era has suffered through a lengthy demise, with the closing of Schweitzer-Mauduit International in Lee the latest milestone, but with the Berkshires having finally made it through a lengthy denial phase, it is better prepared to cope with the harsh realities of the 21st century.
The Alpharetta, Georgia-based company is the world's largest supplier of cigarette paper, and the closing of the three Lee mills is in part an ironic tribute to the success of the health care industry in lowering the number of smokers in America. The company is opening a plant in China, where smoking remains popular and, more significantly, pay rates are lower and union benefits unheard of. The global forces conspiring against the U.S. manufacturing industry are formidable, and the impact in the Berkshires is heightened in many ways.
Within the last 18 months, three mills have shut down in Berkshire County, for a loss of about 400 jobs. Mill buildings that have been productive, in some cases, since the 19th century, stand idle. While traumatic, these closings are essentially a continuation of a process that began when General Electric in Pittsfield and Sprague Electric in North Adams began their decline as major Berkshire employers. The difference, however, has been a proactive response in recent years that has been absent the bitterness and paralysis that compounded the impact of past job losses and closings.
In Lee, the business community established an informal grass roots initiative to help Schweitzer-Mauduit employees find new jobs, ideally in the Berkshires. In general, the Berkshire business community has worked together in recent years to confront harsh new realities better than in the past. The Berkshire Regional Employment Board and Berkshire Works have established retraining programs, organized employment fairs and helped the unemployed find jobs locally. The state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development is working with these agencies to assist South Berkshire towns cope with job losses triggered by mill closings.
These losses aside, Berkshire County maintains a solid manufacturing base. Dalton's Crane & Company, in spite of the impact e-mail has had on the stationery paper industry, continues to be a major employer, and Pittsfield's Sabic remains at the core of a thriving plastics industry. The introduction and expansion of broadband access will make small Berkshires' communities more attractive to businesses requiring fast Internet connections. However, high energy costs, the subject of a sobering hearing conducted last week by Senator John Kerry, are an increasingly formidable obstacle for local businesses to overcome and for communities to deal with in trying to attract new businesses. Finding a solution to this problem may be the biggest challenge facing the Berkshires in seeking to maintain and increase its job base.
Many Berkshire mill buildings, like The Eagle's Clock Tower building and the Mass MoCA complex in North Adams, have found new incarnations. It will require imagination and the concerted efforts of state and local government and the business community to find promising new uses for South County's vacant mill buildings.
It is painful to see mills that have been a key part of the Berkshires for so many decades shut their doors and go silent. Their loss will long be felt, but a proactive, unified response to that loss will ease the pain, and it is encouraging to see that response in action.
'Smitty' leads local Lakers fans
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
Frank Laragione yesterday recalled the time that he and his good friend, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, traveled to Atlantic City in 1992 to watch a one-on-one match between former NBA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, both of whom were retired at the time.
Laragione, like any fervent Boston Celtics fan, was wearing a Celtics jersey. Pignatelli, an impassioned Los Angeles Lakers fan, was wearing one of his many Lakers jerseys.
Abdul-Jabbar had been a star center for the Lakers, who will continue their storied rivalry with the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals, which begin Thursday night in Boston.
"We were in the lobby of our hotel, and (Lakers star) Earvin "Magic" Johnson comes out of the elevator," Laragione recalled. "And naturally people are all crowding around him."
Laragione, who may not have liked Johnson as a player, still respected him and extended his hand to shake.
"Suddenly, Smitty says to Magic, 'Hey! He's a Celtics fan! Don't shake his hand!' " Laragione said, laughing at the memory. "He goes, 'I'm a Laker fan! Shake my hand!'
"So, Magic shook Smitty's hand, and he didn't shake mine."
Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, said he thinks he is one of only a handful of Lakers fans in Berkshire County.
"Other than Smitty, I don't know any others," he said.
"Laker fans?" said Adams Town Clerk — and Celtics fan — Paul Hutchinson. "If there were any, I wouldn't let them in the door."
Well, there are a few, including Sandra Pansecchi, who lives in Adams and who said she's been a fan since she was young.
"I think there are a lot of closet Laker fans out there," Pansecchi said. "They kind of root secretly. This is pretty much Celtics country."
But Pansecchi and Pignatelli concede that there won't be a lot of fans in bars wearing Lakers attire during the best-of-seven Finals.
The Lakers most recently reached the NBA's championship series in 2004; the Celtics haven't been there since 1987. That year, the Lakers beat the Celtics in six games.
"We'll be in the extreme minority," Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli's Lakers roots began when Abdul-Jabbar was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to Los Angeles in 1975.
"I was a huge fan of Lew Alcindor in college and then in the pros," said Pignatelli, referring to Abdul-Jabbar's birth name. "When he came into the league, I rooted for him when he was with Milwaukee, and when he was traded to L.A., I became a Lakers fan."
Pansecchi started rooting for the Lakers when she was dazzled by Magic Johnson's play.
"He was just amazing," she said. "As good as he was, he also personified basketball to me.
"To be honest, I'm not wild about (current Lakers star) Kobe (Bryant)," Pansecchi said. "I give him credit — he rocked last week against San Antonio. But I'm more a fan of the team."
Loyal and confident
Pignatelli, who no longer has an entire room in his house filled with Lakers memorabilia, said he is a Bryant fan and is confident about the series with the Celtics.
"I think Kobe is going to play very, very well," Pignatelli said. "The key will be if they can get one of those first two games in the (TD Banknorth) Garden. If they do, it'll be over in six."
Pansecchi said she often gets teased about her affiliation with Los Angeles. Pignatelli said he doesn't get much guff, even though he works in Boston.
"No, are you kidding?" he said. "I'm a Yankee fan. That's where I get all the grief."
To reach Derek Gentile: firstname.lastname@example.org, (413) 528-3660.
"House bill has $1M for growth: Funds would help encourage development"
By Ellen G. Lahr, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, June 13, 2008
LEE — The transportation bond bill passed by the House earlier this week includes $1 million in economic development funds for downtown Lee. The bill now moves to the Senate.
Although the money is still several steps away from Lee, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said this week that he helped secure the $1 million to help the town address a range of economic challenges in town, where two paper mills have closed and a downtown redevelopment project fell through within the past several months.
"Lee has been dealt some tough breaks in recent months, but I am confident this funding will encourage economic growth downtown and offer a ray of hope to the wonderful people of Lee," he said. "As the town continues to transform itself and face new challenges, what remains constant is the quality of life only a small hometown can yield."
Selectmen Chairman Gordon D. Bailey said his board is optimistic that the funds would help spur private investment and expand employment downtown.
"We look forward to assessing the many opportunities this will make possible," he said.
Richard H. Vinette Jr., executive director of the Lee Community Development Corp., said the language in the bill is sufficiently broad to allow its use in a variety of ways, including the town's ongoing efforts to redevelop the east and west sides of Main Street.
The funds might even be available to help with parking lot creation, which would ease redevelopment of the Bookless building, for which a purchase deal fell through this year.
The long-vacant building's reuse is dependent on creation of parking for employees, customers and potential residents.
The town lost out on its chances for a separate grant of about $1 million from the Department of Housing and Community Development for the parking lot project, so this new money may help fill the void.
"The task now is to urge the Senate to pass the same version of the bill," Vinette said.
In a related development matter, Vinette said he is waiting for final word on whether the Quarry Hill Business Park in Lee will be the future home of a new Southern Berkshire District Court, which is relocating from Great Barrington.
The state reportedly has been negotiating with a developer who has an option to buy a land parcel at the business park, which would be developed as a state-of-the-art court facility.
"I'm very hopeful," said Vinette, who oversees the business park, which was one of several sites under consideration.
To reach Ellen G. Lahr: email@example.com, (413) 496-6240.
Traffic makes its way along Main Street yesterday afternoon in Lee.
"Lee, Mass.: What would you change?: Harvard graduate students postulate a radical new vision of the downtown area as part of an assignment."
By Dick Lindsay, Special to The Eagle, Tuesday, July 15, 2008
LEE — Five graduate students from Harvard University have created a radical and potentially controversial vision of a revitalized downtown Lee.
Corey Zehngebot, Sooran Kim, Saehoon Kim, Yunsoo Bae and Hyuck Jin Yoon spent 13 weeks this year developing a plan for re-using the now-closed Eagle Mill owned by Schweitzer-Mauduit International. They also suggest reconfiguring a seven-acre tract at the corner of Frank Consolati Way and Railroad Street, or the so-called "West Side."
The five young men and women are with Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where Professor Bing Wang along with Professor Richard Peiser oversaw the students' study, which was part of a 13-week course this past semester. The Lee Community Development Corporation commissioned them to help jump start the process of developing a downtown economic strategy.
'A stretching exercise'
CDC Executive Director Richard Vinette cautioned the 45 people gathered in the Lee Middle and High School auditorium on Saturday afternoon that what they were about to see and hear was not a definitive proposal.
"This is a preface, a stretching exercise, for the long marathon of downtown development," Vinette said.
Zehngebot and Sooran Kim relied on aerial photographs and computer-generated maps to show how the two areas will link Main Street to the Housatonic River.
One map showed the entrance to the Eagle Mill relocated from just past the railroad tracks on West Center Street to directly across from the end of Main Street.
This would mean tearing down Joe's Diner — a landmark in Lee — and the entire business block that it inhabits.
"Demolishing Joe's Diner would no doubt be controversial," said Zehngebot, "but re-imagine its look as it's put inside the mill."
In addition to Joe's Diner, the new Eagle Mill, originally built 200 years ago, would have retail shops and a small hotel. A Berkshire Museum of Industry and other cultural attractions would be the heart of the complex.
The mill tower would be turned into an observation deck with an outside stairway leading to the top. A pedestrian bridge over the Housatonic River would connect the re-developed former paper mill with a potential river walk on the other side that would then head south to the re-developed West Side, near the post office.
The key to the West Side plan is straightening out the sharp bend of Railroad Street from the Airoldi building to Consolati Way. This would require re-aligning the public and private parking in the area, creating a larger block where the two streets now intersect. The removal of Moe's Tavern and the residence next door would be necessary in order for the reconfiguration to work.
The students did not state the project's cost or its financial impact on Lee.
'Potential viable projects'
Harvard professor of real estate development Richard Pieser had some simple advice for property owners in the project's possible path: Do not panic.
"If you see your parcel highlighted on the map, don't call your lawyer," Pieser said. "However, this was not just an academic exercise, but a look at potential viable projects."
The proposal would also require relocating the Lee Public Works highway garage, likely to Route 102 near the town's new sewage treatment plant.
The students' vision of the West Side bordered by the Housatonic River and by Railroad Street calls for a 31,000-square-foot town green, a train depot for the Berkshire Scenic Railway and a possible mixed use of retail business and condominiums.
The students would also like to replace the Price Chopper supermarket with a gourmet grocery store — an idea that drew some chuckles and smiles from a few of the audience members. Many Lee residents have bemoaned for years the lack of a bigger and improved food store in the downtown.
Zehngebot said she and her colleagues realize the political ramifications of their plan. However, they see Lee's downtown as a potential tourist destination, just as the neighboring towns of Stockbridge and Lenox have been for decades.
"Lee needs to reinvent its identity to stand out more on the Berkshire County map," said Sooran Kim.
Senior Vice President at Lee Bank Richard Aldrich agreed that Lee is having an identity crisis after two centuries as a mill town. Since last December, MeadWestvaco and Schweitzer-Mauduit have collectively closed four mills in town and laid off more than 200 workers.
"A fresh set of eyes has looked at Lee, and the study gives us an excellent start on what direction the town should go," Aldrich said.
Zehngebot noted that the Eagle Mill re-development would likely be done first because it has fewer changes than the West Side proposal; there is also a potential buyer for the mill property. She added that the unnamed party has already asked her about the Harvard study.
Vinette said the CDC will continue to study Lee's downtown and broker public discussion of revitalization.
Imagine that ...
Among the Harvard grad students' ideas for the revitalization of downtown Lee:
. Re-using the now-closed Eagle Mill.
. Tearing down Joe's Diner and the entire block it inhabits to move the Eagle Mill entrance to directly across from the end of Main Street.
. Moving Joe's Diner to the new Eagle Mill, which also would have retail shops, a small hotel, a museum and other cultural attractions.
. Turning the mill tower into an observation deck.
. A pedestrian bridge over the Housatonic River to connect the re-developed mill with a potential river walk on the other side.
. Reconfiguring a seven-acre tract at the corner of Frank Consolati Way and Railroad Street, or the so-called "West Side."
. Removing Moe's Tavern and the residence next door.
. Relocating the Lee Public Works highway garage.
. A 31,000-square-foot town green, a Berkshire Scenic Railway depot and a mix of businesses and condominiums.
. Replacing the Price Chopper supermarket with a gourmet grocery store.
"Rethinking downtown Lee"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
When the state Highway Department proposed dramatic changes for downtown Lee several years ago that would have rerouted truck traffic coming off the Turnpike and made it more pedestrian friendly, vociferous opposition squelched the plan almost overnight. We hope the ambitious downtown plan offered by five graduate students from Harvard University will be greeted without hysteria, as it has much to recommend it.
The Lee Community Development Corporation commissioned the 13-week study by the five students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, who worked with the guidance of two college professors. Perhaps the most imaginative proposal involves the rebirth of the closed Eagle mill as a home for retail shops, a small hotel, an industrial museum and a variety of cultural attractions. In an effort to link the mill to Main Street, historic Joe's Diner would be torn down and included in the mill, which is sure to be controversial.
Town greens are a charming part of many New England communities, and the students' plan calls for the creation of one, along with a Berkshire Scenic Railway depot. Lee, with its location off Exit 2, has potential to draw more tourist dollars if it can persuade visitors to stop before driving on to Lenox or Stockbridge.
The students were not constrained by budgetary considerations, and money will be the undoing of some of these ideas. With highway money tight, it is impossible to imagine the Railroad Street bend getting straightened out any time soon, for example. But elements of the plan have potential, and we urge Lee residents to consider them while not panicking over what CDC Executive Director Richard Vinette accurately calls a preface to the "long marathon of downtown development."
"Loan woes eroding confidence: State's slumping housing market could get worse before it gets better"
By Casey Ross, (Boston) Globe Staff, July 15, 2008
The turmoil surrounding Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is creating more anxiety and confusion in a Massachusetts housing market already reeling from slumping sales, surging foreclosures, and ever-tightening restrictions on home loans.
Real estate industry professionals said the US government plan to prop up the mortgage giants, while crucial to restoring confidence in the market, will also perpetuate a self-defeating cycle characterized by jittery creditors, tougher scrutiny of buyers, and fewer sales overall.
"When Uncle Sam has to offer a bailout, consumer confidence takes another gigantic hit," said Alain Valles, president of the Massachusetts Mortgage Association. "This kind of fear creates a fight-or-flight response, and people are flying away from buying right now."
That uncertainty may already be undermining pending deals.
Judy Moore, a broker with RE/MAX Landmark Realty, said a closing on a home sale she brokered was abruptly delayed Thursday when the lender raised new questions about the financing, even though the prospective buyer had offered a 50 percent down payment and had near-perfect credit. She said it's an example of the extreme jitters in the mortgage market, now being made worse by Fannie's and Freddie's troubles.
"Red flags are popping up for reasons that don't make a lot of sense," said Moore, whose agency is in Lexington. "There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it."
The troubles with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are particularly worrisome because the two companies essentially form the financial foundation of the nation's housing market. When investors lose confidence in the firms, their cost of doing business rises, exerting upward pressure on fees and interest rates charged to home buyers.
"When there is turmoil with Fannie and Freddie, it trickles down to the rest of us. There is no way around that," said Vince Valvo group publisher of Warren Group, which tracks home sales. "Those two firms make the market, so their continued health is an absolute necessity to ensure we have a functioning real estate market."
Banking industry officials said the government's plan to extend up to $300 billion to the companies through investments and loans should dispel any notion that the firms are vulnerable to a collapse. Still, the continual drumbeat of bad news about the mortgage industry is fueling fears of an unknown disaster on the horizon, and investors are not waiting around to get trapped in the financial wreckage.
In Massachusetts, where the housing meltdown has hit particularly hard, that means a comeback in home sales could be delayed indefinitely. In May, sales of single-family homes were down 13 percent from the same month in 2007, contributing to one of the slowest seasons in recent history.
Valvo said preliminary data from June indicate the downward trend is continuing.
"We're still losing, and that's absolutely what's going to come out in the next round of numbers," he said. "We are not anywhere near the bottom of this market yet."
The slowdown also contributes to broader economic malaise by hitting businesses that profit from housing sales. Landscapers, lawyers, and movers are but a few of the score of industries that rely on real estate transactions for at least part of their revenue.
Even before Fannie's and Freddie's recent troubles, mortgage professionals said lenders were reacting strongly to the constant drip of financial losses and job cuts; they increasingly demand multiple assurances that buyers are not in danger of unemployment. That means even ideal buyers must strictly adhere to paperwork deadlines and precise details where they previously enjoyed leeway.
"If I could give one piece of advice to buyers, it would be to get your documentation to the lender right on time, even if you have an excellent credit background and good income," said Moore. "Any delay in the materials could delay the closing."
In addition, jittery lenders are demanding higher and higher down payments, placing a particularly onerous burden on first-time home buyers who are struggling to save amid surging prices for food and fuel.
Despite the economic doom and gloom, some industry leaders say there is reason for optimism, as regulatory reforms begin to restore accountability to mortgage financing. The Federal Reserve yesterday adopted rules to bar lenders from making loans without proof of the borrower's income and ability to keep up payments, among other changes.
"This will bring us back to a simpler time in home financing where many people believed we should have been all along," Peter Milewski, director of the mortgage insurance fund for MassHousing, the state's affordable housing bank. "We'll be giving a lot more thought to who we put in homes and how we put them in homes."
Casey Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Green wins big in Mass.: Statehouse passes large number of eco-initiatives
Wire and staff reports"
Monday, August 04, 2008
BOSTON — So who was the biggest winner on Beacon Hill this session: Gov. Deval L. Patrick? House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi? Gay marriage activists?
Tally up the crush of bills passed during the Legislature's 19-month formal session and it's hard to find a politician or interest group with bigger bragging rights than environmentalists.
From ocean management to global warming, "green jobs" to clean energy, the environmental lobby racked up win after win at the Statehouse, helped along by a sympathetic governor, powerful House speaker and worries about soaring energy prices and the state's iffy economy.
Activists hope the successes not only burnish the state's reputation as a green leader, but pay long-term dividends, from preserving open spaces to reversing the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
"It's been the greatest session in recent history," said Jennifer Ryan, Mass. Audubon's legislative director.
"I'm very pleased with the direction we are going to protect our environment," said Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. Pignatelli noted he was especially proud of the state's recent improvements on policing and protecting lands that had been purchased and designated as green spaces.
There have been so many environmentally friendly bills, it's been hard to keep them straight at times. Some are still awaiting Patrick's signature.
Some of the biggest include:
The Oceans Act of 2008. The new law, signed by Patrick in May, ensures Massachusetts lives up to its Bay State nickname by becoming the first state in the nation to create a single document to cover a myriad of ocean activities, from wind farms and ocean fishing to whale watching and environmental conservation.
Green Jobs Bill. The bill, now on Gov. Patrick's desk, would spur the growth of jobs in the green economy in part by funneling $13 million a year over the next five years into a new Massachusetts Clean Energy Technology Center to develop the renewable energy sector.
Green Communities Bill. The initiative is intended to help Massachusetts wean itself off fossil fuels and other polluting forms of energy while cutting down on emissions that lead to global warming in part by requiring utilities and other electricity suppliers to procure an increasing percentage of their energy from renewable sources.
Global Warming Bill. The bill requires the state over the next dozen years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels. By 2050, the goal is to have emissions drop 80 percent below 1990 levels.
Biofuels Law. The measure, signed by Patrick last week, gives preferential tax treatment to non-corn-based alternatives to ethanol. It also requires biofuel content in all the diesel and home heating fuel sold in the state.
Environmental Bond Bill. The bill authorizes the state to borrow $1.7 billion in part to help conserve green spaces and rebuild parks. It also includes tax credits to private landowners who permanently protect their farms or forest lands from development.
There were also smaller victories, including funding for the state's endangered species program for the first time in five years and a bill banning phosphorus from dishwater detergent.
"The public has demanded action to protect our environment and our health and clearly the Legislature has listened," said Lora Wondolowski, head of the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters.
Not everyone was cheering.
Some business groups said the added regulations included in some of the environmental bills would drive up costs and discourage economic growth at a time when the state needs jobs and more revenues.
But supporters of the bills, including Patrick, say the state needs to sow the seeds for a new economy that puts Massachusetts at the forefront of green technology, even as it works to clean its environment.
Berkshire Eagle reporter Trevor Jones and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
"Income chasm widening in state: Only the top earners gaining, study finds"
By Robert Gavin, (Boston) Globe Staff, August 15, 2008
The gap between rich and poor has widened substantially in Massachusetts over the past two decades, according to a new study by the University of Massachusetts. Only those earning the highest incomes benefited from gains in technology, productivity, and globalization, while middle-class earnings stagnated and incomes for poor families plunged 15 percent.
The report analyzed census data between 1979 and 2006. It found that after the so-called miracle years of the 1980s, when rising incomes were broadly shared, only families in the top 20 percent of the income scale experienced substantial gains.
Adjusted for inflation, median family income for this group rose 11 percent between 1989 and 2006. The earnings of middle-class families were essentially flat during that period, and those of the poor fell.
"Our economy remains very productive, but it shares the gains with only a small slice," said Rebecca Loveland, a coauthor of the study and research manager at the UMass Donahue Institute, a research and economic development unit of the university. "Families with the lowest incomes are still suffering the most and continue to lose."
The poorer have gotten poorer, in part, because of profound changes in the economy. Foreign competition and automation, for example, have eroded manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts, which have fallen by about half since the late 1980s. That has closed a path to middle-class wages for many less educated and less skilled workers, and left them with low-paying service jobs, Loveland said.
These workers, in turn, must compete with a vast pool of low-skilled workers, which holds down wages, Loveland said. Meanwhile, those with skills and education can command premium pay as companies compete to hire them. In Massachusetts, growing biotechnology, technology, and financial services sectors are competing for highly skilled workers, often in short supply, and paying high salaries to get them.
The result is not only a wider gap between rich and poor, but additional pressure on those at the bottom. As highly paid, highly skilled workers spend, prices can rise across the board, putting most of the squeeze on lower-income groups.
One example is Boston's housing market. The combination of tight supply and high incomes has made it one of the nation's costliest, even in a downturn.
Annette Jones, 60, of Dorchester, earns $25,000 a year as a receptionist, but had to pay more than $1,500 a month to get an apartment big enough for her and two children. Her 18-year-old daughter is autistic and receives disability payments, which helps Jones make ends meet.
But that's getting harder to do, Jones said. A divorced single mother, she has not had a raise for several years, but costs keep rising. She's squeezed her food budget by buying in bulk, has cut out roller skating trips with her children, and expects another winter with the thermostat set no higher than 65 degrees.
Making things even tougher, her employer recently changed its health plan, and Jones's out-of-pocket expenses for medication have risen to as much as $300 per month, from $60.
"Everything is going up except my paycheck," she said. "I'm always robbing Peter to pay Paul."
While many economists have raised concerns about income inequality in recent years, others say studies such as UMass's fail to account for an important component of the US economy: mobility. In other words, a family at the bottom of the income scale in 1979 could have moved to the top by 2006 as wage-earners improved skills and education and found higher-paying jobs.
In addition, income is not necessarily the best way to measure economic well-being, said David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a think tank at Suffolk University.
"What really matters is expenditures, what a household can and does spend," Tuerck said. "If Bill Gates's income goes to zero, he could still live a pretty good lifestyle spending his billions."
Certainly, said Loveland, many people move up the income ladder, but it's unlikely income mobility has increased as fast as inequality. Those at the bottom also have much further to go.
In 1979, for example, the inflation-adjusted median income for the bottom 20 percent was about $21,000, compared to $130,000 for the top 20 percent, a difference of $109,000, according to the UMass study. By 2006, the gap had grown to $156,000 as earnings at the top of income scale grew to about $176,000, but fell to $20,000 at the bottom.
Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, said there's increasing danger the gap will widen. Of particular concern, he said, is the increase in the number of single-parent households, which typically earn much less than those with two parents and have a far more difficult time moving up the ladder.
Families at the top often have two parents earning high salaries, Sum said. At a time when education is considered key to future earnings and money determines the quality of education, these developments threaten to entrench an ever-starker inequality, Sum said.
"Family income has a big impact on whether you go to college and matters more than it ever did before," Sum said. "The income gaps are going to get bigger and next-generation consequence is really severe."
Robert Gavin can be reached at email@example.com.
"Massachusetts feels sting of inflation, job cuts"
By Robert Gavin, (Boston) Globe Staff, August 15, 2008
If you've always felt it costs more to live here, you're right.
Consumer prices in Greater Boston jumped 6.3 percent over the past year, the biggest surge in inflation since 1990 and the biggest increase in any metropolitan area, the Labor Department reported yesterday.
But soaring gasoline prices, high housing costs, and rising food prices were not the only bad news for the local economy.
The state reported yesterday that Massachusetts employers shed nearly 3,000 jobs in July, the first monthly job losses since April and another sign that the national economic downturn is taking a toll here. Rising inflation and declining employment are making the state's economy look more and more like the nation's.
The US economy is struggling with stagflation, the combination of high inflation and stagnant growth. Nationally, employers shed 51,000 jobs in July, the seventh consecutive month of job losses. And consumer prices have risen 5.6 percent over the past year, the fastest inflation rate since early 1991, according to the Labor Department.
"This isn't good news for the economy, and it's not good news for consumers," said Denis McSweeney, regional commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Boston. "There's no state in New England that's going to escape the impact of the national economic slowdown."
The rising costs of food, shelter, and energy are cutting into the discretionary consumer spending that drives the economy. Nationally, consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of all economic activity.
In Boston, goods tend to cost more because the region is far from refineries, natural gas fields, and major centers of food production. Gasoline prices in Boston rose nearly 40 percent over the year, compared to about 38 percent nationally. Housing costs, which include utilities, rose 6.1 percent, compared to about 3.9 percent nationally.
Food prices, however, rose 5.1 percent, slightly less than the national increase of 5.8 percent.
Jean Niane, 62, a Back Bay resident and retired social services worker, said rising prices have forced her to become an aggressive bargain hunter.
"You find yourself eating things you normally wouldn't," said Niane, after shopping at a Shaw's supermarket in Dorchester. "I don't like day-old bread, but it's looking good and tasting pretty good now."
As consumers pull back, sectors that depend on their spending are cutting jobs.
Leisure and hospitality, which includes hotels and restaurants, cut 2,500 jobs in Massachusetts in July, while retailers cut 100. Retailers have shed 5,500 jobs over the past year.
Other key sectors losing jobs in July were manufacturing, which shed 2,400; professional and business services, 700; and construction, 500.
Education and health services, which includes universities and hospitals, added 3,600 jobs, and financial services added 100. Employment in information, a technology sector that includes software, was flat.
Despite a slight decline in the unemployment rate, to 5.1 percent from 5.2 percent in June, Massachusetts' jobless rate has risen sharply in recent months, up a percentage point since April.
Robert Gavin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe correspondent Erich Schwartzel contributed to this report.
The Boston Globe (Online), Home, A&E, Celebrity news, NAMES
By Mark Shanahan and Paysha Rhone, (Boston) Globe Staff, August 19, 2008
There were a few familiar faces in the crowd at Sunday's Hot Stove, Cool Music: The Summer Sessions, which raised more than $400,000 for Theo and Paul Epstein's Foundation to Be Named Later. Grooving to Buddy Guy and George Thorogood were Kiss 108's Matt Siegel, House Speaker Sal DiMasi, Giant Glass president Dennis Drinkwater, state Representative Smitty Pignatelli, and the Click Five's Ethan Mentzer and Ben Romans, who were there to see bandmate Joe Guese gig with Peter Gammons and the Hot Stove All Stars.
"Tribute Concert To Honor Berkshire County Katrina Volunteers"
iBerkshires.com - August 21, 2008
Performance by Ellis Paul to include his new song- Hurricane Angel
Great Barrington — August 29th, 2008 marks the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Since that day, many Berkshire county residents have contributed their time, skills and resources to the affected Gulf Coast areas. Many, still, are planning to do more.
Among several service trips organized by Berkshire County residents was one which included a crew of twenty five local contractors organized last fall by Massachusetts State Representative Smitty Pignatelli (D.-Lenox). Their willingness to leave their families, jobs and homes; traveling to an unfamiliar place to lend their hands to people they have never met truly made a difference in the lives one family in particular: The Stewart Family, whose home in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward was rebuilt by the Berkshire volunteers in just seven days.
To pay tribute to all those from Berkshire County who have helped rebuild New Orleans and to remind us all that, three years after the levees broke, there is so much rebuilding left to do, Rep. Pignatelli has partnered with Lynnette Najimy, founder and director of Beansprout Productions, Inc. to host a concert event at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts center on August 29, 2008.
Hurricane Angels is an evening of tribute and music honoring those from Berkshire County who have participated in rebuilding efforts in the Crescent City. The event features a concert by Ellis Paul, including a performance of Hurricane Angel; a new song inspired by a Hurricane Katrina survivor as well as a slide show of the rebuilding efforts, interviews with volunteers and a performance by Vikki True.
Stanley Stewart and his wife, Betty, will attend to personally thank Berkshire County volunteers for all they have done to help. Proceeds from the benefit will go to The Hope for Stanley Foundation, founded in honor of Mr. Stewart’s own heroic actions-both during and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (www.hopeforstanley.org)
A collection of stories from Berkshire County Katrina volunteers will be available for viewing. Anyone wishing to share their volunteer experience is invited and encouraged to email their story to email@example.com, so that it may be included in the scrapbook.
Tickets to the event are available online at www.mahaiwe.org, by visiting The Mahaiwe Box office at 14 Castle Street in Great Barrington, or by calling: 413-528-0100.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
"Paper mill sold, will reopen soon"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
GREAT BARRINGTON — Hazen Paper Co. has finalized its deal to buy the former Rising Paper Mill in Housatonic.
Neenah Paper of Georgia sold the 15.3-acre parcel on Route 183, which includes the buildings, parking area and access road, for $785,000, according to documents in the Southern Berkshire Registry of Deeds.
Neenah bought the mill — in a $52 million, four-plant deal — from Fox River Paper Co. last year, and then closed it shortly afterward, leaving scores out of work.
The new owner said he's excited about the deal.
"And we've been thrilled by the amount of community support we've gotten already," said John Hazen, the company's president.
Hazen said that, barring any unforeseen problems, he expects the plant will rehire at least 10 employees within a few months. The company has already hired four former Rising employees and plans to hire locally, said Hazen.
"You never know what you'll find once you get in there," he said. "But we would like to be up and running by October. That's probably a little bit optimistic, there's always a lot to learn when you buy a building. But I'm an optimistic person."
There will be a ribbon-cutting at the plant on Oct. 3, he said.
The century-old plant, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, will now specialize in producing multi-ply laminated sheets, said Hazen.
"The multi-ply paper we make has a variety of applications," he said. "Packaging is one of bigger categories."
"In light of all the recent closings of paper mills throughout Southern Berkshire, this is a huge deal," said former selectman Anthony Blair, who continued to work on reopening the mill even after he stepped down from the board.
"It is extremely rare that you get to a place where you can actually reopen one of these plants," he said. "Usually, they close for good."
Hazen bought the mill following several months of negotiations with the Georgia-based papermaking company Neenah Paper. Neenah bought the Risingdale factory from Fox River Paper in March 2007. But few weeks after that purchase, Neenah announced plans to close the factory, eliminating 137 jobs.
A consortium of state and local officials continued to work toward reopening the plant.
The reopening of the Rising facility does not necessarily mean that everyone who lost their jobs will be rehired, several local officials emphasized. But it does mean that a local business is again up and running, providing jobs and income for local people.
"We've been working very closely with both sides," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "And I'm very pleased that we're at this point. It's a real positive step for Great Barrington and for Housatonic."
One state official noted that, initially, Neenah had announced a strategy to not sell the Rising facility to another paper-making company. But as several options, including a plan to convert the structure to high-rise condominiums, fell by the wayside, "they became more interested in Hazen's offer."
Blair conceded that the town was at least a little lucky that Hazen, which has been aggressively expanding despite a shrinking paper market, was in the right place at the right time to buy the plant.
"I think it shows that when you have an innovative paper company like Hazen, and a quality product, there's room to grow, even in a tight market," said Blair. "And while luck is part of it, there has to be some hard work to go along with that."
"MPO's puzzling decision"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Friday, September 05, 2008
The Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization's decision to take the $5.2 million reconstruction of West Street (Route 183) off its Transportation Improvement Program is certainly a blow to the town of Lenox, which was counting on the "road to Tanglewood" being fixed. The anger was expressed most poignantly by State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat and former town selectman, who said the project was "mysteriously bumped" from the TIP list, which puts road projects in line for state funding. He also accused the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, of which the Berkshire MPO is a part, of "playing games" and "throwing Lenox under the bus."
Emotional responses? Sure. But they are not out of character for Mr. Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat and former member of the town's Select Board for many years. He doesn't spare feelings when it comes to his hometown. They are also legitimate responses considering the Berkshire Mall Road wasn't even on the Berkshire MPO's radar until July. West Street, meanwhile, listed as one of the Berkshire MPO's two "target projects" for the next two fiscal years on a list of proposed amendments to the 2008-11 TIP.
What's even more surprising than the MPO's decision is why the rehabilitation of the Berkshire Mall Road wasn't on the organization's radar in the first place. Being a state highway, and the main road from the center of Lenox to its most well-known cultural attraction, it's easy to see why West Street wouldn't escape scrutiny from the Berkshire MPO, a 10-member panel of state and local officials. But the Berkshire Mall Road may arguably be the most dilapidated roadway in all of Berkshire County. Only a roller coaster contains more dips and drops. It's a nightmare to travel in the winter when ice and snow on the road can make the going extremely treacherous. The Baker Hill Road Association, made up of Lanesborough residents and mall officials, has talked about fixing the road in the past. A few years ago there were discussions about extending the mall road straight to Route 7, but no action was ever taken. Considering the mall road is the main entrance to Berkshire County's leading retail complex from the west, its condition is an embarrassment.
"Officials raise a furor over Lenox road funds"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Thursday, September 04, 2008
LENOX — State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli D-Lenox and the Lenox Board of Selectmen took a pair of regional entities to task last night over a crucial road project in town being left off a key list.
Pignatelli told the board during its regular meeting the estimated $5.2 million reconstruction of West Street (Route 183) was "mysteriously bumped" from the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). The Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization (BMPO) — a 10-member panel of local and state officials — develops the TIP list of local road projects so they can be in line for state funding.
Pignatelli said rebuilding of the Berkshire Mall Road in Lanesborough suddenly replaced the Lenox job as a higher priority. In July, an advisory panel recommended the MPO remove from consideration West Street, referred to by some as the "road to Tanglewood."
However, Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said the South Street project in Pittsfield got a higher rating, and actually put the Lenox project on the back burner, even though West Street is further along in the design stage.
"The mall road is an embarrassment and has never been on the list," Pignatelli said. "It's nothing but a private driveway that serves no other purpose but getting people to shop."
Pignatelli also accused the BRPC of "playing games" and "throwing Lenox under the bus" in dealing with the town. The BRPC is represented on the MPO, usually by the commission chairman.
Lenox officials and Pignatelli tried to further explain the importance of the West Street project during a BRPC meeting two weeks ago. The commission was trying to reach a consensus as to which road projects to support.
Selectman John McNinch, who attended that meeting, did not hear a consensus, but BRPC Chairman John Hickey replied there was and indicated it didn't favor Lenox.
HIckey also told the Selectmen he refused the Lenox contingent a chance to further pitch its project because the BRPC was having a meeting, not a hearing. He added officials from other towns with road projects had also been denied making a presentation.
"If this is how the Regional Planning Commission is going to treat Lenox, then it's time for the town to consider pulling out," urged Pignatelli.
By the end of the discussion, Pignatelli was willing to give Hickey and Karns a chance to redeem themselves.
"I will put my faith in these guys one more time, to do the right thing," said Pignatelli.
In the meantime, Lenox officials vowed to be more vigorous in getting support for West Street.
Vincent said West Street's importance to Tanglewood must be made more clear to the MPO and BRPC. The Boston Symphony Orchestra plans $25 million in improvements over the next 10 years to its summer home on the Stockbridge/Lenox line — including hooking up to municipal sewer in Lenox.
West Street also carries children to Morris Elementary School and connects motorists to Berkshire Country Day School and Kripalu Center on the Stockbridge side of Route 183.
Lenox has a few months to keep lobbying for West Street as the MPO's final decision on the revised TIP list is expected at the end of this year.
"Grant could enhance Lenox Village plans"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, September 05, 2008
LENOX — Lenox Village is preparing for a facelift, but a $1 million state grant could mean an extreme make-over instead.
The Board of Selectmen on Wednesday unanimously approved an application for Public Works Economic Development (PWED) funding.
Town Manager Gregory Federspiel said the grant, combined with the just over $1 million in local taxpayer dollars approved at the annual town meeting, will allow Lenox to do the entire project at once.
"PWED officials were very enthusiastic about the project and they encouraged us to apply," Federspiel told the five-member board.
Federspiel said the top priorities are new sidewalks and improvements to Church and Franklin streets, with a new water main replacing a 100-year-old water main underneath Church Street.
In addition, replicas of the original street lamps George Westinghouse installed in the village a century ago will replace the modern, cobra-style street lights. Westinghouse was a member of Lenox's Gilded Age cottage owners of the early 1900s.
Federspiel said the work will be done with or without the state grant, which PWED officials will act on by year's end.
The rest of the project calls for a village walk with several pedestrian plazas that town officials claim will better link visitors to the shops, restaurants and services in the village district.
Federspiel encouraged village businesses to write in support of the project, especially if it will boost employment.
"PWED officials look specifically for job creation," he said.
He added that the project will go out to bid in early 2009, with work beginning next spring.
The downtown improvements are part of a grander plan.
"The focus is to make a connection between the village and Tanglewood," said Federspiel.
Lenox also wants to spend $5.2 million to rebuild West Street (Route 183), which begins at Main Street by Town Hall and ends at the Stockbridge town line. "The road to Tanglewood," as some call it, would have a conventional "T" intersection that will improve traffic flow onto West, make it more pedestrian friendly and create more "green space" along the road.
However, town officials are fighting to have the West Street project put back on the Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) list, after it was removed two months ago.
A TIP listing means the project is being considered for state funding.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli D-Lenox told the Selectmen Wednesday that West Street was "mysteriously bumped" from the list in favor of reconstructing the Berkshire Mall Road which he called a "private driveway" for shoppers.
Pignatelli and the Selectmen were critical of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission for not supporting West Street.
They plan to urge the Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization to reconsider West Street for state funding in 2010. The organization has the final vote on the TIP list, and is expected to decide later this year.
"Great Barrington groups plan 'day of peace'"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Saturday, September 20, 2008
GREAT BARRINGTON — Several local organizations are hoping to bring people together this weekend in the spirit of peace and community.
The Railroad Street Youth Project, Pathways to Peace and Ruralliance Productions are hosting the Berkshire Peace Weekend to observe the United Nation's International Day of Peace, beginning with a trip to the UN and culminating in a festival at the Skateboard Park on Bridge Street on Sunday afternoon.
"If you can get people together with the attitude of celebration, you end up creating a culture of getting involved," said Michael Mugridge, an organizer for Railroad Street and Ruralliance.
Mugridge said the free event is open to people of all ages and demographics and hopes the mix of activists, artists and musicians can help create a local culture of promoting peace.
"What we want to do is spread the message of different visions coming together and melding for the day of peace," said Jules Jenssen of Ruralliance. His band, Higher Organix, will be performing at the festival, along with several other bands.
Sunday's events will begin with a moment of silence in the parking lot of the First Congregational Church at noon, followed by a parade to the skate park where there will be a day long celebration of art, music and activism.
"Even in our tiny, little community we have the ability to reach out to the international community," said Eric Brenner, an organizer for Ruralliance, of the importance in taking part in the Day of Peace.
In addition to the music, graffiti artists will be invited to spray paint a designated section of the skate park with the theme of the peace symbol.
Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and Michael Johnson of Pathways to Peace will speak, as will other local poets and students, and there will be information tables for local non-profit organizations.
On Friday, 20 youths and peace workers attended the United Nation's International Day of Peace Youth Summit, where Tynan Whalan of Great Barrington performed an original composition of "conscious hip-hop."
Whalan, whose stage name is "The Aposoul," said he was nervous about performing for such a large crowd, but more excited about the opportunity to spread a positive message of peace.
"I'm trying to inspire other kids through my music," Whalan said in an interview earlier this week. He will also be performing Sunday.
The International Day of Peace was started 27 years ago by the UN. Last year an estimated 200 million people took part in more than 3,500 events world-wide.
"Selectmen chair: 'Payments are fair, reasonable'"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Tuesday, October 07, 2008
LENOX — Lenox has received "payment in lieu of taxes" — or PILOT payments — from several tax exempt organizations over the years.
The Board of Assessors office reports the town pocketed a total of more than $200,000 in the last fiscal year from four separate entities. The Kimball Farms Life Care Living complex paid the most at $142,000, but the assisted living community is now on the tax rolls starting with the current fiscal year, 2009.
Town Manager Greg Federspiel said, historically, PILOT payments have been based mostly on a "gentlemen's agreement."
Lenox is unlikely, for now, switching to written agreements.
"Payments right now are mutually fair and reasonable," said Roscoe N. Sandlin, chairman of the Lenox Board of Selectmen. "We have a good relationship with our nonprofits and don't see the need to formalize."
The Board of Selectmen in Stockbridge last night announced their initial formal agreement with a tax exempt entity — the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Kripalu and other Stockbridge non-profits have always made voluntary payments to the town.
Pignatelli "applauded" Stockbridge and Kripalu for reaching an agreement he said should satisfy both parties.
"When I was on the (Lenox) Board of Selectmen our town assessors were aggressive in seeking PILOT payments," said State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "It's only fair non-profits contribute something since they use town roads and services."
However, cities and towns walk a fine line when seeking PILOT agreements from tax exempt organizations as they are not legally obligated to pay anything in lieu of taxes.
"Some non-profits are major drivers of our economy," said Federspiel referring to cultural attractions and resorts that bring tourist dollars to the Berkshires. "That's a consideration when asking them for money."
Kripalu is becoming one of those drivers as they draw about 25,000 people to Stockbridge each year and broke ground this year on 80 new guest rooms.
Meanwhile, Pignatelli hopes the Commonwealth's budget woes won't shortchange Berkshire towns with plenty of state-owned land. Towns like Washington and Savoy rely heavily on PILOT payments from the state, since the property is exempt from local taxes.
"The state payments are underfunded right now," said Pignatelli. "The towns can't afford any more steps backwards as a reduction would be a direct hit to their local aid."
"Cutting into muscle"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Thursday, October 16, 2008
The cuts to the state budget announced yesterday by Governor Deval Patrick come out of the state's muscle, not the vaguely defined fat we hear so much about in election seasons. They will be felt across the state, and in light of the grim economic realities facing the state and nation, they will almost assuredly be followed by more reductions.
While the $700 billion federal bailout and Washington's plan to partly nationalize floundering banks and other financial institutions may arrest the stock market meltdown that has hurt Main Street along with Wall Street, the serious problems underlying our economic system have not been addressed. American households are likely to batten down the hatches financially as we head into the holiday season, which will contribute to the decline in state tax revenues, especially the sales tax, that exceeded grim predictions for September.
The elimination of 1,000 state government jobs will not only put people on the unemployment rolls, it will mean a decline in services for residents who make use of state agencies. The court system and attorney general's office will make similar cuts, which will be felt just as much, and while the transfer of $1.8 billion from the rainy-day fund will reduce the size of cuts, the loss of that money makes the state's finances that much less secure.
These cuts will provide a small taste of what will happen should Question One, which calls for elimination of the state income tax, be passed on Election Day. There is never a good time for frivolous proposals, but they are least welcome during difficult times such as these.
Belmont, Massachusetts (with news from the Belmont Citizen-Herald), www.wickedlocal.com
"Lawmakers mull next steps after governor cuts budget"
By State House News Service, Friday, October 17, 2008, 12:02 PM EDT
Boston, Mass. -
“It’s like a wake,” Sen. Marian Walsh said as she encountered teachers union lobbyists outside Senate President Therese Murray’s office, where senators, called back to Beacon Hill this week, gathered for a private discussion of state affairs Thursday.
Walsh, a West Roxbury Democrat, was not alone in her estimation of the impact of Gov. Deval Patrick’s historic axing of more than $900 million in spending Wednesday. House Ways and Means chair Rep. Robert DeLeo said a common reaction among House members Thursday was “Oh, my God.”
Lawmakers found themselves picking up in the pieces in the wake of the unilateral budget cuts, which came down only three months after the governor and legislative leaders agreed to a $28.2 billion budget that almost instantly put them on a path for severe overspending. The casualties include myriad spending commitments made last spring, services like policing, parks upkeep and pre-kindergarten, and at least 1,000 state jobs.
Economically speaking, "It's the most uncertain time, I believe," said Sen. Stephen Brewer. "And I'm 60."
The day after the cuts, House and Senate Democrats huddled privately in separate rooms Thursday afternoon, pondering the cuts and emergency legislation Patrick has filed to squeeze $100 million from the state pension fund, boost state employee health insurance premiums, and use $200 million from reserves to soak up the red ink. Patrick asked for action on the bill “as soon as possible.”
Despite some members’ misgivings, House leaders signaled they would likely go along with Patrick on the pension and stabilization fund raids, and painted his cuts as necessary evils amid a deepening economic downturn. Speaker Salvatore DiMasi said none of Patrick’s proposals would likely require a roll call, meaning the Legislature could pass them without scheduling a special session this year and requiring members to go on the record.
But other aspects of Patrick’s legislative request, unusual at this point in the two-year legislative cycle, appear marked for more scrutiny. In particular, requiring many state employees to pay more for health insurance, a move that could help the state recoup $28.5 million this fiscal year, could be a sticking point.
DeLeo said, “Relative to some of the outside sections that do require legislative approval, as with any budgetary item, we’ll take a close look and, you know, pick and choose, or accept all or reject some, or whatever it may be. Or maybe we might decide to come up with something that’s going to compromise a little bit.”
“We are still another branch of government that needs to take a look at those cuts or those changes he’s advocating for and decide what the House response is going to be,” he said.
Patrick also wants lawmakers to give executive and judiciary branch managers broad flexibility to transfer funds, allow municipalities more time to join the state health insurance program, impose charges on insurers for police training costs, transfer a $64 million payment to Boston Medical Center into the General Fund, enable the state to spend into deficiency to pay snow and ice contractors, and reduce by $15 million transfers to funds aimed at promoting e-health record, clean energy, and the life sciences.
Patrick wants municipalities empowered to impose new taxes on meals, hotels, and telecommunications equipment, suggestions the Legislature rejected earlier in the session.
Senate leaders gave no up-or-down indication Thursday of whether they’ll host a special formal session to consider Patrick’s bill and indicated they may pass some of those proposals during informal sessions, where a single member can hold up any bill and most matters brought up for consideration are non-controversial. There’s no debate allowed during informal sessions.
Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) noted that health and human services, which is absorbing nearly $350 million in cuts, consumes “big chunks” of the budget.
“You can’t cut $800 or $900 million without really hurting in these areas,” she said. “We all know there have to be difficult cuts. We still don’t print money in the basement of the State House.” Wolf added: “There is a certain inevitability to this.”
“I think the times definitely call for very serious reductions,” said Sen. Susan Tucker (D-Andover).
Referencing the cuts and Patrick’s legislation, Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (D-Boston), said, “Pretty devastating.”
Asked if Patrick had cut any of her priorities, Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton) said, “Most of my amendments are gone.” Khan amendments included $500,000 for cities and towns for foreign language studies and small earmarks for local projects. “It seems like we’re really in a crisis,” Khan said.
Brewer said he believes national economic conditions are worse now than during the state budget wrecks of 2001-2003 and 1989-1991. "The ground is moving under our feet," he said before the caucus.
Asked about the cuts, which shredded state spending plans carefully crafted over the spring and summer, Brewer said, "I hope it's enough." Calling local aid and Chapter 70 education funding “sacred cows,” the Barre Democrat expressed relief that those accounts haven’t been cut, yet.
Pointing out that he was speaking on his own behalf, not Senate leadership, Brewer said he didn't "expect there to be a great pushback" from the Legislature to Gov. Patrick's "fiscal action plan" to bring the crisis under control.
Legislative staffers, he said, are busy reviewing the emergency budget bill that Patrick filed on Wednesday. “It was a full-house caucus,” Brewer said. “We’re all engaged in this process.”
Leslie Kirwan, Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget chief, will join economic observers and testify Monday before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees, Brewer said.
Assistant House Majority Leader Byron Rushing said the hearing should include testimony from at least one economist who foresaw the severity of the national economic crisis, unlike the economists who shaped this year’s revenue estimate, which proved far off target.
“They argue, of course, that they did not take into consideration whatever they knew about the whole nation,” Rushing said. “Now that’s really the question we have to ask. Do we listen to economists who don’t think there’s a relationship between Massachusetts’s economy and the nation’s economy and the world’s economy? If it was up to me, I would certainly invite some other people in. Not that I throw these guys under the bus.”
Asked whether he knew any economists who had predicted the depth of the economic crisis accurately, Rushing said, “Every once in a while you see them on television.”
Some Anger, But No Protests
Given the breadth of the cuts, the capitol halls were surprisingly quiet Thursday, devoid of protestors or advocates for the needy who have loudly criticized budget cuts enacted by Republican governors between 1990 and 2006.
The lack of hall-walkers did not fully mask the developing anger over the cuts.
About 1,810 seniors will be prevented from accessing home care, due to a $4 million cut to an elder affairs line item, forcing waiting lists for services or a move back to nursing homes, Al Norman, executive director of Massachusetts Home Care, said Thursday.
Rather than force elders out of home care programs, Norman said he would recommend that home care providers opt to reduce their rolls as recipients of services die or move into institutions. “I think it’s more humane not to let somebody in, as harsh as that sounds, than to cut somebody from the program,” he said, adding that the cut would set home care programs back to their levels of two years ago.
“For elders it’s going to mean less access to care at home at a time where we’re trying to keep people out of nursing homes,” he said. “The governor unfortunately has had to undermine his own principle.”
Asked whether the governor should have redirected the cuts to other programs, Norman said “I don’t ever like to suggest that somebody else’s sheep should be sheared. I don’t do that.” “All I said is these cuts don’t reflect our values,” he continued. “I have to believe that there were other options available.”
A handful of union protesters held signs outside the capitol again on Thursday morning, protesting state spending to subsidize life sciences companies while other public spending needs go unmet. The protesters aren’t the only ones pointing to the $1 billion life sciences law as an example of unwise spending in the midst of a fiscal crisis. Massachusetts Citizens for Life late Wednesday issued a statement suggesting that the bill’s outlays are one area to look for spending sacrifices as Gov. Deval Patrick looks to “put things back in order” on Beacon Hill.
“One solution in the offing that would bring some sensibility to the out of control spending would be to stop the flow of further funds of $1 billion dollars that the Governor promised to the Life Science Industry,” Mass Citizens for Life President Anne Fox said. “It is appalling to think that Governor Patrick promised this amount of money given the economic backdrop we have on the state and national levels.”
Patrick and the Legislature agreed to the $1 billion life sciences law this summer, about a year after announcing their plans to pass the bill and roughly around the time that state tax revenues began to tumble, an ongoing drop punctuated by the governor’s announcement Wednesday that he’s axing more than $1 billion in state spending.
The life sciences appropriations are a mix of tax credits, grants and capital funds due to be spent over a ten-year period and promoted as a way for the state to grow a promising job base while expediting efforts to find treatments and cures for diseases.
Formal or Informal?
Massachusetts Teachers Association officials handed senators a letter as they headed into Murray's office. The MTA supports Patrick's proposals to give municipalities until Dec. 1, 2008 to join the state health insurance program and to enable municipalities to collect property taxes on property held by telecommunications companies. The MTA opposes Patrick's plan to increase state employees' health insurance premiums on a tiered basis.
The insurance reform over the years has provoked lively legislative debate during formal sessions.
Brewer said the employee insurance changes, which have faltered before in the Legislature, is “never a pleasant cut” and said analysts were researching employee contributions in other industrialized states.
Representatives said they wanted to wait to see what House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi had to say in the caucus, which is being held in Room A-1, before commenting on whether the Legislature should come back in full formal session to act on the parts of Patrick’s plan that need legislative approval.
Rep. Cory Atkins (D-Concord) said, “I think we’d rather be in the arena than sitting on the sidelines.”
Rushing told the News Service that DiMasi “believes we can do what we need to do before the end of the year in informal session.”
Brewer said senators did not determine whether to return for a special formal legislative session.
Rep. Frank Smizik, co-chair of the Legislature’s environment committee, said environmental agencies “have been cut very badly and were just starting to make a comeback” but that he would give Patrick “the benefit of the doubt.”
“It’s going to be very hard,” the Brookline Democrat said. “I think the leadership understands there are really no great cuts. There’s not a lot of fat people are cutting.”
“I may have made some different choices,” he added.
Rep. Smitty Pignatelli (D-Lenox) told the News Service that many of the cultural programs – “the economic engine of the Berkshires” – were “wiped out” by Patrick’s cuts.
“It’s a very trying time,” he said. “We have some very tough choices to make.”
Pignatelli said he didn’t see any major pushback among legislators because the governor has the authority to cut midyear spending when revenues are insufficient. “I’m very disappointed, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “He’s got a tough job to do.”
Pignatelli said lawmakers were likely to address fallout of the economic crisis after the New Year but that they could come back earlier if Question 1, a proposal to abolish the state income tax, passes.
Rep. William Galvin (D-Canton) said the economic problem facing the state “is probably going to get larger, not less.” Asked about the governor’s cuts, he said, “They’re very difficult and very hurtful.”
“There’s a lot in there that hurt my district,” he said. “A lot of the issues that I fought hard for on the floor of the House and got included in the budget got cut. You’ll hear the same story from everyone.”
Rep. Michael Moran (D-Brighton) said members would “wait and see” how the budget committee analyzes the cuts and other legislative proposals Patrick issued Wednesday to a packed press conference.
“The governor, I think, was very aggressive in his cuts,” Moran said outside the House caucus. “But I think he also, in doing that, understands the severity of the problem.”
“The message coming out is that there are tough times and we’re all going to hurt,” Moran said.
"Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli To Speak About Local Business And The Economy"
iBerkshires.com - October 20, 2008
Local business owners and representatives are invited by the Berkshire Business Sustainability Association (BBSA) to hear State Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli speak about the state of local business and the economy this Thursday, October 23, 2008, at the Holiday Inn Express, Route 7 South, in the Berkshire Room.
The meeting runs from 7:15 am to 8:45 am. Bagels and coffee will be served. Please RSVP to Ken Lawton, Birdseye Builders, Inc, at 413-229-3145 or to firstname.lastname@example.org
Berkshire Business Sustainability Association is a new local, grass roots organization of business owners and representatives, in an around Berkshire County, dedicated to creating a sustainable, green, local economy through enduring business relationships and qualified recommendations for business. We strive to make Berkshire County a self-sustaining model of what can be achieved through local support, action, inter-dependence, and self-reliance.
"Question 1 Forum - Tempers flare: Income tax initiative sparks heated discussion"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Wednesday, October 22, 2008
LENOX — The contentious debate Question 1 has sparked was on display at a Town Hall meeting yesterday and included accusations of government ineptitude and a state representative threatening to end his time in the Legislature if the measure passes.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli convened speakers for and against the Nov. 4 ballot question, which would cut the state income tax from 5.3 percent to 2.65 percent in 2009 and eliminate it completely in 2010. The referendum question is binding, meaning if voters approve it, it will become law.
Pignatelli, who strongly opposes Question 1, said the forum was intended to clear up public misconceptions about it.
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that tracks government spending, outlined the risks; and Kamal Jain from the Committee for Small Government, the group behind Question 1, spoke in favor of the initiative.
Widmer outlined a what he called a "havoc and chaos" scenario in Massachusetts if Question 1 passes. Eliminating the income tax and the $12.5 billion it generates will result in cuts of more than 70 percent to most state-run programs, such as prisons and courts, human services, transportation, parks, colleges and universities, and state employees' pension and health care benefits.
"It would usher in a period of havoc and chaos across the state," said Widmer.
Widmer said it would not only have a negative impact on state services, but also disrupt the financial stability of residents and local businesses, affecting "the quality of life in the Berkshires and the entire commonwealth."
Budget cuts on such a scale would put the Legislature in an impossible position, Pignatelli said.
If Question 1 passes, the state representative said it would force him to reconsider his role there.
"I'll announce it's my last term," said Pignatelli about what he would do if the question becomes law.
Compounding the problem
Widmer said eliminating the income tax would only compound problems for the state, which he expects will already have to cut up to 10 percent in local aid in 2009 due to decreased revenues.
But for Jain, a proponent of Question 1, major cuts and potential chaos are needed to get the state going on the right track. Jain said he believes most state spending is wasteful and that cutting the state's tax revenues would force lawmakers to reprioritize expenditures.
"We cannot continue to borrow ourselves into debt," said Jain. "When you've run out of money, you need to stop spending."
Meanwhile, unions hoping to convince voters to kill a ballot question that would eliminate the state income tax are pouring fresh millions into the campaign in the weeks before Election Day.
Between Oct. 2 and Oct. 15, the Coalition for Our Communities raised $2.4 million, according to records filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The Committee for Small Government, which supports the measure, raised less than $26,000 during the same period, more than a third of it from donors outside Massachusetts.
The $2.4 million raised by opponents includes $1.5 million from the Massachusetts Teachers Association and $750,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based National Education Association.
All told, the group has raised $4.6 million in cash and another nearly $520,000 in "in kind" donations for a fundraising total of more than $5.1 million.
Supporters, by comparison, have raised a total of $497,009 in cash and another $1,900 in "in kind" donations for a fundraising total of nearly $499,000.
Jain said the state is headed in the wrong direction, with residents leaving the state and a rapidly increasing debt. He said the best way to help struggling families is to allow them to keep more of their money.
"We believe this is the best thing to do for Massachusetts, especially right now with a bad economy where people can't even afford to pay their mortgages," said Jain.
"We can all do a better job with how we spend our money, but to say that 40 percent to 70 percent is wasteful is sending the wrong message," Pignatelli later responded.
'Resist those temptations'
Widmer argued Question 1 would hurt the people Jain spoke about in the long run.
"I understand the frustration of individuals that want to vote 'yes' and send a message to legislators," said Widmer. "We strongly urge voters to resist those temptations because the consequences would be worse than what we already are facing."
Widmer said to make up for the shortage of income tax, the state would eventually have to increase fees and raise property or sales taxes, which would have a disproportionately adverse impact on lower income residents.
"The very people that might be attracted to this are the very people who will be most adversely impacted," he added.
To reach Trevor Jones: email@example.com, or (413) 528-3660.
From the Statehouse
"Pignatelli: 'I'm not leaving'"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Thursday, October 23, 2008
A day after telling an audience the next term would be his last if Question 1 passed, State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli (D-Leonx) said he's not going anywhere and looks forward tackling any financial decisions the state would have to make in the future.
"I love my job. I work hard at my job and I'm not going to leave," said Pignatelli in a phone interview from Boston.
During a public meeting in Lenox Tuesday that was intended to dispel any misconceptions about Question 1 — the Nov. 4 ballot question that would lower the state's income tax from the current 5.3 percent to 2.65 percent in 2009 and eliminate the tax all together in 2010 — Pignatelli told the audience that his next term, if the question passed, would be his last.
Pignatelli, who strongly opposes the ballot question, said the remarks were a tongue-in-cheek statement about the serious decisions many state legislators will have to make if the ballot question passes. He said the only recourse would be to cut the budget by 40 to 70 percent, raise fees or property and sales taxes, or repeal a binding law passed by the public.
"(Legislators) would have to do some serious soul-searching to go against what their districts have said, if that's what happens," said Pignatelli, adding that many legislators could lose their seats in the next election if they were to repeal the decision and vote against the will of the people.
Other state legislators are equally concerned about the potential of Question 1 passing.
"I can't see any way we would be able to run the state of Massachusetts," said Rep. Denis Guyer, D-Dalton, citing the $7 to $8 billion the state would have to spend after mandatory expenses if the question passed. "Tough decisions would have to be made."
"In many ways it would mean increased reliance on the property tax, which would become exponentially higher," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, noting New Hampshire which has no income tax but the nation's highest property tax.
And while voters have been captivated by the presidential election, Pignatelli believes Question 1 is the far more pertinent decisions for voters in Massachusetts.
"This is the biggest issue facing the voters of Massachusetts on the entire ballot this year," said Pignatelli.
But Pignatelli acknowledged no matter what the outcome of Question 1, the state faces some difficult decisions with a current budget shortage of more than a $1 billion and he wants to be there to solve the problems.
"I'm not leaving. I've never backed down from a fight before and I'm not about to now," said Pignatelli. "These are the type of challenges I look forward to."
As far as repealing legislation that was voted on by the public, Pignatelli is not sure he would support a measure like that or if there would be enough support to overturn the legislation.
"If it does pass, I'll cross that path when we get to it," said Pignatelli, "but l would be hard-pressed to go against the wishes of the people I have represented."
Guests of Canyon Ranch, a luxury spa and hotel in the Berkshires, relaxed on the patio. (JODI HILTON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)
"Lenox spa reaches $14.75m settlement over tips: 600 Canyon Ranch workers to share it"
By Jonathan Saltzman, Boston Globe Staff, October 23, 2008
For 19 years, Canyon Ranch has cultivated an image as a stress-free nirvana for the well-off. Guests of the luxury spa and hotel in the Berkshires plunk down thousands of dollars for weekends of yoga, hydrotherapy, and deep-kneaded body massage. Never did they have to fret over tipping a massage therapist or healing-energy practitioner; an 18 percent service charge, they were told, covered that.
"No additional tipping is necessary or expected," the renowned Lenox spa said on its website.
But very little of the service charge ever found its way into employees' pockets. And when they asked management about the fate of the money, the employees claimed in a lawsuit that they were "met with overt hostility" and told it was "none of their business."
But this week, in a settlement believed to be the largest of its kind in Massachusetts, the spa agreed to pay $14.75 million to about 600 massage therapists, yoga teachers, estheticians, hair stylists, waiters, and other employees who worked at Canyon Ranch between April 2004 and October 2007.
Canyon Ranch denied any wrongdoing in a 20-page settlement filed Monday with the US District Court in Springfield, where a federal judge must still approve the agreement. In a statement issued from its corporate headquarters in Tucson, the spa said that the 18 percent charge "was never intended to be a significant part of the employees' compensation plan" and that "any confusion or misunderstanding created by its use of the term 'service charge' was unintentional."
Elated employees, however, saw the settlement as vindication.
"That money was never disbursed to where it was supposed to be," said one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a confidentiality agreement in the terms of the settlement.
Paul Holtzman, a lawyer for the current and former employees, said he could not discuss the case because of the confidentiality clause. "All I can tell you is that it's been resolved," he said.
The suit accused the spa, which is located in a sprawling mansion and complex nestled in the wooded hills of Lenox, of violating a state law that prohibits management at restaurants, bars, and hotels from taking tips reserved for waiters and other service workers.
Workers alleged in the suit that they "feared that they would lose their jobs if they pursued their inquiries or pressed for payment of the tips."
At the same time, Canyon Ranch went out of its way to discourage guests from giving extra gratuities, enforcing its message that all tips are included in the 18 percent service charge, according to the suit. If guests insisted on tipping extra, employees could accept them only after first declining. Even then, the suit said, employees could not accept the money personally but had to direct guests to a designated area of the spa, where the guests had to complete a form or enclose cash in an envelope - something relatively few ended up doing.
Several Boston lawyers have brought a series of suits in recent years under the obscure 1952 tips law against defendants that include the Four Seasons Hotel, Weston Golf Club, and Orchards Hotel in Williamstown. In 2004, the state Legislature expanded the law to cover employees outside the food and beverage industries, which paved the way for a recent spate of lawsuits by skycaps against airlines.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, a lawyer who has brought at least 40 lawsuits on behalf of waiters, bartenders, skycaps, and other service workers in Massachusetts, said the Canyon Ranch settlement is easily the biggest she has heard of in Massachusetts.
"That's a huge deal," said Liss-Riordan, who added that withholding tips is "pervasive throughout the service industry - hotels, restaurants, country clubs, you name it."
Critics of such litigation say plaintiffs' lawyers are manipulating an obscure and confusing law to reap a windfall for their clients and their firms. They also say such suits imperil fragile businesses and, sometimes, co-workers of plaintiffs.
Ariel D. Cudkowicz, one of the Boston lawyers defending the spa, did not return phone calls. In a Globe article in April, he said that suits alleging violations of the tips statute were "becoming abusive toward employers" and that the prospect of large awards was "very alluring" to plaintiffs and their attorneys. Plaintiffs' lawyers typically keep about a third of the money they obtain for clients.
Canyon Ranch said it has now eliminated the 18 percent service charge and replaced it with a "resort amenities fee" that does not include tips. Canyon Ranch said it makes that clear on guests' bills and its website. The spa said it pays employees generously, has not changed wages or benefits, and will continue to prohibit tipping because it is "consistent with the stress-free environment that Canyon Ranch guests have come to expect."
Still, the settlement shocked one longtime customer of the spa, Holly Safford, who said she knew tipping was prohibited at Canyon Ranch but had no idea that some workers felt their employer was cheating them.
"I have never spoken to an employee at that ranch who has not told me how absolutely thrilled and fortunate they feel to be working there - unsolicited," said Safford, 60, the owner of The Catered Affair, a Rockland catering business.
Safford - who has gone to the spa with friends from Duxbury about a dozen times and considered the advice she got on exercise and diet "life-altering" - said the settlement was "tantamount to an admission of guilt" and was pleased that workers will receive money.
Sonya Bykofsky, who worked as a massage therapist at Canyon Ranch from 1998 to 2001, was delighted by the settlement. She was involved in an employment lawsuit against Canyon Ranch and said the spa is among many in the industry that take advantage of workers with physically demanding jobs.
"It's unfortunate that massage therapists sometimes turn out to be the slave labor of the spa industry," said the Lenox practitioner, 43, who was not a party in the tips claim. "It's just gratifying when - if something unjust has been going on - someone takes notice and, even more importantly, takes action to correct it."
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Boston Globe, Editorial: "Short Fuse" - October 26, 2008
"Business: Raiding the tip jar"
Americans are used to tipping, so much so that some unscrupulous employers tack "service charges" on to bills - and then deny their front-line employees the proceeds. The latest offender is Canyon Ranch, the luxury spa in the Berkshires. The Globe reported Thursday that the spa has agreed to pay almost $15 million to 600 massage therapists, waiters, hair stylists, and other workers. The spa imposed a standard 18 percent service charge, and its website declared that "no additional tipping" was necessary, but servers saw little of the money. The practice violated at least the spirit of state law, which forbids managers to take servers' tips. And as a matter of business ethics, companies shouldn't pad their bills by exploiting customers' willingness to tip.
re: Raiding the tip jar
What has not been published is the skimming that greedy employers perform on the monies charged to the customer as 'delivery charge'.
1. First of all, many customers assume that the charge is a gratuity. Incorrect. The fee is intended to defray the delivery person's cost of operating his motor vehicle.
2. Secondarily, the employers dispense only a portion of the delivery fee to the delivery person, skimming the remainder as a hidden price increase - and a tax free 'profit'.
by hartleysson October 26, 1:25 pm
Gov. Deval L. Patrick takes the paper off of the new sign for the Hazen Paper Company at the old Rising Paper Mill in Housatonic.
Governor in the Berkshires
"Deval Patrick makes a presence: Economy, ecology remain a concern in the Berkshires"
By Derek Gentile and Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Friday, October 24, 2008
Gov. Deval L. Patrick took part in two Berkshire celebrations that honored the work of the government and private enterprise to protect the economy and the ecology of the region.
In Great Barrington, the governor joined a ribbon-cutting ceremony as Hazen Paper Co. of Holyoke reopened the former Rising Paper Co. Hazen plans to use the mill for its laminated paper operation.
Patrick also spoke at a celebration for the Hudson Conservation Project, which will protect more than 800 acres of land in Monterey and Tyringham.
"This is a great day for the village of Housatonic," Patrick said just before a ceremonial ribbon-cutting for the paper mill. "For me, any day in the Berkshires is great, and I'm happy to be here."
"Hazen and Hazen Paper have been a very important part of the economic scene in western Massachusetts," Patrick said. "We are delighted to welcome them to the Berkshires. Long may you produce in this location."
Serving as master of ceremonies, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli reeled off a list of more than 30 local officials, businessmen and state luminaries who deserved credit and thanks for reviving the dormant paper mill.
"The list is long because in tough times, we come together as a team in the Berkshires," said Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "And these were tough times."
Pignatelli singled out former selectman Anthony Blair for his efforts in keeping the negotiations alive between Neenah Paper of Georgia and Hazen.
"Tony Blair saw the hope of revitalizing this mill and kept the dialog going," said Pignatelli. "We would not be here without Tony Blair."
Company president John Hazen said his company has been "overwhelmed" by the welcome to Housatonic.
"It means a lot to us," he said.
Later, Hazen explained that there are already eight employees working in the plant, including four who had worked there previously. The company will be hiring more employees within a month, after a new boiler is installed, he said.
Prior to his appearance in Housatonic, Patrick spent time in Tyringham at another ceremony, where 800 acres of land will be preserved as open space.
"What a treat this spot is and what a treat this part of the commonwealth is," Patrick told the crowd.
Citing his lack of exposure to open spaces during his childhood in Chicago, Patrick said it is essential to protect these lands for wildlife and for future generations to visit.
"This is an enormous gift to give each other," he said.
Ian Bowles, secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the project's lands are part of several key locations across the state whose habitat should be maintained.
"What you preserve is as important as what you build," said Bowles.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, called the land "a special place" and said that maintaining lands like it is essential to preserve the viability of the local tourism industry and protect the environment from global warming.
The preservation was a two-phased project that began in 2004. The Department of Fish and Game paid $1.3 million to secure a conservation restriction that will prevent the parcel from being developed. The Monterey Preservation Land Trust then donated a $2 million property.
The addition of the lands in Monterey and Tyringham, which are partially adjacent to Beartown State Forest, creates a continues land preserve of 12,344 acres.
Press Release provided by Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian A. Bowles. Monterey & Tyringham, Massachusetts, October 23, 2008.
IN THE NEWS- Governor Patrick, State Environmental Officials and Land Conservation Community Celebrate Public-Private Partnership to Protect Over 800 Acres in the Berkshires: Department of Fish and Game conservation restrictions on Monterey and Tyringham
MONTEREY – Governor Deval Patrick today joined state environmental officials and the Berkshire land conservation community in marking the completion of the Hudson Conservation Project – a two-phase public-private partnership that protects over 800 acres of forest and meadow in Tyringham and Monterey. Abutting or nearby another 12,450 protected acres, the newly-completed conservation project creates a virtually contiguous block of open space spanning 13,344 acres of the southern Berkshires.
At a celebration attended by project partners, the property’s former owner, outdoor enthusiasts, local legislators and municipal officials, Governor Patrick noted that the Hudson Conservation Project is among 222 land conservation efforts completed by the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) and other state environmental agencies in FY 2008. Overall, the Commonwealth invested approximately $50 million in capital funds last year to conserve 13,995 acres statewide.
“What we preserve in Massachusetts is just as important as what we build. The protection of these lands will enhance this area’s scenic qualities, as well as the recreational and ecological value of this conservation land,” Governor Patrick said. “This land will be protected forever – a legacy for our children, and our children’s children.”
The Governor noted that money to finance land investments such as the conservation restrictions highlighted today comes out of the Commonwealth’s capital budget, not agency operating funds.
The first phase of the Hudson Conservation Project took place in 2004, when the DFG purchased for $300,000 a conservation restriction on 356 acres in Tyringham and Monterey owned by the Hudson family. The family conveyed the underlying “fee” ownership of the property to the Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC).
Phase II was completed in June 2008, when DFG acquired two additional conservation restrictions on 450 acres of land for $1 million. Today’s event took place at the site of one of the conservation restricted properties – 73 acres on the shore of Steadman Pond, the fee ownership for which was conveyed by the Hudson family to the BNRC once the DFG conservation restriction was in place. The other conservation restriction covers 385 acres of land owned by the Monterey Preservation Land Trust (MPLT). This 385-acre property includes a 61-acre parcel purchased by MPLT from the Hudson family in June 2008 plus an adjoining 324 acres the Trust already owned. MPLT included the 324-acre parcel in this transaction – a gift to the Commonwealth worth $2 million.
“Preservation of this 800-acre-plus landscape would not have been possible without the foresight and generosity of our partners,” Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles said. “The Commonwealth owes a debt of gratitude to the Hudson family for choosing to preserve this property rather than sell it to developers, to the Berkshire Natural Resources Council for helping to protect this significant parcel of pristine land, and to the Monterey Preservation Land Trust for its extraordinary donation of conservation restrictions worth $2 million.”
The Hudson Conservation Project preserves for posterity a diverse array of habitats, from hardwood and conifer forests and meadows to a rare acidic rock cliff natural community.
“The most recently completed acquisition safeguards three distinct habitats that the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program classifies as rare and in need of protection,” said Mary Griffin, Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game. “The property supports an incredible diversity of native wildlife species, including whitetail deer, black bear, wild turkey, snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse, red and gray fox, black ducks, and several rare and endangered species.”
One of 54 land conservation projects completed by DFG in FY 08 through the use of over $11 million in bond and Land Stamp funds, the Monterey-Tyringham land is among the agency’s most picturesque acquisitions.
“This is a remarkable landscape, nurtured for decades by a wonderful family. Barclay and Sarah Hudson inherited from their parents – also named Barclay and Sarah – a marvelous ethic of respect and love for nature, and we are delighted by the decision they have made to dedicate these acres to a future that will benefit us all,” said BNRC President Tad Ames. “We step into their shoes as stewards of Steadman Pond with both pride and humility.”
"This investment is truly cause for celebration," said State Senator Benjamin B. Downing. "This partnership will conserve an additional 800 acres of open space and wildlife habitat in Monterey and Tyringham, which will be enjoyed for generations. I am proud to see this type of public-private investment to protect our natural resources in Berkshire County."
Rep. William Smitty Pignatelli added, "The Hudson Conservation Project will protect our valuable open space here in the Berkshires - our greatest natural resource."
Source: Ben Downing for State Senate, October 24, 2008.
"Lee teachers urge 'no' vote on Question 1"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Saturday, October 25, 2008
LEE — There were a lot of honks along this busy intersection in town yesterday, but it wasn't for the traffic.
Members of the Lee Education Association stood along Park Street in Lee yesterday, holding signs to show their support for voting against Question 1 — the Nov. 4 ballot question that would eliminate the state's income tax by 2010.
Bill Swindlehurst, president of the Lee Education Association, said the elimination of the income tax would be detrimental to the state's education system.
"It will be very difficult to teach our kids if funding is cut, because we are already at bare bones," he said.
Swindlehurst said that if the income tax repeal had been in existence this year, the Lee Public School District would have missed at least $200,000 of its budget for the current school year.
If the initiative passes, opponents of Question 1 say the state's budget would be cut by as much as 40 percent and local aid would be cut by more than 70 percent, leading to increased fees and property taxes to make up for lost funds.
Stopping government waste
Proponents of Question 1 say it would free needed dollars for struggling families and would stop government waste by forcing the state to cut spending to only the most crucial programs.
But Swindlehurst believes government waste is not as rampant as some believe
"We all know there is a percentage of waste (in government), but 40 percent is not waste," said Swindlehurst.
The group joins a growing number of organizations that have come out against Question 1, including the Clarksburg and Great Barrington selectmen, Berkshire Community College trustees, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and nearly all of the state's elected officials.
Public support seems to be against Question 1 as well, as a recent poll of likely voters conducted by Suffolk University and WHDH-TV in Boston showed 59 percent oppose eliminating the state's income tax, while 26 percent support it and 16 percent remain undecided.
For Lee's teachers, the potential cuts would have immediate impacts, including cuts in staffing through attrition and potential elimination of para-professionals who help with special needs students.
"Everyone who works in the building is important," said Sue Horsford, a Title 1 teacher at Lee Elementary.
Others were concerned that cutbacks to extracurricular activities would require higher fees from students.
"Families that are already financially strapped, how are they going to do that?" asked Mary Verdi, an English teacher at Lee High.
Swindlehurst said organizers are planning three more protests before the election, including one in Williamstown today.
Trevor Jones can be reached at (413) 528-3660 or email@example.com.
"Voters keep state income tax, decriminalize marijuana, ban greyhound racing"
By Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, (via The Berkshire Eagle Online), Wednesday, November 05, 2008
BOSTON— Massachusetts voters on Tuesday rejected a call to eliminate the state's income tax, approved "decriminalizing" possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and backed a ban on greyhound racing beginning on Jan. 1, 2010.
Question 1 on the state ballot would have cut the 5.3 percent tax rate in half in January and then killed it completely in January 2010. The measure was being defeated by more than a 2-to-1 margin with 79 percent of precincts reporting.
Supporters, led by the Committee for Small Government, had argued the best way to cut government waste and overspending was to eliminate the tax, which would have reduced annual state revenues by 40 percent or about $12.5 billion.
Committee Chairwoman Carla Howell blamed the defeat on the massive advertising campaign by opponents of the measure, saying both sides were initially in a dead heat in the polls and that voters were ultimately swayed by "scare tactics." Opponents spent more than $5 million while supporters raised only about $500,000.
"We knew this was a David vs. Goliath battle," Howell said. "All we needed was a bigger stone."
But opponents, including Gov. Deval Patrick and virtually every elected officials in the state, had said the cuts would have crippled state services, driven up property taxes and scared away business.
Steve Crawford, a spokesman for the Coalition for Our Communities, which led the opposition to the question, said voters didn't buy into promises of easy money even in a tough economy.
"We clearly see the voters of Massachusetts sending a strong message that we care about good schools, police and fire protection, good roads and bridges, and especially strong communities," Crawford said.
"Economy forces Canyon Ranch to lay off 30"
By Tony Dobrowolski, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Saturday, November 08, 2008
LENOX — Canyon Ranch said the economic downturn is forcing the upscale spa and resort to lay off 30 employees, or about 4 percent of its total workforce, at its Kemble Street location.
Company spokeswoman Sheryl Press said the move is not related to its recent $14.7 million settlement with several former employees who claimed management deprived them of tips from their spa-related services. The $14.7 million settlement, believed to be one of the largest in state history, was announced last month.
"We're adjusting staff levels because of the economy," Press said. "It has absolutely nothing to do with the settlement."
Press did not specify which employees received pink slips this week.
"It's kind of across the board," she said. "But they are positions that least affect the guest experience."
Drop in reservations cited
Canyon Ranch's two resorts in Lenox and Tucson, Ariz., have endured a 10 to 12 percent decline in reservations, which is lower than the 15 percent drop in the Berkshire resort community. Nevertheless, that has impacted revenue.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, a former town selectman, wasn't aware of the layoffs, but he wasn't surprised that they occurred because the economy has been so bad.
"I talked to a bed-and-breakfast owner at the polls (on Tuesday), and he said business just fell off the table," Pignatelli said. "I'm optimistic enough to think that the coincidence of this is nothing more than a coincidence."
Canyon Ranch opened its Lenox resort in October 1989 after purchasing Bellefontaine, a 19th century "cottage," for $5.2 million two years earlier. Canyon Ranch spent some $37 million renovating the former estate.
According to Pignatelli, Canyon Ranch provides $500,000 to the town of Lenox in property, sewer and tax revenue.
"I don't know who these workers are, but if they are Lenox residents it does hurt the town," Pignatelli said. "If the layoffs are due in fact to the number of guests declining then it has an effect on the (town's) hotel/motel tax."
To reach Tony Dobrowolski: firstname.lastname@example.org; or (413) 496-6224.
"Midnight Madness at Prime Outlets"
Updated: Thursday, 11/13/2008, 6:17 AM; Friday, November 14, 2008
By: Ryan Burgess
LEE, MA - There's an idea registering at the Prime Outlets in Lee on getting shoppers into the holiday spirit very early this year.
"We're going to be open at midnight. Our first ever Midnight Madness Pajama Jam," said Prime Outlets Lee Senior Marketing Manager Carolyn Edwards.
On Black Friday, the Prime Outlets will open at midnight, hoping to tap into the early bird shopping crowd. But the idea is finding opposition. State Representative Smitty Pignatelli, who was unavailable for comment, says it's unfair to force retail employees to work at midnight. Prime Outlets said it's a response to customer demand.
"We understand that there is a movement by one of the local representatives to file a motion, perhaps for 2009, although we don't believe it will affect the season that we're going into now. I think, again, most of the retailers understand that this is what the consumers want and this is the direction in which we need to head," said Edwards.
Prime Outlets said it's other locations across the country have been opening at midnight for four years. One store owner is undecided if Midnight Madness will turn out to be a shopper's dream or retail nightmare.
"I think midnight's a little early, you know, but I think there will be some people that want to some out," said Aficionados owner Jonathan Marra.
Most of the stores at the outlets are not authorized to let employees talk on camera, so it's a little difficult to gain a sense of how the workers feel about having to come in to work at midnight, especially right after Thanksgiving. But most do agree if you're a consumer who likes to shop early, this could be to your advantage.
"I don't think you get all the people you would during the daytime, you have more of a selection and there's not pushing [through] the crowd. And you're out in the late evening. It's something different," said shopper Jean Bovisvert.
It's a different way to find a bargain at the outlets. But this gift comes wrapped in controversy.
"Midnight Madness at Prime Outlets"
Are you the kind of shopper who likes to hit the stores bright and early the day after Thanksgiving? If you are, one outlet center in the Berkshires has your name written all over it. But as our Ryan Burgess tells us, buyer beware! Shopping there comes with some controversy.
"For jobless, long waits to file claims: State's walk-in centers, phone lines overwhelmed"
By Robert Gavin, Boston Globe Staff, November 28, 2008
A surge in layoffs at Massachusetts companies is straining the state's ability to process unemployment claims, leading to lengthy lines at local walk-in centers and long waits for those filing by phone - if they can get through at all.
Claimants are waiting up to two hours at some unemployment walk-in centers, and an average of about 30 minutes on the state's toll-free phone line, according to the Division of Unemployment Assistance. About 85 percent of first-time claims are filed by phone, and call center workers answered nearly 30 percent more calls in October than they did in the same month a year ago.
Those figures, however, don't count people who can't get through or give up in frustration before the call is answered. For example, Maribeth Boisvert, laid off by a real estate developer about two weeks ago, estimated she tried 40 times over the course of two days to get through to a service representative to process her claim.
But on each call, after following a long list of automated instructions, and expecting to at last talk to a person, she heard this message: "Due to high call volume, we can't take your call right now. Try back another time."
Boisvert, 46, of Shrewsbury, then went to the walk-in center in Marlborough, where she waited more than an hour to file her claim.
"They've got to get more people, and more people with the understanding of what it's like to be unemployed," she said. "They should catch a clue that this is a great opportunity to show the state can do great public service."
In Massachusetts, laid-off workers can file to receive unemployment benefits by phone or in person. In addition to a toll-free line, the state operates 35 walk-in centers to file claims. The claims offices are located in one-stop career centers, where workers can search job listings, take classes, and get counseling.
First-time claims for unemployment in Massachusetts have jumped more than 30 percent from a year ago, and they are likely to rise even higher. A recent forecast projects the state jobless rate, which was 5.5 percent in October, could rise nearly 3 more points over the next year or so, to 8.3 percent, as the national economic downturn deepens.
In the week ending Nov. 15, the four-week moving average of initial claims in Massachusetts rose to 9,466, compared with 7,124 in the same week last year, according to the US Labor Department.
Officials acknowledge that the state has so far struggled to keep up. In October, the unemployment assistance call centers in Boston, Brockton, Lawrence, and Springfield answered more than 90,000 calls, up from about 70,000 a year ago.
"People are waiting, and I apologize for the waits they have been experiencing," said Ed Malmborg, director of the Division of Unemployment Assistance. "There has been a dramatic upswing in claims, and it takes time to bring people on board."
The state has reduced waiting times to an average of 30 minutes from 45 minutes this summer, and aims to cut them to five minutes before the end of the year, Malmborg said. Another 38 customer service representatives will be answering phones within the next two weeks, and 17 more should be added not long after that. About 90 work in the call centers now.
In addition, the state recently extended the call centers' daily hours from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., after previously closing at 4:30 p.m. State officials, meanwhile, urge people to file first-time claims by phone, rather than in person. "Our phone lines have the capacity to accommodate a higher volume of individuals than the walk-in centers," Malmborg said.
Thirty-eight staffers are spread across the state's 35 walk-in centers, so typically only one or two are available to take claims at any given center. But the volume of in-person claims are growing rapidly, too, and the state plans to add about 10 more staffers to help handle the volume.
Claims filed at the walk-in center in downtown Boston, for example, have jumped 47 percent from July, according to the Division of Unemployment Assistance. In-person claims are up 48 percent in Lawrence and 72 percent in Quincy during that period.
In Brockton, where the walk-in office can handle about 60 new claims a day, laid-off workers are beginning to line up at 8 a.m., an hour before the office opens, said Kim McLaughlin, director of the one-stop career center that hosts the claims office. Some would-be filers have been turned away.
Meanwhile, unemployment is increasing significantly. The number of unemployed workers using the Brockton career center this year is on pace to nearly double the 3,000 who used the services in 2007, McLaughlin said.
"We're doing all we can to help people," McLaughlin said. "But there are a lot of people looking for work."
Robert Gavin can be reached at email@example.com.
"Food pantry may be forced to close"
Updated: 01/07/2009, 6:21 A.M., By: Ryan Burgess, capitalnews9.com
GREAT BARRINGTON, Massachusetts - "It's the beginning of January and we have not yet found a place in which to move," said People's Food Pantry board president Carol Purcell.
For nine years, the People's Food Pantry in Great Barrington has been donating free groceries to anyone who needs it. But now the nonprofit may be forced to close its doors for good. The organization has to vacate the town-owned space its' been leasing for $1 per month by the end of February because the building has been sold to a developer. That's a tall task for a food pantry that's needed now more than ever.
"The need has always been in the Berkshires. It's especially related to the economy now, but beautiful as the Berkshires are, there are many dirt roads and back places and villages where people do not have enough and they scrape by," said Purcell.
Last year, the pantry served 211 families. But in the past three months, that number started to dramatically rise. That's why officials say it's so important to stay open.
"Of course I'm concerned. The 39 percent more people who have come to us indicates that there are people who don't have another place to go if they need food," said Purcell.
So far, Purcell has looked at about 40 possible locations, but she says most are too expensive. Later this week, she's meeting with town officials to talk about any alternatives for new, affordable spaces. That's a meeting that could have a serious impact of hundreds of families in the area.
"Food pantry may be forced to close"
Right at a time when people need it most, a food pantry in Great Barrington may be forced to close, unless it can find a new home fast. Our Ryan Burgess has the story.
"State to Brief Towns on Covering Costs of Ice Storm"
The Berkshire Eagle Online, Friday, January 09, 2009
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has organized a set of statewide meetings to brief communities on how to receive funding for the expenses incurred during the Dec. 12 ice storm that left more than 20,000 Berkshire County residents without power.
Meanwhile, the Department of Public Utilities on Thursday opened an investigation into the response of the state's electric companies following the storm.
Locally, the MEMA meeting will be held on Friday, Jan. 16 at 10 a.m. at the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority's offices at 81 Kellogg St.
Communities are encouraged to send a representative from their local emergency management, public works and finance departments.
The briefing, which will last 90 minutes, will explain the reimbursement process for towns and non-profit organizations to receive federal funds for emergency work and repairs on infrastructure and public facilities.
The announcement by the DPU comes a few weeks after Gov. Deval Patrick called for the agency to conduct an inquiry into the responses of the state's four utility companies.
The storm forced a state of emergency and prompted the National Guard to be called into service. In some parts of the state, customers went without power for nearly two weeks.
The hilltowns of Berkshire County were especially hit. Places like Savoy, Florida, Otis and Peru suffered major tree damage and endured week-long power outages.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said the ice storm proved that MEMA and the utility companies can improve on the communication process during natural disasters.
"It's deplorable that in today's age, anyone would be without power for five or six days," he said.
Pignatelli said he understands why the population centers received the bulk of the initial response from the power companies.
"You have to go where the critical mass is, and people in these small towns have to understand that. It's a fact of life," he said. "But the underlying concern is that, when its six, seven, eight, days later and I haven't seen a crew in my town, I have a problem with that.
"We have an opportunity to learn from this," he said. "I hope we can ensure that this never happens again."
To reach Benning W. De La Mater: firstname.lastname@example.org, (413) 496-6243.
(Source: The Berkshire Eagle)By Benning W. De La Mater, The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts)
"Return of the interchange"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial, Thursday, January 08, 2009
Issues come and go in Berkshire County, but one old reliable that never entirely goes away is the proposed Turnpike interchange off Route 7 north of the center of Stockbridge. It hasn't happened because of vociferous opposition, but it won't go away because it has merit.
The interchange idea is one of four proposals offered by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and a multi-municipal committee that has spent 18 months studying ways to alleviate the truck traffic going through downtown Lee. It would accomplish this, with the larger benefit of providing another I-90 access point to central and northern Berkshire off well-traveled Route 7. Stockbridge officials and residents have always opposed such a plan, and continued to do so at a meeting Tuesday night.
The eastern bypass idea was floated again at the meeting but it was prohibitively expensive to build a road from the Turnpike in Becket to Pittsfield back when the state had money to spend. The other three options are a costly new north-south roadway off Route 102 in Lee, a partial or full interchange off West Road in Lee that lacks the benefits of a Route 7 interchange and some modest improvements to Route 20, which defies real improvement. The Route 7 idea keeps returning for a reason.
"Lee's regrets meet BRPC's planning"
By J. Cristopher Irsfeld
Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, Tuesday, January 13, 2009
In reading the Eagle editorial "Return of the Interchange" (Jan. 8), I was struck by two lines. "It (the interchange idea) won't go away because it has merit," and the second which is the very last line of the piece: "The Route 7 idea keeps returning for a reason."
The editorial is correct but for the wrong reasons.
The interchange idea keeps coming back for one reason — the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
Nat Karns who runs the commission is a great guy and the people who work for him are really dedicated. I worked with Nat for nine years and served on the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the last two years of my last term in office. The problem, we here in Stockbridge face, is in the title itself: Planning!
That is what Mr. Karns and company do to justify their existence. They plan straighter, wider, faster, more efficient roads capable of moving more people faster, from one point to another, whether they want to or not. A case in point is the Lenox Route 7-20 road widening in the late 1990s. The Planning Commission had deemed it necessary to make "improvements" to a five-mile section of Rout 7-20 which begins and ends in Lenox. A lovely stretch of 100-plus year-old maple trees were sacrificed for a multi-million dollar project which included added lanes and a center median.
To this day, every time I drive on that section of road I wonder "what were they thinking"? A car can now zip down the new road only to screech to a stop at the bottom of the hill in front of the Different Drummer where they must squeeze back to the original width of the road. It then widens back up until you get to Dan Fox Drive. where it narrows down again. The road is no better than it ever was.
Getting back to the Route 7 interchange, I would like to offer a quick bit of history. Back in the 1950s when the Turnpike was designed, exit two was indeed supposed to be located on Route 7 in Stockbridge. The idea was to start creating a north/south corridor which could move traffic from the Connecticut border to the Vermont border. A group of prominent Lee businessmen and civic leaders, along with an important ally, Gov. Crane, went to Boston for a secret meeting with the Turnpike Authority. They convinced the authority to move the exit to Lee because they thought having the exit in their town would be good for business. The authority agreed, the exit was moved, the turnpike was built and business in Lee was good, very good.
Not so much for Stockbridge. Our town remained a sleepy New England village with very little commerce. Even the Red Lion went broke in the '60s. Over the decades, Stockbridge has reinvented itself into a international tourist and cultural destination, but as far as a functioning "real" town we fall short. We have no pharmacy, barbershop, hardware store or funeral parlor. We have only one four-pump gas station and no traffic signals except for the blinking lights at the Botanical Garden corner.
Lee on the other hand has done quite well. Its downtown has all of the above mentioned businesses plus a nice supply of motels on the approach to town, fast food restaurants and six gas stations which cater to the tourist trade, and a big outlet center that also brings in much-needed tax revenue. But the prominent business and civic leaders no longer want the big trucks which came along with a turnpike exit rambling through their streets. They wish the trucks would move to another town — oh, say, Stockbridge.
The last time this issue came up in 2000, 2001. I became quite friendly with the then chairman of the Turnpike Authority, Matthew Amorello. I frequently corresponded with him on the Route 7 issue and on more than one occasion he stated that given the population of the Berkshires and their traffic flow the authority would never build a third interchange within a seven-mile corridor.
Just for the sake of argument, let's say that Mr. Karns and company are able to convince the Turnpike Authority of the wisdom of building an interchange on Route 7 smack dab in the middle of Stockbridge. Such an interchange would go a long way towards fixing the north/south corridor problem which was ruined by secret deals in the '50s, and it would alleviate the truck problem in Lee. But, and here's the rub, the authority says it will build the new interchange in Stockbridge only if the one in Lee is closed. No more truck problem for Lee, but also no more prime outlets, no more new Diesel Dan's with new hotel and restaurants, no more motels and fast food restaurants. Now, of course, that probably won't happen, but if an interchange is built in Stockbridge, Lee will lose a lot of north/south traveling tourists who will bypass Lee and exit at Stockbridge.
If this program continues to be pushed by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, I predict two things will happen. Stockbridge will get a big fat mess dropped into our town and Lee will lose a lot of business it has worked so hard to build. If my memory serves me, former Gov. Mitt Romney issued an executive order which in part stated . . . "fix an existing road before building new," and more importantly he said ..."don't force a road project on a community which doesn't want it." Has Gov. Patrick rescinded this order?
To Stockbridge I say, it's time to pay attention. To my friends and neighbors in Lee I say, be careful what you wish for.
"Zoning debate elicits passion"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Wednesday, January 14, 2009
LENOX — A proposed zoning change drew a small crowd at Town Hall last night, as residents raised concerns about potential changes in the town's historic district.
Yokun Ridge Property Management LLC petitioned the Lenox Planning Board Tuesday night to have two parcels of land on the corner of Main and Cliffwood streets rezoned for a possible two-story, mixed-use facility.
Located next to Triangle Park, the fenced-off property is currently an empty lot. Both properties, which were purchased by Yokun Ridge in February 2007, are zoned as residential.
Philip Heller, an attorney who presented the proposal on behalf of Yokun Ridge, said the intent is to build a 6,400-square-foot, two-story building that would house three small offices and two apartments. He added there would be one entrance along Main Street and none along Cliffwood Street, as to eliminate the need for a curb-cutting along the entrance to the residential neighborhood.
Residents packed the small room to hear the proposal and voice opposition to a plan several said would detract from the look of the area and push businesses into an area better suited for homes.
"I'm quite opposed to injecting a commercial zone amid this residential strip," said Jim Biancolo, of Lenox. "Once that becomes a commercial zone anything can go in there."
While not pointing specifically to the Yokun Ridge proposal, Biancolo was among several concerned citizens in attendance who said a future owner of the property could build an even larger property on the site once the zoning was changed.
Pam Kueber called the lands a "pivotal parcel," noting that changes could lower the value of surrounding homes and take away from the look of one of the town's most recognized areas.
Dennis Welch, one of the principle members of Yokun Ridge, defended the proposal, saying it would be better to construct one building on a rezoned lot, than to build two potentially larger homes on separate lots allowed under current zoning.
"It would be a lot less dense and a lot more aesthetically pleasing than two larger buildings," said Welch.
Because there was a scheduled information event a half hour after the start of the public hearing, the Planning Board voted to continue the hearing to their next meeting, Jan. 27 at 6:30 p.m.
At that time, the board will hear any other public concerns and possibly begin deliberation. But it is unlikely a final decision could be made at that time, as the Historic District Committee will likely have to weigh in on the proposal since a majority of the lands fall in the Historic District.
"Pignatelli will fight gas tax hike"
27 NOVEMBER 2008
It’s back to the future for William “Smitty” Pignatelli.
“When I first took office on New Year’s Day 2003, we were facing a $3 billion budget deficit,” recalls the state representative. “We survived... and we’ll survive this.”
Pignatelli was reelected earlier this month in an uncontested race. He’ll take the oath of office in January to continue representing most of south county as well as Pittsfield’s precinct 5B.
The state’s sudden reversal of finances, back to a level comparable to when Pignatelli first served, comes just as the Lenox resident saw progress.
“I thought we had a great term with the new governor and a new feeling but it’s come to a screeching halt with the economy,” he said. “It’s laying out a lot of big challenges as we go out to a new year.”
Atop Pignatelli’s agenda for the new term will be fighting a proposed increase in the state’s gasoline tax.
“It sends the wrong message,” he said. “We have been subsidizing the Big Dig for too long.”
Pignatelli thinks a gas tax increase would unfairly burden the region’s most rural communities, which lack strong public transportation. He sees adverse impacts for residents and businesses alike.
The key as the state retrenches finances, he believes, is to ensure each dollar is well spent. “We have to positions ourselves properly so we get more bang for the buck.”
Health care and energy costs are particular threats, he believes.
“Deregulation in my opinion 15 years late has been a total disaster,” he said regarding energy costs. He cites the closure of south county paper mills and the recent difficulties of Ice River Springs opening on Route 20 as examples of high energy costs hurting Western Massachusetts.
“Years ago you never thought about electricity being a deal breaker,” he said.
Pignatelli said that the state is making progress to help the Berkshire economy, including through a broadband internet initiative that will help connect more rural locales. “9/11 proves a lot of things, including that you don’t need to be on Wall Street to access Wall Street,” he said.
Diversifying the local economy is crucial, he believes.
“We are not the General Electric of my youth and we are not the paper mills of my youth,” he said. “We have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves.”
While a booster of the region’s cultural attractions — he’s hoping to protect the nascent state cultural facilities fund — Pignatelli stresses that “the creative economy can only take us so far.”
He sees supporting small businesses as vital to the region’s economic future. “What Pittsfield and hopefully the Berkshires have learned is not to be solely dependent on one company,” he said.
A looming political threat is the possibility of the Berkshires losing one of its four representative seats in the state house. “This may be the most important census of our lifetime,” he said.
The current arrangement - with one representative for most of Pittsfield and two others with a sliver — works well for the city and the region, he suggests.
“It’s great politically to have three reps out of four representing the largest city in the Berkshires,” he said.
While other agenda items will surface, Pignatelli said that dollars and sense will define the coming session on Beacon Hill.
“The budget is going to dominate everything,” he said. “There will be very few if any new initiatives... We have to look at the dollars we do have, priorities and leave the fluff stuff on the side.”
Pignatelli is particularly concerned that small local governments prepare realistically for likely state funding. He expects to see a push to regionalize more services.
“It’s going to force elected officials to make tough decisions,” he said.
By Jonathan Levine, Publisher of pittsfieldgazette.com
"Canyon Ranch lays off 12 employees: Position cuts mark the second round of losses at the resort since November, 2008."
By Tony Dobrowolski and Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Saturday, January 17, 2009
LENOX — For the second time in three months, Canyon Ranch has laid off a small number of employees at its Lenox resort.
The firm laid off 12 employees this week in addition to the 30 that were let go in November. This week's layoffs represent less than 4 percent of Canyon Ranch's 680 Lenox employees, company spokesperson Sheryl Press said on Friday. The layoffs occurred in the hotel, spa and other related areas, Canyon Ranch CEO Jerry Cohen said.
Meanwhile, the resort will be asking the Town of Lenox to extend the life of a permit to build eight apartments on site. The resort is holding off on the project in lieu of the economic downtown.
In November, Canyon Ranch's resorts in Lenox and Tucson, Ariz., had experienced a 10 to 12 percent decline in reservations. The current reservation rate "is down a little from that," Cohen said on Friday, while adding that the resort is doing well compared with the rest of the hospitality industry.
"We still have on average three employees to each guest," Cohen said.
Cohen said if the occupancy rate picks up the company could add more employees in Lenox, but if the rates continue to decline the firm would have to see what those levels are before deciding if it were appropriate to make more changes. Canyon Ranch is making adjustments at all of its properties, not just in Lenox, he added.
"We are going to act in a manner appropriate to the business climate," Cohen said.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said the latest layoffs at Canyon Ranch are attributable to the current economic climate that has effected the entire country.
"Anytime anybody loses their job it's disappointing whether it be Canyon Ranch, KB Toys, or the local convenience store," Pignatelli said. "The dominoes have been falling on every aspect of Berkshire County. It's a sign of the whole economic crisis that's what's happening in the Berkshires is hitting the country hard.
"Look at Canyon Ranch — it's a luxury," he said. "People are being more conservative with how they spend their dollars. Lot's of businesses are going through tough times. Canyon Ranch is part of it. It's just a sign of the times we're in."
Less than a month after Canyon Ranch announced its first round of layoffs in Lenox, the resort opened a new residential spa complex in Miami Beach. The new resort, built around the 1950s-era Carillon Hotel, is said to have cost close to $500 million, and employs 345.
Press said that Lenox employees who were laid off in November were given a chance to relocate to Florida.
She referred to the timing of the earlier layoffs and the opening of the Miami Beach resort as "happenstance," adding that Canyon Ranch had originally intended to open the Florida spa complex two years ago, but that the project had been delayed.
More than 10 years after receiving permission from the town to build apartments on their property and with no plans to build the units in sight, representatives from Canyon Ranch will ask the town for an extension to its special permit to build them.
The Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals will hear a petition from Canyon Ranch, at 7 p.m., at its Wednesday meeting in Town Hall, for a two-year extension to their special permit to build eight apartments on their property.
Canyon Ranch was first granted permission to build the apartments in 1998.
While they would like to maintain the special permit, Canyon Ranch attorney Philip Heller said there are no immediate plans to build the apartments. He said the current economic climate is a deterrent to going ahead with the project, but an extension would keep the door open to future construction.
"It's not the best time to do it," said Heller. "That's why we're asking for the extension."
The original special permit Canyon Ranch received was for the construction of 36 condominiums on their property in 1990.
Eleven years later, the company also received permission to build eight small apartments adjacent to the main building.
Construction of 10 free-standing condominiums will begin soon, according to Heller, 19 years after the initial approval was granted and four years after the town's Planning Board raised concerns about the lack of progress with the project.
Canyon Ranch opened its Lenox resort in October 1989 after purchasing Bellefontaine, a 19th century "cottage" for $5.2 million two years earlier.
Canyon Ranch spent some $37 million renovating the former estate.
According to Pignatelli, Canyon Ranch provides $500,000 to the town of Lenox in property, sewer, and tax revenue.
"State looks to cope with budget cuts: Patrick proposes candy and soda taxes to close a $1.1 billion budget gap."
By Matt Murphy, Berkshire Eagle Boston Bureau, Thursday, January 29, 2009
BOSTON — Gov. Deval L. Patrick on Wednesday proposed a series of new taxes on alcohol, candy and soda as part of a package to close this year's $1.1 billion gap and balance next year's budget as the national recession takes its toll on Massachusetts.
The governor's spending plan for the next year and half also relies on deep cuts to local aid — $503 million — and heavy draws from the state's shrinking reserves. Fees for services such as license renewals will increase from $40 to $50, and Patrick will look toward a forthcoming federal stimulus package to help bail the state out of costly health care commitments.
"There's going to be blood on the street," said Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, referring to cuts in local aid and other programs.
Patrick said he will ask the Legislature to remove the 5 percent sales tax exemption on candy, alcohol and sweetened beverages, generating $25 million this year and $121.5 million for next year's budget.
Joining 17 other states in taxing junk food, he said he plans to use the money in the fiscal 2010 budget to fund health and wellness programs like tobacco control and violence prevention.
"This is great. Are you kidding me? I really like, from a policy standpoint, taxing things for health reasons so we have more money for health care," said Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord.
Patrick is also looking to bring in $150 million from a 1-cent increase in the state's meal and hotel taxes, $20 million by expanding the 5-cent recycle deposit to bottled water, juices and sports drinks, and $74.5 million in new Registry of Motor Vehicle fees.
The governor's emergency plan balances the fiscal 2009 budget with a mix of $191 million in cuts, $68 million in new taxes and fees, $327 million in reserves and $533 in federal stimulus money.
"Taken together, these measures are right and necessary steps to get us through these difficult times," Patrick said.
The cuts include an immediate $128 million reduction in local aid to cities and towns that may force layoffs for teachers, police and firefighters over the next few months. The governor does not plan to touch Chapter 70 aid to schools this year, and will level fund state aid to schools next year that will save about $412 million in growth that schools could have otherwise anticipated.
The governor also outlined his $28 billion spending plan for fiscal 2010 on Wednesday, a $200 million reduction that marks the first time in more than 20 years that spending has been reduced from one year to the next.
Cuts to local aid next year will be even more painful to cities and towns under Patrick's budget, with $375 million being trimmed.
The governor said next year's cuts to local aid could be reduced to $220 million, or a 4.2 percent reduction, if the Legislature approves his proposal for a one-cent increase in the state meals tax.
"Shed light on Legislature's meetings"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters, Thursday, January 29, 2009
As a third straight Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives leaves under a cloud of ethics violations, it is time that we, as citizens, question whether the problem is with those individuals or the system. When power is vested in a small group of individuals who are permitted to conduct their business behind closed doors, corruption and graft are sure to follow.
President Obama has promised us the most open and transparent presidency in history. We should demand the same from the state legislature. To that end, all meetings of any legislative body or gathering should be open to the public pursuant to the open meeting law, Massachusetts General Laws ch. 39, A7 23B. That includes the all-important partisan caucuses, where the speaker and leadership is elected and all the real decisions are made. If the Lanesborogh Historical Commission and the Lee Planning Board have to meet in public, than the state Legislature should too.
Senator Downing and Representatives Pignatelli, Speranzo, Guyer and Bosley should amend the open meeting law to eliminate the exemption for the state legislature. More importantly, they should refuse to participate in any more of the clandestine meetings until the law is changed.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
"Pignatelli Bill Would Exempt Towns, Cities from Gas Tax"
iBerkshires Staff reports - January 27, 2009
BOSTON — A proposal being floated around Beacon Hill to raise gasoline taxes by 29 cents a gallon has communities across the state fuming.
Lawmakers in the eastern end of the state are mulling the increase, which would hike the state gas tax to 50 cents, to offset a proposal to do away with the tolls along the Massachusetts Turnpike, harbor tunnels and the Tobin Bridge. That would mean not only higher taxes for residents but for towns and cities as well.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli filed a bill this week to shield municipalities and state agencies from not only the increase but from any state gas tax.
"In a time of drastic cuts in local aid and of towns scrambling to find ways to make ends meet, it is imperative that we do all we can to help towns and agencies survive these tumultuous times," said the Lenox Democrat.
Bay State towns and cities have been complaining for decades about being double-taxed when it comes to gasoline. While the U.S. government exempts states and municipalities from paying the federal levy, Massachusetts doesn't.
"If the governor and the Legislature really wanted to do something for local communities under the so-called Municipal Partnership Act" they would look at the gas tax, Williamstown Town Manager Peter Fohlin told the Selectmen on Monday night. "Every city and town in the commonwealth feels as though we should be exempted from the gasoline tax."
Residents not only have to pay the tax every time they're at the pump, they pay again every time a town truck or vehicle fills up, he said, speculating more Williamstown drivers would head to Bennington, Vt., for gas.
Pignatelli expressed his disagreement with the gas tax last fall; the issue has become even more important, he said, with the impending $128 million cut to local aid proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick.
"It sends the wrong message," he told The Pittsfield Gazette in November. "We have been subsidizing the Big Dig for too long."
Tolls pay for repair and maintenance of the MassPike and the multibillion-dollar, trouble-plagued Central Artery Project, better known as the Big Dig. Proponents say the tax could bring in $1.6 billion annually for road and bridge projects, including the Pike and Big Dig.
"MetroWest lawmakers: Hike gas tax to 50 cents"
boston.com/news/local/massachusetts, January 13, 2009
BOSTON --MetroWest lawmakers are pushing a bill to more than double the state gas tax and eliminate all existing tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, harbor tunnels and Tobin Bridge.
State Rep. David Linksy said the plan would raise the gas tax by 29 cents, bringing the total to 50 cents per gallon.
The Natick Democrat said the increase would generate $1.6 billion annually, with revenues going to the Turnpike Authority, MBTA, regional transit authorities, road and bridge projects, and the state highway department.
The bill would also let the state build new Turnpike tolls at the New York and Connecticut borders.
Gov. Deval Patrick has said he would consider a gas tax increase as an alternative to toll hikes, but hasn't said how much.
"Egremont is named state's most active town"
By Benning W. De La Mater, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Monday, February 09, 2009
EGREMONT — Crete is a long ways from Egremont, but this tiny Greek Island in the Mediterranean Sea served as an inspiration for town employees to get healthy in this little New England hamlet.
Egremont was recently awarded the title Most Active Small Town by the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association.
Twelve of the town's 15 employees took part in a six-week wellness program through the town's insurance provider, MIIA.
They attended stress management courses, took yoga classes and learned about the Mediterranean diet.
They also donned pedometers with the goal of walking 160 miles — the length of the island of Crete, the geographical inspiration set by the MIIA this year.
Pat Mielke, treasurer/collector, clocked more than 300 miles, and office administrator Mary Brazie totaled 287.
"I walked across Crete and halfway back," said Brazie, jokingly — she's never visited the popular tourist spot. "The whole program was to get us thinking about our health."
This is the 10th year that Egremont participated in the program and the first year they took home a title. Towns with the highest participation percentages won awards.
Brazie said the program helped to develop a bit of competition among the employees at town hall, adding an extra push to their walking routine.
Bruce Turner, chairman of the Select Board, said anything that promotes good health at Town Hall is a good thing.
"And the wellness points help us with our insurance rates," he said. "We get a small break. Every bit of savings counts."
"Stimulus’ package boycotts Berkshires"
By Michael Kelley, berkshirerecord.net, Posted on Monday February 23, 2009
The preliminary list of “shovel ready” projects to stimulate the economy, which was released by Gov. Patrick on Feb. 12, is finding few fans here in the Berkshires, but it is still too early in the process to jump to conclusions about what will, and what will not receive economic stimulus funding.
“It is a very weak list that has been put together,” said State Representative William Pignatelli (D-Lenox). “I am somewhat disappointed.”
Pignatelli said he is particularly disappointed with the lack of local projects on the list, adding that “every region of the Commonwealth needs to get a piece of the pie.”
Pignatelli said he is hoping that an additional review will be done to include some more projects from this area, especially those which create job opportunities.
“I hope this new process will determine what will have the greatest impact and meet the greatest need for the communities, and most important, what is going to create jobs,” he said. “If this is a stimulus process, it needs to put people back to work,” he said.
Cyndi Roy, the spokesperson for the governor’s budget office said the list deemed to be “shovel ready”, which includes 3,200 projects, was compiled and reviewed by various task forces set up to facilitate the process and are projects the state are already familiar with. The second list, which contains 4,900 projects, has not been reviewed by the state yet to see if they are “shovel ready” and that list, she said, will continue to be reviewed as time goes on.
“This is still an ongoing process,” she said, adding that they are still going through the $787 billion economic stimulus act, which President Obama signed into law earlier this week, to determine how much of the share Massachusetts will receive.
Roy said projects deemed to be “shovel ready” have not been selected to receive funding and just because a project hasn’t been reviewed does not mean, in the end, it won’t receive funding.
Robert Nason, town administrator in Lee, said he hopes that some of the numerous projects that Lee has on the unreviewed list, get reviewed and eventually accepted by the state for stimulus funding.
He said projects of particular importance, which currently haven’t been reviewed by the state include $4 million in resurfacing and partial reconstruction work on Tyringham Road and $5 million in repairs to the 15 town-owned bridges in Lee.
“There is a lot of important projects we have in town that we would like to see added to the list,” Nason said.
Even if this area does receive stimulus money for additional projects, it is still unknown, according to Pignatelli, on what impact that would make on the economy.
“The jury is still out if this is going to stimulate the economy,” he said.
Gov. Patrick, however, feels that this Recovery and Reinvestment will not only improve the economy in the state now, and invest for a better tomorrow.
The object was not only to create much needed jobs across the state but also lay the foundation for investing in clean energy, better school facilities, improved bridges, roads and rail service, as well as a more efficient and cost effective health care records management system and broadband expansion.
Local projects on the reviewed list and approved as “shovel ready” include $3 million for restoration of more than 50 miles of trails in three state forests including Beartown in Great Barrington, $3.3 million for the reconstruction of Route 7A from Route & and Route 183 in Lenox, several upgrades to the Lee drinking water system, runway repair at the Great Barrington Airport and $1 million in improvements to Spectacle Farm Pond in Sandisfield.
The list of submitted but unreviewed projects, include many more projects in Berkshire County, such as wind turbine installations, improvements to town roads and municipal buildings and solar powered panels at the schools in Lee, demolition of the New England Log Home site and energy upgrades at the town hall and Ramsdell Library in Great Barrington, West Street rehabilitation and improvements in Lenox, Clayton River Road repair and town hall renovations in New Marlborough, construction of both a senior center and highway maintenance garage in Sheffield and downtown enhancements to the West Stockbridge Village Center.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
"Grant will help clinic pay for medication"
By Tony Dobrowolski, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Sunday, March 01, 2009
GREAT BARRINGTON — With help from two Berkshire County state legislators, a free nonprofit health clinic that supplies services to the medically uninsured has received an $87,000 grant from the state Attorney General Office's Prescription Drug Assistance Grant Program.
The funding will be used to provide prescription medications over the next two years to those who patronize Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires, said Arthur M. Peisner of New Marlborough, the president of the clinic's Board of Directors.
Peisner said the demand for prescription medications at the clinic has gone beyond its ability to deliver them.
"This will make a world of difference," he said.
VIM Berkshires, which is located on Main Street in Great Barrington, provides free medical, dental, mental health, and optometry services to income-qualified residents of the Berkshire region, which includes parts of Connecticut and New York. The clinic is staffed by clinical and lay volunteers, and a small support staff.
This is the first time VIM Berkshires has applied for funding from this government-funded grant program since the clinic opened in August 2004, Peisner said. In the past, the clinic has relied on support from fundraisers and local business interests. The nonprofit is supported entirely by private donations, according to information on the clinic's website.
"We're very gratified to win this grant," said Peisner, who thanked State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, for their support.
"I think in the difficult economic times that we are in right now every dollar means that much more," Downing said. "Talking to the folks at VIM, I can tell the demand for their services is growing rapidly."
According to Peisner, VIM has approximately 1,000 patients and receives 2,500 patient visits per year. He said the current numbers have increased 50 percent over previous years.
He isn't sure if the increase in patients and visits is due to the economic downturn, but said the clinic is receiving more visits from people who are unemployed.
Pignatelli said the grant funding will allow the clinic to remain fully operational and maintain quality service.
VIM Berkshires is one of 14 organizations that is receiving funds from the Prescription Drug Assistance Program. The initiative has awarded over $1 million in grants to nonprofit community health centers to provide free or significantly discounted prescription medication or co-pay assistance to low income and uninsured individuals across the state.
Funding for the grants comes from a series of multistate settlements with pharmaceutical companies that authorized the state Attorney General's office to direct settlement proceeds to benefit low income, disabled, or elderly consumers of prescription medications.
To reach Tony Dobrowolski: TDobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com (413) 496-6224
"Bay State's jobless rate jumps to 7.4%: Highest since 1993; Wall Street. roils again"
By Robert Gavin, Boston Globe Staff, March 6, 2009
The Massachusetts unemployment rate in January leaped above 7 percent for the first time since June 1993, indicating an accelerating recession that could rank among the state's worst.
Unemployment rose to 7.4 percent from a revised 6.4 percent in December, the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported yesterday. There are now more than 250,000 unemployed in Massachusetts, up nearly 100,000, or about 60 percent, from a year ago.
The state's declining employment comes against the backdrop of a deteriorating national economy. Concerns about the survival of financial giant Citigroup and automaker General Motors Corp. sparked another deep sell-off on Wall Street yesterday. The Dow Jones industrial average, now at 1997 levels, plunged 281.40 to 6,594.44. The broader Standard and Poor's 500 fell 30.32 to 682.55. The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite lost 54.15 to 1,299.59.
The US Labor Department reported yesterday that first-time claims for unemployment benefits remained above 600,000 for the fifth consecutive week, presaging steep job losses when the department releases February employment data today.
Economists forecast the national unemployment rate will rise to about 8 percent, from 7.6 percent in January.
Before it's all over, analysts said, the jobless rate in Massachusetts could hit 9 percent, putting the current downturn on par with the recession of the late '80s and early '90s, when unemployment peaked at 9.1 percent. That recession is considered the state's worst since World War II.
"The state economy, like the national economy, is still in this vicious downward cycle where job losses beget more job losses," said Alan Clayton-Matthews, professor and economic analyst at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Confidence has collapsed, and, it's steeper and deeper than we've forecast."
In Massachusetts, annual revisions to employment data, also released yesterday, showed the recession here started earlier and cost more jobs than first estimated. The state revises data each year based on information that becomes available after initial estimates are reported.
Instead of July, as first reported, the revised data shows the state's decline began in March, when employment peaked at about 3.3 million jobs. The state has shed jobs every month since, save for a small uptick in May.
Overall, the state lost more than 60,000 jobs last year, about 17,000 more than first estimated. November and December were particularly brutal as employers slashed nearly 50,000 jobs, the most lost in a two-month period since early 1991. Employers cut 4,900 more jobs in January, the state reported yesterday.
US employers slashed nearly 600,000 jobs in January, after slicing nearly 1.2 million jobs in November and December.
Mike Lynch, regional economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, said deteriorating national conditions have undermined the technology, scientific, and business-service firms that supported the Massachusetts economy early last year. The state was still adding jobs in the first three months of 2008, even as the rest of the nation slipped into recession.
"We were holding up pretty well, but we couldn't hold out anymore," Lynch said. "It's not surprising considering how bad things have gotten for the national economy."
The professional and business-services sector, which includes consulting, technical, and scientific firms as well as lawyers and accountants, led Massachusetts job losses in January, shedding 3,600 jobs. Over the past year, the sector has lost more than 20,000 jobs, or about 4 percent of employment.
Construction, however, has been hardest hit in the downturn, shedding 2,200 jobs in January, bringing the total jobs it lost over the past year to 16,000, or about 12 percent of employment. Overall employment in the state has declined about 2 percent.
Among other major sectors, manufacturers cut 1,800 jobs in January. Financial services cut 1,200. State and local governments cut 1,000.
On the other hand, education and health services, which includes hospitals and universities, added 1,600 jobs. Retailers ended four consecutive months of job losses, adding 3,300 jobs in January.
Robert Gavin can be reached at email@example.com.
Longer jobless line: The Bay State’s unemployment rate rose to 7.4 percent in January, the highest level since 1993 but still shy of the national jobless rate.
The Boston Herald, Business, March 6, 2009
David Mazza, at the wheel on the route to Lenox and Lee, has been driving for the BRTA for two years.
"BRTA mulls service revamp"
By Trevor Jones, New England Newspapers: The Berkshire Eagle & The North Adams Transcript, March 6, 2009
PITTSFIELD -- The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority is seeking to drastically revamp its bus service throughout the county -- the first major shift considered for the region's bus transit in 35 years.
The BRTA is proposing changes that include extending hours the buses run, moving to a seven-day schedule, and modernizing bus stops and fares. Other potentialities include shifting the types of buses the BRTA uses, adding regional and express routes, and increasing the frequency of stops.
The changes are based on research by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, which surveyed riders, non-riders, businesses, drivers and educational institutions about changes they would like to see in service. It was the first study of the transit system in more than 15 years.
"I believe that why Europe is so successful in their transit system is that they don't design systems they think people need, but what people want," said Greg Shepard, BRTA administrator.
The BRTA has been hosting public meetings throughout the county in recent weeks, showing residents their preliminary plans and seeking input. The final meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, at the Mason Library in Great Barrington.
The top requests of survey respondents was for extended hours and Sunday service, followed by more frequent stops, according to Alison Church, transportation program manager for the BRPC.
Currently, the buses run from roughly 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., but riders and businesses said they would like to see hours extended to 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Shepard said the county's demographics have shifted as well, and more people are using the buses to shop or go to doctor appointments. He also believes there needs to be a shift to meet the demands of tourists at popular destinations that are not currently serviced.
"Public transportation is more than a transit system," said Shepard. "I think we're a major part of the economic growth of a region and a component of the quality of life in a region."
The current system was established in the 1970s, and despite doubling the number of stops and dramatic increases in riders, particularly disabled riders that take longer to get on, the system has never been revised.
"What it has shown is it has simply demonstrated that the system has to be completely revamped," said Church.
Shepard said there will be a need for significant increases in funding, adding that the money should come through the revamping of the state's transportation system, as a matter of regional equity.
"I think this study is very timely when you consider the Commonwealth is talking about reforming the transportation system. If we're not part of that reform ... then we've missed an enormous opportunity," said Shepard.
And while the BRTA expects to get six or seven new mini-buses through the federal stimulus package, Shepard said the transition will have to be phased in over several years.
Another major change to the current system is riders will no longer be able to flag down buses in downtown areas -- that causes a public safety risk and dramatically slows down service, according to Shepard. Instead, buses will stop at designated places every half hour. And people who have a difficult time getting to those stops can call ahead to be picked up.
To reach Trevor Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 528-3660.
"Home loan aid on way to state"
By Jenifer B. McKim, The Boston Globe, Sunday, March 08, 2009
More than 100,000 Massachusetts homeowners who cannot refinance at current low rates because of falling property values may now be able to do so as part of the Obama administration's housing plan.
The administration last week released new details about its $75 billion plan to help some 9 million homeowners. The plan has two main components to help homeowners trapped in two different circumstances: those struggling to pay the monthly mortgage and at risk of foreclosure; and those locked out of refinancing because of lower property values.
Get lower rates
The refinancing plan will allow eligible borrowers with loans held by government-sponsored mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to obtain a new mortgage at currently lower rates, regardless of how little equity they've built up in their homes. Even those who are a little underwater — that is, the value of a home is less than what is owed on the mortgage — may be able to refinance.
"There are a growing number of people in Massachusetts who were prudent borrowers but their homes have simply plunged in value. If they have any loss of income they are really at risk of a foreclosure," said David Abromo-witz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Wash-ington and a partner at the Boston law firm Goulston & Storrs. "The plan is a broad, serious attempt to stop the tidal wave of foreclosures that drags down everybody's home prices."
No more than 5 percent
The refinancing mechanism aims to help as many as 5 million borrowers in owner-occupied homes who are current on their mortgage payments, but have less than 20 percent equity because of declining property values. These borrowers have not been able to take advantage of extremely low interest rates because mortgage lenders often refuse to loan more than 80 percent of the value of the home.
The Obama plan would extend the refinancing help to borrowers who are underwater, so long as the value of their homes has dropped no more than 5 percent below what they owe on their loans.
Some quarter of a million borrowers in Massachusetts fit the federal profile of having not enough equity in their homes to refinance, according to real estate tracker Warren Group, and about half of them have loans held or guaranteed by Fannie or Freddie. More than 8.3 million US mortgages, or 20 percent of all mortgaged properties, are underwater, according to report released Wednesday by First American CoreLogic.
Both mortgage companies have set up contact points for borrowers to determine if their loans are owned or guaranteed by them. For Fannie Mae, borrowers can call 1-800-7FANNIE or go online to www.fanniemae/homeaffordable. For Freddie Mac, call 1-800-FREDDIE or go online at www.freddiemac/avoidforeclosure.
But borrowers last week said they still had questions.
Chris Shedd, president of Mort-gage Resources Inc. in Wellesley, said the plan could be a boon for the disappointed customers he's had to turn away because their dropping home values made them unable to refinance.
Ann Louise White of Dedham, who is hoping she can refinance under the program, said she was resisting calling her mortgage lender immediately, to first digest the details of the plan. White bought her house in 2007 for $415,000 and but hasn't been able to refinance because her home has since dropped in value.
The Obama administration said the refinancing plan is not expected to cost taxpayers any money. The $75 billion in the housing plan would go toward tackling the thorny problem of foreclosures by subsidizing lower-cost mortgages for borrowers who are at risk of losing their homes. Even those borrowers who haven't missed a mortgage payment may be eligible for this help, if they have high debt levels, for example, on the grounds that modifying their loans now would avoid an eventual foreclosure.
Pay loan servicers
The government will pay loan-servicing agencies to change the terms of these mortgages to make them more affordable based on the borrower's income. Servicers can either lower the interest rate to as low as 2 percent, extend the life of the loan, or if necessary postpone repayment of some of the principal to bring monthly payments down.
Loan servicers would be paid $1,000 for successfully modifying a loan of a delinquent borrower, and $1,500 if the borrower is current on the loan. The service will get $1,000 for each year the borrower is able to keep paying the loan, up to three years.
Borrowers, meanwhile, would receive $1,000 from the government a year toward lowering their principal, up to five years.
Eligible borrowers must be owner-occupants whose unpaid principal is no more than $729,750 for a single-family home. They must show the current mortgage payment is no longer affordable because of a significant change in income or expenses.
Lenders that receive government assistance under the administration's Financial Stability Plan are required to modify loans of qualified borrowers. Already many of the nation's biggest banks, including Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo, have said they will participate in the program, government officials said.
John A. Courson, president of the Mortgage Bankers Associa-tion, said the plan will "undoubtedly help servicers keep more at-risk borrowers in their homes."
Separately, however, Courson wished the refinancing part would have included more borrowers whose loans were even further underwater.
Sharon Price, director of policy for the National Housing Conference, said she believed the administration was being realistic about who it could best help.
"It will help people who are a little underwater but not truly underwater," Price said. "Clearly they are trying to reach the broadest population under both of these plans. But they are not reaching people who may be past the point of no return."
"State-owned lands are local budget concern"
By Meghan Foley, North Adams Transcript, 3/11/2009
HANCOCK -- With town officials anticipating a tight budget year ahead for fiscal 2010, one of the many things that has them concerned is how much revenue they will receive from state-owned lands, which are exempt from property taxes.
"It's part of our budget," Sherman Derby Sr., chairman of the Hancock Board of Selectmen, said Monday.
According to the state Department of Revenue FY09 cherry sheet (a projection cities and towns receive of how much funding the state will send), Hancock will receive $135,849 for its state-owned lands. This amount is about 7.5 percent of the town's budget for FY09. Those lands total 4549.72 acres and are valued at approximately $11.7 million.
Robert "Bob" Bliss, spokesman for the Department of Revenue, said Monday Gov. Deval Patrick is proposing to level fund the amount available for the state agency to pay cities and towns statewide for their state-owned land for FY10 at $30.3 million. How much money is ultimately agreed on in the state budget and how it will be divided up among communities is still unknown.
"It will depend on how much the legislature approves for the line item, and how much state land there is," Bliss said. "We don't know what 2010 will bring at this point."
In addition to Hancock, the towns of Williamstown and New Ashford also receive revenues from state-owned land. In Williamstown, the town will receive $132,944 for approximately 6,165 acres of state-owned land valued at approximately $14.4 million for FY09.
Town Manager Peter L. Fohlin said Monday the revenue received from state-owned lands is about 0.8 percent of the total revenue the town receives.
New Ashford will receive $9,371 for 3,214.28 acres valued at approximately $1 million for FY09.
All three towns are projected to see a decrease of no more than $100 each in payments made on state-owned lands for FY10, based on information from the state FY09 and proposed FY10 cherry sheets.
Bliss said the reason for the decrease is probably because of a change in the allocation of funding.
"Let us say the state acquires some land in another community; that community now is eligible for a greater share of these funds, which means someone else's share may be reduced," Fohlin said.
He added the amount of state-owned land will probably not change all that much for FY10.
According to the proposed FY10 cherry sheet, New Ashford may see a reduction of $7 in revenue from state-owned lands, Williamstown may see a $93 decrease and Hancock a $96 decrease.
Hancock's concern about the future of revenue from state-owned land was prompted by events earlier this year on the eastern end of the state involving the town of Salisbury.
According to a March 1 article in the Boston Globe, the town was planning to fight the devaluation of it's state-owned lands from $27.5 million to approximately $11 million, which would result in the state paying a lesser amount to the town for the properties.
Bliss said in 2006 the Department of Revenue changed its method of assessment to include local property values and zoning rules in determining the value of state-owned land. The values are updated every four years.
"As for pre-2006, DOR did the valuations without seeking or soliciting local input," he said.
He said the land values for Salisbury were determined by the old assessment.
To reach Meghan Foley, e-mail email@example.com.
"Western Mass. road, rail projects in line for federal stimulus aid"
by The Republican Newsroom, By DAN RING, firstname.lastname@example.org, Tuesday March 10, 2009
BOSTON - About $60 million worth of road, bridge, and other transportation projects in Western Massachusetts are eligible for a first round of financing from the federal stimulus law.
Within the next 120 days, the administration will advertise for bids for a total of $153.2 million worth of "shovel-ready" projects, said a spokesman on Tuesday.
At the same time, the administration listed $336 million in projects across the state, including the $60 million in Western Massachusetts, that are eligible to be included in that $153.2 million in projects that will go to bid. This means that more than half of the projects on the list of $336 million will not go out to bid in the first round.
"Not every project on that list may get funded," said Colin Durrant, a transportation spokesman for Gov. Deval L. Patrick.
He said the administration does not know which projects will be included in the $153.2 million that will go out to bid this spring. Durrant said the administration will pick projects based on their readiness and administration priorities.
Projects on the list of $336 million that are left out of the first round will be eligible for a second round, he said. The second round will be advertised for bid by March 2010, Durrant said.
Pioneer Valley projects on the final list of $336 million include $6.1 million to resurface Route 9 in Belchertown and Ware; $4.5 million to resurface Route 5 and 10 in Easthampton, Greenfield, and three other communities; $471,000 to improve sidewalks and other work near the Jackson Street School in Northampton; $4.6 million to link bicycle trails in Easthampton and Northampton, and $2 million for a new bridge in Wilbraham.
Franklin County projects on the final list of $336 million include $1.6 million of road work in Northfield; $4.2 million to repave Route 2 in Erving and three other communities, and $12.8 million to build a transportation bus hub in Greenfield.
Berkshire County has about $20 million in projects on the final list.
"That's the final list of eligible projects for this round of stimulus funding," Durrant said. "It's one step closer."
In the coming days and weeks, the administration will publicize which projects are put out to bid within the $153.2 million, he said.
All of the projects on the final list of $336 million were approved by 13 regional planning organizations around the state, including those in the Pioneer Valley, Franklin County, and Berkshire County. All of the projects go through a federally-mandated approval process.
Timothy W. Brennan, executive director for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said he will push for money for valley projects in the first round of $153.2 million.
"We don't want to lose any money to another region," he said. "We're trying to maximize return for the Pioneer Valley."
Maureen Mullaney, transportation manager for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, said she is confident that Franklin County projects will be financed in the first round.
She said the projects would "absolutely" spark the economy.
"They would be massive construction jobs," she said.
In all, the state received $437.9 million for transportation projects through the federal stimulus bill. Only $153.2 million will be bid for the first round.
The federal stimulus law is expected to provide the state with $1 billion for infrastructure, including $437.9 million on transportation projects through federal highway and $319 million to regional transit authorities and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
The Patrick administration lists these projects in Western Massachusetts as eligible for a first round of financing for transportation projects from the federal stimulus law:
$6.1 million to resurface 14.3-mile stretch of Route 9 in Belchertown and Ware
$4.5 million to resurface Route 5 and 10 in Easthampton, Greenfield, Northampton, Southampton, and Westfield.
$471,000 to improve sidewalks, traffic signals, signs, crosswalks, and traffic calming measures near the Jackson Street School in Northampton
$1.3 million to resurface Elm Street and reconstruct sidewalks from Elm Court to Prospect Street in Hatfield
$4.6 million to link the Manhan Bicycle Trail in Easthampton to the Manhan-Norwottuck Rail Trail in Northampton, starting at Ferry Street, Easthampton, and ending at Earle Street, Northampton
$2 million to build a bridge to replace the Red Bridge Road Bridge over the Utilities Canal in Wilbraham
$1.6 million to reconstruct sidewalks on Main Street and Parker Avenue in Northfield, restore town common, improve safety at Parker Avenue, and repair sidewalks on adjacent roads
$4.3 million to repave Route 2 in Erving, Gill, Orange, and Wendell. Repaving also includes a section of Mohawk Trail
$12.8 million to construct the Franklin Intermodal Transportation Center bus hub in Greenfield to improve operations of Franklin Regional Transit Authority and provide a link for possible future commuter rail service along Connecticut River line
$9.9 million to rebuild a 2-mile section of the Route 7/Route 8 connector Road in Lanesboro
$3.3 million to rebuild a 1.3-mile section of Route 7A from Route 7 to near Route 183 in Lenox
$1.7 million to resurface a 1.5-mile section of Route 116 in Adams
$3.2 million to resurface Route 7 in Lanesboro and New Ashford
$1.2 million to resurface Route 8 in Cheshire.
The Board of Bar Overseers voted overwhelmingly yesterday to recommend disgraced former House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran be disbarred. (Photo by John Wilcox; file)
"Felon Finneran fails to scale justice"
By Howie Carr, Saturday, March 14, 2009, www.bostonherald.com, Columnists
There is a God.
Poor Felon Finneran, for once in his squalid life, Mistah Speakah couldn’t put the fix in, not even to get back his ticket to practice law. So much for the Advil defense - that his hip was killing him, or maybe his knee, or was it both?
Now the Board of Bar Overseers votes 11-1 to recommend that he be disbarred - and who is this courageous Erik Lund character who did the right thing, the lone dissenter who voted to give Tommy Taxes yet another slap on the wrist.
More importantly, does Erik Lund have a brother-in-law who needs a job at the Pike as a sign painter, or maybe at the Health and Education Facilities Authority, as an assistant to the assistant?
Sure, and the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast is tomorrow, too. Faith bejesus, this tragic news’ll be putting quite the pall on the festivities tomorrow morning down at Halitosis Hall. And we do know that Felon Finneran will be there, hosting a special edition of his abysmal radio show.
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, that bug-eyed, sticky-fingered little chromedome. That’s the good news. The bad news is, now he’ll still be stinking up the radio airwaves - my airwaves - with ratings lower than whale excrement. From Jerry Williams to gerrymandering.
The caveat is, this was only a recommendation by the BBO. Lately, though, the SJC has been coming down harder on crooked lawyers, usually in cases involving clients’ funds. But the fact is, the Felon has pickpocketed everybody in the commonwealth. Everyone in the state who makes, say, $50,000 a year has $150 stolen from him every year thanks to Felon Finneran’s imperious decision to stop the voter-approved rollback of the state income tax from 5.3 to 5 percent in 2000.
Felon Finneran is a disgrace. He’s tight with every shady character lurking in the shadows of the State House. You know state Sen. Marian Walsh, also known as “Mother Superior,” who just got the $175,000 hack job from Deval, after her husband Paul Buckley got a $113,000 hack job at age 70 from the governor, after Buck reached mandatory retirement age as a judge. This couple’s greed knows no bounds.
In 1999, when Buck was nominated for the judgeship, guess who testified at his Governor’s Council hearing? “He is a giant,” the Felon said of Buckley.
Other than his utter amorality, Finneran’s problem is that he’s always fancied himself the smartest guy in the room. And in fact this may have been true at the State House, where below-average is the new average. But once he hits Park Street, the Felon is just another unemployable hack with a red nose who moves his lips when he reads.
One last question, and this is just for you, Felon Finneran: Do you think this is going to help or hurt your efforts to get back that $32,000-a-year state pension you lost when you pleaded guilty?
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, boyo!
Article URL: www.bostonherald.com/news/columnists/view.bg?articleid=1158453
The poster advertising the Beer for Boobs event.
"Good cause, controversial slogan: The Berkshire Babes are raising eyebrows with the name of their breast cancer fundraiser."
By Benning W. De La Mater, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Friday, March 13, 2009
LENOX — A group of local women who are walking 39 miles to help fight cancer have organized a benefit party to raise funds for the cause, but the party's slogan has offended some who consider it demeaning.
The women call themselves The Berkshire Babes, six friends who organized a team this year for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Boston May 16-17.
Some of them have walked with other teams in the past. One helped a nine-member team raise nearly $30,000 for the event two years ago, well above the $1,800 that Avon requests each team member to collect.
The women recently brainstormed to come up with new ideas to raise funds amid a slumping economy.
Kim Hamberg Wilder, 30, a real estate agent from Lenox, thought up a catchy, somewhat racy slogan for the event: Beer For Boobs.
"Catchy is what brings people to events, and we were looking to grab the attention of people who don't normally go to fundraising events," Wilder said.
They asked Moe's owner Josh Cohen if he'd be willing to host the event at his bar in Lee on Saturday. Cohen, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor, agreed, and pledged to donate a portion of the night's beer sales to the cause.
Moe's is known for its eclectic menu of microbrewed beers.
The Babes designed pink posters with their slogan: "Beer For Boobs: Drink good beer to benefit the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer."
The text is enclosed inside a pint glass with a silhouette of a woman's breasts, complete with nipples.
Dan Miraglia, 47, a Pittsfield carpenter, noticed the poster at George's Liquor Store on Elm Street Thursday.
Miraglia's mother was a breast cancer survivor.
"I thought it was totally tasteless," he said. "In my opinion, it is demeaning toward women and insensitive toward women who have dealt with breast cancer."
Miraglia wondered if the event would involve a wet T-shirt contest or something even more tawdry. He called Avon officials yesterday to see if they condoned the poster, and a woman said the company urges its teams to raise awareness in a sensitive way.
"She told me she would look into it," Miraglia said.
Susan Heaney, director for communications for the Avon Foundation, said her organization hears concerns like this every year as teams attempt to be creative about a sensitive issue.
It seems to invoke a social experiment in what's acceptable when it comes to the female anatomy.
"Our walkers are empowered to raise funds in whatever creative ways they can," Heaney said. "Not to make fun of the situation, but to find uplifting moments in times of sadness. Some people might find the poster surprising, and some might be reminded to go get a mammogram. It's all subjective."
Heaney said some women even walk in the event wearing fake plastic breasts.
The Avon Walk for Breast Cancer is a two-day, 39-mile walking event that takes place in nine cities across the United States.
In Boston last year, more than 2,900 participated from 33 states, including 200 breast cancer survivors. More than $6.9 million was raised.
Miraglia thinks the walk "is a great cause," but the poster could've been designed "with a little more tact."
Response mostly positive
Wilder will be joined by Andrea Pignatelli, Adrienne Rynes, Jen Sweeney, Maureen Lee and Sharon Kennedy.
She said she "could see how some people might say the poster's a little racy," but the response has been mostly positive.
"Most fundraising events can be stuffy," she said. "We wanted to make this fun. We're trying to raise money for a good cause, and that's our ultimate goal."
To reach Benning W. De La Mater: email@example.com, (413) 496-6243.
"Many more vie for far fewer jobs: Unemployment in state climbs again"
By Robert Gavin, Boston Globe Staff, March 20, 2009
The competition for jobs in Massachusetts has more than doubled over the past year, as a growing pool of jobless and underemployed people fight for fewer and fewer openings, according to study from Northeastern University.
The study, by Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies, estimates that for every job opening in the state, there are nearly eight people who can't find full-time work, up from just three at the end of 2007.
And the competition is only expected to grow more fierce. The Massachusetts unemployment rate surged again in February, rising four-tenths of a point to 7.8 percent, the highest rate since March 1993, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported yesterday.
"The odds of finding a job have deteriorated so badly it will lengthen the bouts of unemployment," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies and lead author of the study. "There will be growing ranks of people who won't be able to get out."
Bruce Baker, 42, of Hyde Park, was laid off as a corporate travel agent just 10 days ago, but has already discovered how tough it's going to be to find a new job.
"There's not only a large number of people who are out of work, but it's across so many industries," he said. "So few industries are hiring. The only one seems to be the state unemployment office."
The population of unemployed workers seems to be one of the few growing segments of the labor force. Nationally, the unemployment rate has jumped more than three points over the past year, to 8.1 percent, and the number of unemployed by about 5 million, to 12.5 million.
The Massachusetts unemployment rate, which stood at 4.6 percent in February 2008, has also jumped more than three points over the year. Nearly 270,000 workers in the state were officially counted as unemployed in February 2009, 108,000 more than a year earlier.
But these statistics, as sobering as they are, fail to fully capture the deterioration in the labor market, Sum said. They don't include the underemployed, those working part time because they can't find full-time jobs, or jobless workers who have stopped looking for work.
In addition to those workers the government counts as unemployed in Massachusetts, in January there were more than 120,000 underemployed and an additional 81,000 who had given up looking for work, according to the center. Over about a year's time ending in January, the number of jobless and underemployed rose 65 percent to more than 450,000, or 13.3 percent of the workforce.
Meanwhile, the number of job openings in the state has plunged by nearly half, to about 50,000 in the fourth quarter of 2008 from about 90,000 the year before, according to the center.
At Professional Staffing Group, a Boston recruiting and staffing agency, company president Aaron Green said each job opening his firm advertises attracts 100 to 200 resumes. The number of people calling the office to ask about job possibilities has probably tripled, to as many as 60 a day from about 20 a year ago, Green said.
Green cited another factor contributing to dwindling vacancies: People with jobs are staying put. Typically, workers leaving their old jobs for better opportunities account for about half of the firm's placements. But today, worried that taking a new job could make them more vulnerable to layoffs, those workers account for only 20 percent of the company's placements.
"People are hunkering down," Green said. "There's definitely skittishness about changing jobs now."
Massachusetts employers have cut jobs in each of the past nine months. In February, they cut another 11,000 jobs, the state's Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported.
The state has lost more than 86,000 jobs, or nearly 3 percent of employment over the past year.
About 90 percent of the job losses have come in the past six months.
Professional and business services, a leading employment sector that includes science and technology firms, led the February losses, shedding about 4,500 jobs, according to the state. The sector has lost 27,000 jobs, or nearly 6 percent of employment, over the past year.
The trade, transportation, and utilities sector, which includes retailers, lost 3,700 jobs last month.
Manufacturers slashed about 2,500 jobs.
Construction firms, which have experienced the deepest job losses over the past year, losing nearly 12 percent of their total employment, cut another 300 jobs in February.
On the other hand, education and health services, a traditionally stable sector, added 1,300 jobs in February.
Leisure and hospitality, which includes restaurants, hotels, and tourism-related firms, also added about 1,300 jobs.
Employment was unchanged in financial services in February. The sector, hard hit by the Wall Street meltdown, has lost more than 12,000 jobs, or nearly 6 percent of all jobs in the sector, over the past year.
"The rate of job loss is still very high," said Alan Clayton-Matthews, an economic analyst and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "We're in a vicious cycle. As long as you keep losing jobs, that means lower income, lower consumer spending, and more job losses."
Sandy Migliaccio, 58, of South Boston, was laid off about three weeks ago from her job, after 10 years of caring for plants in corporate buildings. She's been networking and planning to pick up computer skills. She's also making at least two phone calls a day to inquire about work at different companies.
"I leave my name and nobody calls back," she said. "I have a feeling this is going to go on for a while."
Erin Ailworth of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Robert Gavin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"More students get subsidized lunches: Financial plights in Massachusetts families"
By Rachana Rathi, Boston Globe Staff, March 23, 2009
The number of Massachusetts families seeking free and reduced-price meals for schoolchildren is rising as economic hardships extend to school lunchrooms.
School officials in Boston, Newton, Framingham, Needham, and Malden have reported increases in children receiving some kind of help paying for lunch since the beginning of the school year. Framingham's total jumped 25 percent. In Stoughton, meanwhile, more families whose children receive reduced-cost lunches are trying to join the free-lunch program, a sign that their finances are worsening.
Statewide, about 306,641 students were in the free and reduced-cost lunch program as of October 2008, an increase of about 4.5 percent from October 2007 when 293,347 students qualified, according to the Department of Education. The state did not have more recent figures available, but several districts said the numbers keep rising.
"Things are bad," said Brendan Ryan, food services director for the Framingham School District. "We have a constant influx of applications due to the rate that people are losing their jobs."
The federal government offers meals for children from low-income families at no cost or at a reduced rate. In many school districts, a reduced-price lunch costs $0.40. A regularly priced lunch generally ranges from $1.25 to $3.75. The program cost about $107.3 million in state and federal money last year. A family of four with a household income of $27,560 or less qualifies for the program. A similar-sized family with an income of $39,220 would qualify for a reduced-price school meal.
A review of schools in the region found increases in suburban districts - including some communities that are financially well off - and in urban districts, such as Boston, where participation in the program was already high.
In the Boston public schools, 42,099 students receive free or reduced-cost meals - about 74 percent of the total student enrollment. That's up from 71 percent of its total enrollment last year, said Helen Mont-Ferguson, director of the food and nutrition services department for Boston Public Schools.
In Framingham, 566 new students qualified for the program between September and February, bringing the total to 2,781, or about 36.5 percent of the district's total population of 7,800, Ryan said.
In Newton, as of January, 52 more students receive a free or reduced-cost lunch than in fiscal 2008, for an increase of about 5 percent. Stoughton has had a 6 percent increase in students who participate in the free and reduced-cost lunch program, bringing the total to 975 students out of a student body of 3,900, said food services director Edward Gilbert.
Families who don't qualify are also trying to save money. In Stoughton, for instance, more students are bringing lunch from home every day or are buying lunch three days a week instead of five, Gilbert said.
"I have talked to some people on the phone to clarify why they are applying," said Ruth Griffin, food service director in Needham. "It's the same type of story. The husband has lost his job and [the wife] has never worked [outside the home]. They don't have the money."
"And they don't want other people to know," she said, echoing another common theme across suburban districts.
Ryan said he has heard that refrain from parents: Their children don't want them to apply for free and reduced-cost meals because they feel ashamed.
"It's an internal stigma they have to deal with," Ryan said. "We implement the program so that at no time should their status be public, whether it is how they pay for lunch or what they eat for lunch."
In Newton, a private nonprofit that helps families in need reported a significant bump in families in financial crisis. Bill Garr, chief executive officer of the Newton Community Service Center, said many of them are people who have never needed assistance, and it's a blow to their pride to accept grants or now use food stamps.
"When you have a fairly large sector of the community that are people of means and have wealth, it's particularly tough to be the kid on the block that doesn't," said Garr.
Malden has had a nominal increase of 1 percent, or 32 students, getting free or reduced-price lunches between February 2008 and February 2009, bringing their total participation to 3,582 out of a student body of about 6,800, said food services director Cheryl Maguire.
But, she said, the number of students receiving free lunches has increased by 201 since February 2008, suggesting that more families meet the lower income threshold.
Waltham has not seen an increase - about 40 percent of the approximately 1,800 students in the district qualify for the program - but food services director Rhonda Spigel expects that to change soon. Spigel said school officials are concerned that families don't know they can apply any time during the school year, and are reaching out to bring it to their attention.
Rachana Rathi can be reached at email@example.com.
"A true love affair"
By J. Cristopher Irseld
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, Sunday, March 29, 2009
The greatest love affair I have ever been a witness to came to an end recently with the death of one of Stockbridge's most famous and unique citizens. In today's world of cynicism and mistrust, of outright fear of the future and disgust with the present, I find it reassuring to look backwards at the lives of two individuals who came together by chance and formed a most perfect union.
William "Billy" Iacobacci is a life-long resident of Stockbridge who works as a carpenter and keeps to himself. He leads a rather solitary life and it's not that he is standoffish, he's just self-contained. He's never been married and I've always had a feeling that suits him just fine.
For the past two years, I have gone down to the Elm Street market about 5:30 a.m. for my morning coffee and paper. This is where I met Billy, who makes breakfast at the counter his major meal of the day.
About 13 years ago, a friend of Billy's returned from a stay in Alaska. He brought back a male puppy who was half Samoyed and half Golden Retriever. For whatever reason, the friend decided he couldn't keep the dog and offered him to Billy. To my knowledge, Billy had never owned a pet of any kind, but one look at this bundle of white fluff — he looked like a cross between a baby harp seal and a baby polar bear — seemed to soften something inside Billy and he agreed to take the dog.
The puppy was named Kodiak because of his Alaskan roots, but was forever to be known as Kodi. He was the most mellow, even-tempered dog I have ever known. Children could lay on him or pull on his tail; nothing fazed him. I've even witnessed small birds pluck fur from his tail for their nests without him batting an eye.
Starting on the first day of their relationship together, they were totally devoted to each other. When Billy arrived at the Elm Street Market for breakfast, the puppy immediately staked out the sidewalk in front of the glass entry door and stretched out where he could keep one eye on Billy and the other on the comings and goings of the other customers. Billy would always share a portion of his meal with Kodi. The dog would patiently watch through the glass door until his breakfast arrived.
As will happen, the cute puppy grew into a beautiful blonde 100-plus-pound dog, but he never gave up that spot in front of the glass door. Tourists and locals simply learned to go around or step over the large mound of fur which blocked the entry. Kids would give him a piece of their bacon or part of a blueberry pancake (this could be a part of the reason for his size.)
The locals would bring him a cookie as if it were payment for entry into the market. Kodi could identify the different sounds of truck engines and knew if this was a cookie coming down Elm Street or not.
One example that always brought a smile to my face was the High Lawn milk truck. Kodi would jump up and move to the curb (he wasn't allowed in the street) and start wagging his tail before any of us could hear the engine. As the truck slowly drove by, a cookie would be thrown onto the sidewalk. Kodi would retrieve his prize and return to the glass door. Second home-owners and Tanglewood regulars would return like swallows to Capistrano each spring, and when they came to the market they would have the obligatory cookie in their pockets.
For the past eight years, Billy and Kodi have lived on my property in the guest house. If there was one thing Kodi loved more than cookies it was water. During late spring, summer and fall, Billy would take Kodi swimming at the Green River. The dog loved these trips and really looked forward to them.
A creek runs through my property and there was no way to keep Kodi out of it. He had one trick he would pull on me that wasn't always appreciated. He loved to dive under the water and get rocks (the size of bricks) and deposit them on my lawn. If I didn't pay attention, I would very likely be buying new blades for the lawn tractor.
Two years ago, our oldest son and his fiancée got married at the house in a beautiful garden wedding followed by a reception on the lawn. Billy was invited and he sent the reply card saying that he and a guest would attend. Sure enough, there was Billy and a freshly groomed Kodi in the reception line to congratulate the happy couple. They sat together and enjoyed the food and music. Besides the beautiful bride, Kodi was the hit of the party.
As Kodi aged he got slower. He developed arthritis in his hips and it took him a little longer to get up. He never complained and Billy acted as if nothing had changed. Billy would just walk a little slower to his car in the morning so Kodi could keep up. When Kodi started having trouble getting into the car, Billy would simply give him a boost without bruising his dignity.
Some months ago, Kodi became ill and Billy took him to the vet. He left him in the morning and when he returned after work the doctor informed Billy that the tumor had returned. By this time, Kodi was so weak he could barely raise his head.
In the ultimate gesture of unconditional love, Kodi looked at Billy and his soft brown eyes and said, "I think it's time to let me go buddy." And Billy did.
J. Cristopher Irseld is a Stockbridge resident and former Selectmen.
"Schools likely to cut teachers"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Thursday, April 2, 2009
LEE — Teacher layoffs in the Lee Public Schools are likely under the proposed $7.6 million school budget unveiled by school officials this week — and the teachers union isn't surprised.
Lee is the second Berkshire County school system to openly discuss cutting its workforce for fiscal 2010, which begins July 1, due to the local and state budget crunch. Last week, the Adams-Cheshire Regional School Committee voted to eliminate 29 positions — including an unspecified number of teachers — in a $1.3 million cost-cutting plan.
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said for taxpayers to afford a new school budget, he must cut $110,000 from the current spending plan and "it's primarily teachers" who will bear the brunt of the reductions.
McCandless has yet to determine how many of the 145 school employees — 76 are teachers — will lose their jobs.
"Not dozens of people," McCandless said on Wednesday, "but certainly there will be some layoffs."
Looking for 'duplicity'
William Swindlehurst, president of the Lee Education Association (LEA), said the teachers union is "realistic as a group" that layoffs are possible, but it wants input on who is let go.
"We have an opinion of where the cuts can be made," added Swindlehurst. "I have had some discussions with Jake as where there is duplicity (of staffing)."
Under the current contract, Lee teachers must receive layoff notices by June 15, but McCandless said, "We are certainly having conversations with affected individuals before that."
McCandless delivered the preliminary budget to the Lee School Committee on Tuesday night, which is scheduled to vote on the proposal following a public hearing at its April 14 meeting.
'Not surprised one bit'
The town's Finance Committee will formally review the school budget next week, but Chairman John Graziano said he's "not surprised one bit" by the impending layoffs.
"Any town department cutting their budget now only has one way to go — people," Graziano said.
The layoffs might be avoided if the LEA would give up $275,000 in scheduled pay raises in the final year of its contract, which runs through August 2010. The LEA rejected the wage freeze request from school officials earlier this year, which Swindlehurst said went beyond just the across-the-board pay hike of 2.25 percent.
"I don't think as president and as a teacher I would consider steps and columns as raises," Swindlehurst noted, referring to additional pay hikes given based on teachers longevity and amount of training.
The wage freeze "would certainly help" balance the budget, said McCandless, "but I can't promise no layoffs."
Graziano had said two weeks ago, the rest of the town's union and non-union workforce currently negotiating contracts would agree to the wage freeze, if the teachers did the same — saving Lee another $55,000.
"It's not a fair place for (the teachers) to be put," Swindlehurst responded, "being labeled the 'bad guy' before we open our mouth."
Swindlehurst did say the union is "cognizant of the hardships in Lee with the closing of the mills," but holding the line on salaries would be hurting the younger teachers.
While Lee school officials and the teachers union are at odds over a pay freeze, Swindlehurst said both sides must create a united front for the sake of the students.
"Teachers need to step back and defend the schools," he added. "It's also the job of the superintendent."
On Monday Ventfort Hall announced that it has received three separate grants for restoration from public and private sources.
Keeping the past alive
"On the road to repairs: Ventfort Hall will get $1.1M in funds"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, April 7, 2009
LENOX — State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli remembers visiting Ventfort Hall almost 20 years ago, when he was a member of the Lenox Planning Board.
"It's a great location, near the center of town, and we would have developers coming in all the time, looking to build condos or housing projects," said Pignatelli. "And every one of them said the same thing about this building: It's got to come down."
Fortunately, he said, that is no longer an option.
On Monday, the administration of the Ventfort Hall and Gilded Age Museum on Walker Street announced the completion of several significant restoration projects using funds from three separate grant awards totaling $1,120,000.
Built in 1893 by Sarah Morgan, sister of financier J.P. Morgan, the building is one of several Lenox "cottages" constructed during the 19th century. It fell into disrepair a few decades ago, and faced demolition before being saved by the Ventfort Hall Association; restoration work has been ongoing for about 10 years.
The latest round of projects included repairs of the mansion's western wall, which was crumbling and ugly, according to Jeffrey Folmer, executive director of the museum.
"It is the first thing a visitor sees coming up the driveway," said Folmer. "It gave an unsightly first impression."
The funds also went toward the restoration of the second floor and the library. Monday's announcement, in fact, was made in the restored library. Folmer said that portions of the second floor are now open for tours.
Also completed was the restoration of the porte cochere ceiling; replacement of the awnings on the south verandah; bathrooms that are accessible to the handicapped; a new exterior entryway; repairs to the basement; and extensive plumbing and electrical work, said Folmer.
Folmer explained that the funding included two separate $500,000 grants from the Manton Foundation. The remaining $120,000 came as a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. The museum was allowed to leverage one of the $500,000 Manton grants to qualify the facility for the $120,000 grant, said Folmer.
The Manton Foundation was created by Sir Edwin A.G. Manton, a business leader and arts patron who died in 2005 at the age of 96. Born in England, Manton moved to America in 1933 and helped develop the American International Group (AIG), serving as president from 1942-69. He was knighted in 1994 in recognition of his philanthropy.
Folmer recognized the efforts of several other state officials, including state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and Robert Culver, chairman of the Massachusetts Development Corp. Pignatelli also lauded resident Tjasa Sprague, a founding member of the nonprofit Ventfort Hall Association who has been overseeing the restoration since the association bought the building in 1997.
"Steeple project to receive $40K in state funding"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Tuesday, April 14, 2009
LEE — The First Congregational Church in Lee will receive $40,000 in emergency state funding for its steeple project — a boost that will help church members proceed with other building improvements.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin awarded the money last week toward the unforeseen expense of removing and replacing the top 35 feet of the 151-year-old wooden spire that has been weather-beaten beyond repair.
Topping off the structure last month and creating a replica — expected to be in place by the end of May — has escalated the project's cost to $150,000. The initial $10,000 was needed to replace a few boards blown off by severe weather in August 2007. However, once workers from Moore's Steeple People of Chicopee determined the steeple had much more extensive interior damage — especially the upper portion, it forced church officials to take capital funds away from other church projects.
"This is a real boost for us," said church moderator Marilyn Rossier. "With this emergency funding, it will free up money to install a new handicap bathroom."
"This amount of money is in recognition of the historical significance of the church," said State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who personally was stunned when he first saw the shortened steeple.
"It kind of hits you in the gut," he added.
Rossier said the added bathroom will be located between the stewardship
hall and sanctuary, costing $30,000. In addition, she said the handicap ramp can be replaced as scheduled.
Despite the mounting cost, church members, townspeople and local businesses have all rallied around the project with financial and moral support as they view the steeple a symbol of Lee and a "beacon" for travelers getting off Exit 2 of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The church is located behind Town Hall and an integral part of Lee's downtown.
"Since the spire came down (on March 18), we've received a a steady stream of donations toward the project."
Rossier didn't have an exact amount, but said about $18,000 in private contributions have been made since Jan.1.
"The building, in a sense, does belong to the whole town," added Rossier, who expects a townwide celebration and re-dedication of the steeple when the project is finished.
Pignatelli praised Lee for protecting the integrity of the church and Galvin for realizing "the state must play a role and continue to play a role" in preserving local historical structures.
"If we don't protect them," he said, "they are gone forever."
To reach Dick Lindsay: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6233.
"Major budget cuts have state pols in violent uproar"
By Hillary Chabot - Saturday, April 18, 2009 - www.bostonherald.com - Local Politics
A painful no-new-taxes budget purged of earmarks and pet projects has infuriated some House lawmakers - prompting at least one violent outburst against new House Speaker Robert DeLeo this week.
State Rep. Christopher Fallon (D-Malden) exploded at DeLeo during a Wednesday evening fund-raiser in Stoneham - jabbing him in the chest with his finger because he was upset that $50 million for the controversial Quinn Bill was cut, according to two lawmakers who attended the event.
“He was really screaming, and he went right at (DeLeo),” said one lawmaker who requested anonymity, adding that onlookers were “horrified.”
The alleged incident highlights the raging tempers surrounding the $27.4 billion budget, which cuts several state services to the bone. Mayors and city managers also unleashed their fury on House leadership this week after a proposed $424 million cut to local aid.
“I think we’re going to see more of that come budget week,” said state Rep. Jennifer Callahan (D-Sutton), who added the budget process wasn’t as transparent as it should have been.
“Making cuts like this, without giving adequate information or explanation about why, makes everyone frustrated,” Callahan said.
Before the Quinn Bill funding was eliminated in the House budget, Fallon was working to restore an $8 million cut in Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget. The Quinn legislation was enacted in 1970 to pay police who further their education.
A spokesman for DeLeo declined to comment, and calls to Fallon were not returned.
DeLeo’s bare-bones budget has had one predictable outcome, whetting the appetites of rank-and-file lawmakers for a broad-based tax hike. State Rep. Brian Wallace (D-South Boston) said there is a growing acceptance of some kind of tax increase in the Legislature, because it’s the only way to restore their pet projects.
Said Wallace: “We’re going to have to do something with taxes, I think. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”
Pecky Piccolo gives Betsy Kelly a hug at the end of the work day at Eastover Resort in Lenox. The facility will be closing on Nov. 1 following a 62-year run.
"Eastover Resort to close: Upkeep too expensive at family-owned resort"
By Tony Dobrowolski, Berkshire Eagle Staff, May 5, 2009
LENOX — Citing increased operating costs due to the slumping economy, the owner of the popular Eastover Resort and Conference Center said she will close the 62-year, family-owned resort Nov. 1.
Dorothy H. "Ticki" Winsor, whose late father, George J. Bisacca, turned the former Fahnestock Estate into a year-round recreational resort in 1947, said she plans to sell the 500-acre, multi-building property, but isn't sure when it will go on the market. Her daughter, Betsy Kelly, said she didn't know what the asking price would be.
Kelly said if the property is sold before the closing date, the East Street facility will remain as Eastover Resort until Nov. 1.
The resort has 40 to 85 employees, depending on the season, and Winsor said they all will remain on the job until Eastover closes. Workers were notified of the decision to close on Monday.
"They were very, very sad," Winsor said, referring to the employees' reaction to her decision. "Working here is like working with family."
Winsor said closing the family-owned business is difficult.
"Oh, my gosh, yes," she said. "My father started it. I've lived here for 62 years of my life. My children were born here. My grandchildren were born here. Some of the people who work here have been here almost all of the 62 years."
In a letter to employees and guests, Winsor wrote, "This difficult economy has hit our small, family-owned business hard.
Increasing operational costs as well as local and state regulations have made it impossible for Eastover to continue the long-standing tradition of excellence it has become known for."
In a telephone interview, Winsor said Eastover is having difficulty maintaining the upkeep on the 24 smaller buildings it owns in addition to the Fahnestock estate.
"You have roofs that need to be repaired," she said. "Anyone who owns buildings knows that it's tough to keep up with those capital costs."
She said reservations at Eastover have been "up and down."
George Bisacca, who died in 1983, was a community supporter and Civil War buff who made Eastover more than just a place to stay. Eastover was a part of the fabric of the community to countless Berkshire County residents — or, as Winsor put it in her letter, "a neighbor, an employer, a friend."
Eastover has hosted countless high school proms, company get-togethers, school field trips, holiday parties, weddings and family reunions. It also served as the site of the Massachusetts Special Olympic Winter Games for more than 20 years.
In addition, Eastover supplies the cannon that the Boston Symphony Orchestra uses during its performance of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" at Tanglewood every summer.
"I don't think there was a kid who graduated from high school in Berkshire County that didn't have a part-time job at Eastover," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. "It was part of the fabric of Lenox. I'm very saddened by the news today."
"As a lifelong resident of Lenox, it's devastating," he said. "George Bisacca's family has owned it for over 50 years. It was part of this community and put Lenox on the map. From the very first day I worked in the Statehouse to just last week, whenever I meet people, the first words out of their mouths have been 'Eastover Resort.' It's a huge loss for Lenox as well as Berkshire County."
The economic downturn has led to fluctuations in the county's lodging industry. The Comfort Inn in Great Barrington is working on an expansion project, but Lenox's Canyon Ranch has laid off 42 employees since November.
After the second layoff of 12 employees in February, Canyon Ranch CEO Jerry Cohen said the resort's two locations — in Lenox and Tucson, Ariz. — had experienced a 10 to 12 percent decline in reservations.
"I think it's a sign of the economic climate that we're in," Pignatelli said Monday.
The Fahnestock Estate was constructed by New York City stockbroker Harris Fahnestock in 1910 as a summer cottage for his family.
Fahnestock named the building "Eastover." His original 1,500-acre estate included a stable, now known as "Tally Ho," a chauffeur's home, an eight-car garage currently known as "The Lodge," and a small pump house now called "The Rebel Cottage."
Fahnestock's heirs sold the estate at auction in 1941, and it became a boys' school that went bankrupt in 1944. Bisacca purchased the property, which had been reduced to 500 acres, for $41,500 in 1946. Eastover Resort opened on Memorial Day in 1947.
"Great Barrington OKs budgets"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Tuesday, May 5, 2009
GREAT BARRINGTON — Voters at Monday's annual town meeting approved, with few amendments, a total town budget of $9,576,233, a jump of about 0.4 percent over this year's sum.
Voters also, with virtually no discussion, approved the district school budget of $10,586,338, which represented both the operating and capital expenses for the district.
A total of 221 voters out of 4,442 registered voters, or 4.9 percent, participated in the meeting.
Voters also passed, by a two-thirds majority, borrowing $425,000 for road improvements and $53,000 for a dump truck for the Cemetery and Parks departments. Also getting the thumbs up was spending $59,500 for a pair of cruisers for the police department, another $314,000 for various capital projects for the DPW and a $13,000 copier for the town manager's office.
However, voters defeated a request for $131,000 for a dump truck for the Highway Department; another $39,600 for a vehicle for Fire Chief Harry Jennings; and $12,000 for roof repairs to the bandstand.
After some discussion, Article 12, which would pull the job of the town's police chief out of civil service, was easily approved. Several town officials argued that taking the job off the civil service lists would give the town a wider pool of candidates from which to choose.
However, opponents of the article noted that the civil service test would keep the position outside politics, as the candidate with the highest score must, by law, be hired.
As of press time, voters were still debating several zoning articles, including expanding the town's downtown district north and south of the Main Street corridor.
Approved using $2 million from the Free Cash account to lower the tax rate;
Approved using $85,000 from the Stabilization Fund to lower the tax rate;
Defeated an amendment to the town code increasing the fines for public marijuana use to $300 from $100.
"NEEP: Massachusetts recession won't end till early 2010"
By Robert Gavin, Boston Globe staff, May 21, 2009
The recession in Massachusetts will run deeper and longer than in the nation as a whole, and job losses this year will exceed those of the 2001 downturn, according to new economic forecasts.
The recession is projected to end in Massachusetts in early 2010 compared to this fall for the national economy, according to the forecast by New England Economic Partnership, a nonprofit economic research group.
Massachusetts tends to lag the national economy because it relies more heavily on business investment in technology and other products and services. Even after the recovery begins, businesses often spend cautiously until they are sure economic activity is picking up for the long term.
The state will lose 6.5 percent of its jobs before the recession ends, compared with 5.7 percent nationally, according to the forecast.
Massachusetts lost 6.1 percent of its jobs from the 2001 recession and 11.3 percent during the downturn of the early 1990s, considered the state’s worst since the end of World War II.
(This morning, the state's Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported that the Massachusetts unemployment rate increased to 8 percent in April from 7.7 percent in March.)
Still, the state unemployment rate is forecast to exceed that of the early '90s, peaking at 9.5 percent in the summer of 2010. Unemployment peaked at 9.1 percent in the early 90s.
Home sales may have hit bottom already, but prices are expected to decline through at least the end of 2010, according to the forecast.
New England’s current economic problems will continue throughout 2009, with only modest improvement in 2010, according to Ross Gittell, James R. Carter Professor of Management at the University of New Hampshire.
Gittell was set to release his economic forecast at this morning's NEEP conference; UNH made some of Gittell's appraisals available in a press release issued this morning.
Among Gittell's predictions: The region is expected to lose more than 450,000 jobs, from a base of just more than 7 million, and employment is expected to hit its low point in the second quarter of 2010.
Others scheduled to speak at the NEEP event include Alan Clayton-Matthews, associate professor in public policy, University of Massachusetts, and NEEP director; Mark Zandi, chief economist at the forecasting firm of Moody's Economy.com; and Charles D. Baker, president and chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, according to a media advisory from NEEP.
"Veteran to be honored"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Thursday, May 21, 2009
LENOX — While on a reconnaissance mission deep in enemy territory during the Vietnam War, a grenade landed in the vicinity of Lance Corporal David A. Verheyn. Amid the chaos of a surprise attack and in the moments before the explosive would send pieces of shrapnel into his back that would remain there for the rest of his life, his thoughts returned to his quiet home of Lenoxdale.
On that day in 1967, Verheyn saved the lives of eight of his fellow soldiers and was later awarded the Navy Cross — the second highest award for military service — for his bravery. Verheyn died last year at 61, and the town that comforted him in battle will honor him Monday, with a ceremony at the Veterans Park, along Crystal Street, Lenoxdale, at 9:15 a.m.
"I think it personifies what makes Lenoxdale so special and what young kids from World War II, to Vietnam, to today, are sacrificing to protect our freedoms. And I think David exemplified that right here in the heart of Lenox," said State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who helped organize the event with Police Officer Timothy Sheehan.
Verheyn and his troop were on a reconnaissance patrol deep in enemy territory when roughly 60 Viet Cong soldiers attacked, leaving his patrol leader and assistant patrol leader dead. Verheyn assumed control of the troop, organizing defensive positions, directing fire and encouraging the men.
While providing medical treatment to his fellow troops, Verheyn was wounded by shrapnel from an incoming grenade but still managed to fix a radio to send word of their position, gathered weapons and ammunition to keep away from the Viet Cong, and set off smoke grenades to let the rescue helicopters find the troop.
"We're just trying to honor one of our own," said Sheehan, adding that the ceremony will let younger generations know that there was a real war hero from Lenoxdale.
Verheyn, who later moved to Florida, was always willing to help a friend, according to his sister, Joan Wellington, of Otis, and his actions that day were proof.
"He just said, 'Hey, you do what you've got to do. I was there and I was the only one who could took over and I did it,'" said Wellington.
Verheyn was awarded the Navy Cross by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and General West Moreland, which he held as one of the proudest days of his life, Wellington said.
"He was one heck of a tough marine," she said. "He was a marine until the day he died."
But Verheyn service also took its toll, according to those who knew him.
"He didn't die over there, but in a way he was a casualty of the war," said Sheehan. "I don't think he was ever the same."
But his memory and his courageous actions will now live on for future generations to see, and that would have humbled the veteran and made him proud, Wellington said.
To reach Trevor Jones: (413) 528-3660 or email@example.com.
"Laws, taxes ruining small business"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters, Saturday, May 30, 2009
I commend Tucker McNinch for looking for support for the family business (letter, May 23). As I read into the announcement of the closing of Eastover, I saw that local, state and federal regulations are a huge part of the closing. When will our towns, the state and the feds realize what they are doing to all businesses?
They are forcing closure because they are maximum-taxing and levying fines. Although some of these regulations are for the better, most of them are what is closing the businesses. Business owners can only take so much. Rules are being made while the game is going on by small-town Selectmen forcing small business owners into a corner because they are financially strapped and unable to seek legal help while these Selectmen are enforcing decade-old laws.
The state and feds are putting new laws and rules on the books without small business owners being informed until they break the law or rule, creating revenue. Most of these small business owners have to pay and pay because they can't afford to take the time from their business to fight appeals in court.
To the McNinch family, Tiki Winsor and the huge family at Eastover and every small business, I know what it's like. I have been forced to close a food service business and a couple other small businesses. When will the politicians look at what's going on? Let's hope sooner than later!
Myra McMahon, left, and her cousin Maddie Rundle, take a peek at some piglets at the Roadside Store in Monterey on Sunday (5/31/2009).
"Monterey's Roadside Store returns: Cafe back after facelift"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Monday, June 1, 2009
MONTEREY — The hubcap-sized pancakes are still on the menu. So are the hash browns and the sprout sandwiches. Here in Monterey, the Roadside Store has reopened and all is right with the world.
The store had been closed for several weeks, according to Mary Brant, the executive director of Gould Farm. The Roadside Store and Cafe is the therapeutic arm of Gould Farm, a world-renowned treatment facility for people with psychiatric problems.
But to this tiny town, and to many, many others in Southern Berkshire, the Roadside, the name by which it is universally known, is home to the best breakfast for many a mile.
This is not completely hyperbole. In 2007, Bon Appetite magazine named the Roadside as one of the top 10 breakfast places in the United States.
But, according to Brant, the store needed a little facelift. So employees at Gould Farm, and guests of the farm, as patients are called, carried out most of the remodeling over the course of several weeks.
"A lot of it was just elbow grease and cleaning," said C.J. Walton, the general manager for food sales at Gould Farm. "The only independent contractor we hired was a plumber."
The rest of the work, said Walton, included refinishing the floor, installing new cupboards and replacing old tables and chairs.
The menu was tweaked only a little, said Walton. Roast beef sandwiches have been added. The pancakes will stay the same size.
"We call them the pancakes you love to order but can never finish," noted floor manager Sierra McDaniel.
The Roadside serves about 100 people on the weekends, said Walton. But that number will go up as school gets out and more second-home residents begin settling into the area for the summer. The store is trying to encourage more weekday visitors, he said.
The store had a "soft" opening a few weeks ago, said Brant. Yesterday, guests and volunteers cooked hamburgers and offered cookies and cakes. There was a small petting zoo and a face-painter for the younger set. State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, were also on hand.
"It's just a 'stop-by-and-say-hi' kind of thing," said Downing. "The Roadside is a great place to eat and we always want to support Gould Farm, which does great work."
"Gould Farm does wonderful things," said Pignatelli. "We're here to be supportive. This facility allows people to get back on their feet and get their lives back on the right path. It's a terrific place."
"The Berkshire Foundation dissolves"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Friday, June 5, 2009
GREAT BARRINGTON — The Berkshire Foundation, one of the key philanthropic organizations in Southern Berkshire, has dissolved.
The foundation operated continuously since 1952, and was one of the first, if not the first, town organization devoted solely to civic improvement, according to Patrice Mullin, former president and treasurer and the granddaughter of founder Robert K. Wheeler.
Every year, according to Mullin, the foundation donated between $10,000 and $15,000 to anywhere between 15 and 20 local organizations.
But in recent years, the foundations gifts shrank and the obligation to manage it, without any family gain whatsoever, "proved to be burdensome," she said.
The annual gifts from the fund ranged between $500 and $1,000. Local nonprofits, such as Construct Inc., Berkshire Community Action Council, Southern Berkshire Elderly Transport and the South Berkshire Community Center, were beneficiaries.
The foundation also made sure that scholarships were available to both Monument Mountain Regional High School and Mount Everett, said Mullin.
The foundation gifted all its assets to the Great Barrington Historical Society about two years ago, said Mullin. This money, about $300,000, covered a portion of the purchase price of the Revolutionary War-era Capt. Truman Wheeler House and farm on South Main Street, which had fallen into disrepair. The society paid $600,000 for the structure and is presently renovating it.
The society plans to use the structure as its permanent headquarters.
Early Berkshire Fund grants went to help start the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Berkshire Theatre Festival and other historic properties.
Wheeler was one of the key financial movers and shakers in Southern Berkshire in the post-Depression era, according to local historian Bernard Drew's "History of Great Barrington." Few in town before or since had such a large hand in town commerce, wrote Drew.
Wheeler, who died in 1980, at various times ran the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge and the former Berkshire Inn on Main Street. He was a former selectmen, finance committee member, a member of the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary, president of the Board of Directors at Fairview Hospital, a member of the board at Bard College at Simon's Rock, and helped found the Berkshire Hills Conference, which grew into the Berkshire Visitors Bureau.
"My grandfather often had lunch with (former Eagle) publisher Lawrence Miller and discussed with him ways to support arts and other community organizations to keep them in the Berkshires," said Mullin.
She admitted that closing the fund was "sad for our family, but we have the consolation that the money is being used to provide a home for the (Great Barrington) Historical Society."
Kripalu CEO Garrett Sarley, Kripalu president Ila Sarley, architect Peter Rose and state Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli, D-Lenox, applaud Monday's opening of the new annex to the Kripalu facilities.
"Kripalu ceremony - Expanding for health: Center for Yoga unveils $15.3 million annex"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Tuesday, June 9, 2009
STOCKBRIDGE — The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health unveiled its new $15.3 million annex building before an audience of about 200 employees and guests Monday morning.
The project came in under budget and slightly ahead of schedule, according to architect Peter Rose of Peter Rose and Partners of Cambridge.
The anticipated budget was about $15.5 million. The construction time estimate was a little over a year, according to Cathy H. Husid, the Kripalu spokeswoman. Work started on the project in March 2008 and was completed in early April.
The 34,000-square-foot annex was constructed as a way to generate more revenue for the nonprofit yoga instruction center. The six-floor annex has 80 rooms, each about 500 square feet.
In addition, there is a 2,800-square-foot program room.
"The new building fills a largely unmet need for private rooms with private baths and supports our efforts to reach out to a broader population," explained Garrett Sarley, Kripalu's chief executive officer.
The location and design of the annex were chosen to offer views of the surrounding countryside and blend in with the landscape, according to Rose. The slight V-shape of the building ensures that every room has a tree or lake view.
The annex is clad with "rain-screen" siding that is made of small, square strips of untreated raw wood salvaged from the Hurricane Katrina tidal surge. The siding will be allowed to age naturally, gradually taking on the grays of mature wood to blend in with the countryside, said Rose.
According to Jennifer Webster, director of operations, the annex is about 30 percent smaller in volume than a typical building of this type, thus minimizing the area to heat, cool and illuminate. The structure uses a radiant heating and cooling system.
"This building is a jewel," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "It's probably the most environmentally friendly building in the Berkshires, and I take my hat off to Kripalu for their work."
Stockbridge Selectman Chairman George Shippey was also at Monday's dedication, and he said he liked what he saw. Several Stockbridge residents, including Shippey, had been initially critical of the first plans in 2006, deeming the original seven-story structure "too intrusive."
But Monday, Shippey conceded that Kripalu officials had answered the concerns of the town, including removing the top floor and building a 49-foot-high structure at the towns' behest, which dropped the height of the annex by 13 feet.
"I think they've done a great job," he said. "All the concerns of the town and building inspector were addressed."
Lenox Selectman Roscoe Sandlin echoed Shippey.
"Kripalu is a very big part of our economy and a good corporate neighbor," he said. "They've done a great job."
Rep. Bob Spellane. (Photo by www.mass.gov)
"Worcester pol accused of behaving badly again"
By Howie Carr
Wednesday, June 10, 2009, www.bostonherald.com - Columnists
If you want to know how much it takes to drive a state rep over the edge, there’s your answer - $19.
At least that’s how much it took for Rep. Bob Spellane of Worcester to go ballistic on his ex-wife, mother of his four children, on Memorial Day weekend, at a Little League ballfield, right after sending a letter of apology to everyone in his district about his despicable behavior last year.
Spellane did not return repeated phone calls to both the State House and his Worcester office. His ex-wife, who now goes by her maiden name, declined comment.
But according to witnesses, it was apparently quite ugly, like the Spellanes’ divorce. See, last year Spellane, almost 40, dumped his wife for a 27-year-old cable TV newsgal, who then was hired by an insurance-industry group as “director of public affairs.”
Very public indeed. The press release added that Spellane’s galpal was “well-positioned to help influence this debate.” Well-positioned - wink wink, nudge nudge.
Spellane also skipped payments on a $340,000 bank loan for a year. He was fined for diverting $50,000 from his campaign account for personal use. He’s taken money from Felon Charlie Flaherty, played golf with Felon Finneran and put Accused Felon Sal DiMasi’s name on a fund-raising letter. Just another typical reprobate rep. No wonder he’s a chairman, of Public Service, of all things.
Now Spellane confronts his ex-wife in public over $19. According to witnesses, the beef apparently involved a new pair of sneakers for one of his sons. The solon had paid $38, and as his wife pulled up at the ball field, he began loudly demanding she pay her half.
When Susan said she didn’t have any cash on her, Spellane grabbed her car keys and went through the vehicle. He couldn’t find any cash, so he returned to the game, where he was pitching to 7-year-olds.
The former Mrs. Spellane called her younger brother for help. Spellane questioned her brother after the game. The brother-in-law told the rep: “Don’t ever grab the car keys out of my sister’s hands again,” according to a witness.
Spellane ran around the picnic table and was suddenly in the brother’s face, chest to chest. Someone who was there said he shouted, “What keys, big guy? What keys?”
Two onlookers pulled Spellane off him, and the ex-brother-in-law said, “Jeez, how many people witnessed that?”
Spellane bolted for him again. “Witnesses? What witnesses?”
A real statesman, huh? So much for the letter of apology.
“(It was) a low point in my personal life, when I experienced some difficult and challenging times,” he wrote in the letter. “I take responsibility for my mistakes. People in public positions need to hold themselves to the highest standards . . . If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me . . . I will answer any and all questions.”
He didn’t return my calls. Mistah Chairman, I think it’s time you sent out another apology.
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorials, Thursday, July 16, 2009
The long effort to extend broadband service throughout the Berkshires took a potentially long stride forward with this week's enactment of the Broadband Investment Act by the Legislature. If federal stimulus funds can be shaken loose, the goal of providing this service to all Berkshire communities may yet become reality.
That 33 state communities, 14 of them in the Berkshires, are not served or are underserved by broadband is, as state Representative "Smitty" Pignatelli suggested in The Eagle, inexcusable in the 21st century. Last year's creation of the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, which helped prod Verizon and others into serving some rural areas, laid the groundwork for further expansion, perhaps by laying a fiberoptic line along Route 91 from Springfield to the Vermont border with stimulus funds.
State Representative Denis Guyer observed that broadband access will enable small businesses to expand and encourage others to bring their businesses to small communities like those in his district. That effort has received a boost on Beacon Hill.
"Student loan bill proposed"
By Tony Dobrowolski, The Berkshire Eagle, Tuesday, July 21, 2009
PITTSFIELD -- A local lawmaker is proposing a state student loan authority that would give families the option of setting up college tuition savings plans at local banks.
The proposal, filed by State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, would provide a low-risk option for families and allow local banks to re-invest that funding in the community.
College education plans are designed to set aside funds for future college costs. They are known as "529 Plans" after the section of the Internal Revenue Code under which they were created in 1996.
Every state has at least one 529 Plan available. In Massachusetts, there are two, known as the UFund and the UPlan, but they are both run by Fidelity Investments through the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority.
Speaking with representatives of Berkshire financial institutions at the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank on Monday, Pignatelli said Fidelity does a good job managing money. Yet with banking competition growing over the last 10 to 15 years, families may be reluctant to invest their savings in a company with which they are not familiar and especially given the current economic conditions.
"I think people are very comfortable with their community bank," Pignatelli said. "It's where my Christmas Club is. It's where my mortgage is. I know where my money is being spent."
College savings plans are similar to 401K or IRA plans in that a person's contributions are invested in mutual funds or similar investments, according to the online site, savingforcollege.com. Like other investment plans, the accounts go up and down based on the performance of the selected options. Investment plans include the element of risk.
"I think the idea is a great one because it gives every investor /saver a great way to save for education in a savings vehicle instead of in an investing vehicle," said Michael L. Fazio, the senior vice president of the Greylock Investment Group.
"This program is designed to provide a savings vehicle that provides a way for the risk adverse person to save for a college education by utilizing the local bank," he said.
A member of the Legislature's joint committee on higher education, Pignatelli said he frequently hears "horror stories" from people who will need several years to pay off the escalating costs of college tuition.
"They are going through the roof," he said.
His proposal has bipartisan support in the House, Pignatelli said. But he said the provisions are flexible enough that MEFA may be able to incorporate them into the state's current college education savings plan without legislation.
To reach Tony Dobrowolski: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6224.
"Promising ideas on school funding"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, Wednesday, July 22, 2009
State Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli's proposed creation of a state student loan authority would benefit both Berkshire students and banks. Legislation introduced Wednesday in Washington, though opposed by the banking industry, would be of considerable value to students and their families, while creating a revenue stream that could help fund President Obama's community college initiative.
The Lenox Democrat's bill would allow families now restricted to setting up education funding plans with state and national groups like Fidelity Investments to establish those plans with Berkshire banks they are familiar with. This would provide additional revenue for local banks that can in turn be invested in the local community.
The legislation filed on Capitol Hill would remove banks as the middle man in loans from the federal government to students. Should the government make the loans directly, the Congressional Budget Office estimates a savings to taxpayers of roughly $9 billion at a time when the president, who supports this legislation, wants to provide $12 billion for the nation's important and financially struggling community colleges. Boston and Washington should look favorably on these two plans.
County Fare: Tales from the Berkshire Hills
"United and fortunate we stand"
Berkshire Eagle Staff, Wednesday, July 22, 2009
"A snail's pace"
When you're fighting for community program funds, the battle can move slowly.
Even as the House of Representatives looks over the Governor's $147 million in vetoes, many of the concerns of the Berkshire legislative delegation won't be discussed for at least another week.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, told the Eagle that as of 3:15 p.m. Tuesday the House had only decided upon one override, regarding funding for regional planning boards.
Meanwhile, the overrides that the Berkshire County legislators had championed -- ranging from food banks to elder services to regional libraries -- will take a bit longer on the agenda to reach.
"The last week of July will be the more realistic week to deal with serious budget overrides," Pignatelli estimated.
"Prepared to preserve history, jobs: Developer eyes Bookless building"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Monday, July 27, 2009
LEE -- A local businessman is prepared to redevelop the historic Bookless building -- a project being called the "last best chance" to save the downtown commercial structure.
Michael McManmon wants to convert the upper two floors of the 133-year-old building into the national headquarters for his Lee-based College Internship Program, which he founded 17 years ago. He said the first floor would remain as retail use, including the former H.A. Johansson's storefront. Paradise Island Tanning Salon and Lucky Nails currently occupy about half of the first floor, but the majority of the 18,000 square feet at 40-50 Main Street next to Lee Town Hall has been vacant for years.
McManmon expects the project estimated at more than $2 million will create 12 new retail jobs and add 50 employees to his payroll over the next five years.
College Internship Program, which expanded into Indiana, California and Florida in the past seven years, helps young adults with Asperger's -- a high-functioning form of autism -- get a college education or begin a career through internships with local businesses. In Lee alone, McManmon said he has a $5 million operation with 50 staff and 50 students located in 11 buildings around town.
McManmon views the project as the right time to consolidate his administration and eventually expand his staff, while saving a piece of Lee's past.
"The Bookless building is the cornerstone of the whole downtown," he said. "Either it could be torn down or we develop it."
The latest proposal to rescue the Bookless building comes 16 months after Winstanley Associates of Lenox failed to relocate there his marketing design firm and sister company, Lenox Softworks. Lee officials are more encouraged that McManmon will succeed since he has secured a purchase and sale agreement for the building, something Winstanley Associates could not get from the current owners.
In fact, McManmon's project must succeed, according to Lee Community Development Corporation Executive Director Richard Vinette.
"It's the last best chance to save this important downtown building," said Vinette who noted the upper floors have been unused and in disrepair for almost 50 years.
Vinette is also surprised a second, somewhat similar project has come along so quickly.
"I didn't think I'd see another developer come along and want to completely renovate the building and create new jobs," he added.
Lee Board of Selectmen chairwoman, Patricia Carlino, said the project would "bring more life to the downtown" and McManmon would be a good steward of the Bookless building.
"He's proved his campus here is very well kept," she noted.
McManmon will informally discuss his project during a special selectmen's meeting tonight, 7 p.m. at the town hall. Besides residents, all town officials and boards are urged to attended, especially if they will be involved in approving the redevelopment plans.
"When we have a big project come up," added Carlino, "we need to have everybody hear the same information at the same time."
"Lawmakers: Let Sellers Absorb Sales-Tax Holiday"
iBerkshires.com - Staff reports - Friday, August 14, 2009
LENOX, Massachusetts — There'll be no sales tax holiday this August but lawmakers are looking at other ways to give residents a tax break.
An attempt to resurrect the 4-year-old holiday — actually a weekend — died last week in the Legislature. The state's seen a massive drop in revenue over the past year because of the economic crisis and passed new legislation to increase the sales tax by 25 percent, up to 6.25 percent from 5 percent, to help plug a billion-dollar deficit going into the new fiscal year.
About $14.9 million in sales tax was exempted last year. There was no way a tax holiday was going to occur this year. But if sellers are willing to absorb the tax cost, why not let them, say legislators.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, was one of 50 co-sponsors last week of legislation that would allow vendors to advertise that they would pay or absorb the sales tax on purchases.
Under current law, it is illegal for vendors to advertise in this manner. Recent advertising, whether on radio, or through the print media, have been prevalent where vendors announce "We will pay your sales tax" or "Sales tax in on the house." Under Chapter 64H, Section 23 of the General Laws, a $100 fine can be assessed to the vendor for each occasion they advertise this way.
"Many vendors and business owners have approached their elected officials saying they are interested in advertising that they would be willing to pay the sales tax on purchases to entice customers which in turn would increase sales," said Pignatelli. "It shouldn't matter who pays the sales tax as long as it is paid to the commonwealth."
The legislation filed by Rep. John F. Quinn of Dartmouth would repeal Chapter 64H, Section 23. The legislation that was filed with the House Clerk also puts the responsibility on the vendors, who advertise this way, to pay the full amount of the tax due by the purchaser.
"Due to the current fiscal condition of the commonwealth, it was unfeasible to have a sales tax holiday this year," said Pignatelli. "It is our hope that this legislation will attract consumers with tax discounts on purchases that ultimately will be absorbed by the vendor."
"The U.S. is not a socialist nation"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters, 8/16/2009
Robert Allardyce incorrectly argues in his letter to the editor ("We have all benefited from socialism," Aug. 13) that we are socialist because of the G.I. Bill and public education. That’s like saying we are communist because we share ownership of our national parks and public roads, or totalitarian because we are required to wear seat belts when we drive.
The U.S. is not a socialist nation. Socialism is government ownership or control of industry and commerce. According to Marxist theory, socialism is the transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism.
Providing services to citizens such as public education or college funds to veterans is not socialism, nor is building public roads, providing fire and crime protection, or providing public places for us to gather.
Our Founding Fathers realized that all governments, no matter how well intended, if not limited, will ultimately consume the liberties of the people and the engines of prosperity. Their design, the Constitution, produced the most free, prosperous and generous nation in the history of civilization.
All Americans should be concerned that we have crossed a line of no return in the government ownership of car companies and banks, the appointment of over 21 "czars," empowered to make executive decisions without checks and balances, and the pending government takeover of the health care industry.
Conservatives who value liberty don’t "cling to our guns and religion" as Obama claimed. We cling to the principles that have made America great -- limited government, individual liberty and free markets.
But Mr. Allardyce was right about one thing. America needs to wake up. I just pray that we wake up on the right side of the Constitution.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Pedestrians walk Great Barrington’s Main Street, which is in line for a $3.8 million reconstruction by 2013. Town officials foresee replacing the pear trees lining the street will be a controversial piece of the project. (Darren Vanden Berge / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
"A new Main Street"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Wednesday, August 19, 2009
GREAT BARRINGTON -- The Selectmen have unanimously approved a comprehensive, $3.8 million state-funded plan that will completely reconstruct Main Street from St. James to Cottage streets by 2013.
The reconstruction will include the redesign of the Main Street corridor along that half-mile strip of town property, according to Town Manager Kevin O'Donnell.
The plan calls for reconstructing the street, the sidewalks, traffic lights, street lights, crosswalks and street signs.
It also calls replacing the pear trees that line both sides of the street, said O'Donnell, which, the Selectmen agreed, is sure to be a controversial activity, regardless of how the trees are replaced.
John Dietrich, the project's manager and an engineer for Fuss and O'Neill of West Springfield, explained the pear trees that presently line the street "are not the trees that should be there."
Dietrich said that his firm, along with consulting arborist John Ingersoll, are discussing several potential scenarios for the replacement of the trees. This would include planting different species along the street.
In addition, he said, the plaques associated with each tree will also have to be preserved somehow. The plaques commemorate contributors who gave money for the trees to be planted.
"We don't want to lose them," he said.
The planning process will take about 25 months, said O'Donnell. Town officials will be seeking "extensive" public input on the plan, particularly during the early stages.
The hope is that the work will actually begin during the 2013 construction season, he said.
A majority of the $3.8 million will be covered by funds allocated to Berkshire County by MassHighway, said O'Donnell. In fact, said O'Donnell, the $3.5 million that will be allocated to Great Barrington for the project represents most, if not all, of the county road allocation funds for that fiscal year.
Great Barrington was able to secure these funds, said O'Donnell, because the town plans to submit a design and engineering contract by 2012 to qualify for the funding cycle in 2013. Should Great Barrington fail to complete that design and engineering contract in the next 21 2 years, said O'Donnell, the money will be funneled elsewhere in the county.
About $366,000, which represent the design costs of the project, will be covered by the town, said O'Donnell.
At this point, said O'Donnell, the town has put aside about $224,000 over the past few years to cover these costs. The Main Street project has been on the planning board for at least six years.
Another $143,148 will be requested at an upcoming town meeting. If voters do not approve that sum, he said, the town will still be able to go forward with a smaller project, using available funds.
Although the cost of the project was the topic of some debate, the potential disruption to Main Street businesses and residents that summer was the principal topic. When quizzed by the Selectmen, O'Donnell did not deny that "there will be some disruption, no question."
However, he said that he, principal planner Christopher Rembold and DPW Superintendant Joseph Sokul, as well as representatives from Fuss and O'Neill, will be speaking with businesses and individuals to get their input.
"We know there will be bumps in the road," said Dietrich. "But communication will be the key to getting around them."
"Rep. fights for vendor tax rights"
By David Pepose, The Berkshire Eagle, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009
PITTSFIELD -- Did you know it was illegal for a business to advertise it will pay your sales tax without the state's consent?
If state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, has his way, this little-known law will be nothing more than historical trivia.
Current state law makes it illegal for vendors to advertise that they would absorb or pay the sales tax on consumers' behalf. With Massachusetts tightening its belt, increasing the sales tax, and opting not to offer a tax-free sales weekend this year, more than a few Bay State businesses are offering to "pay your sales tax" or that "sales tax is on the house."
"It's just to clarify things and not penalize anybody," Pignatelli said. "The vendors still have to pay the state sales tax, but they're offering the savings to the consumer. It's a consumer protection plan and a business protection plan."
The bill was filed last week by state Rep. John F. Quinn, D-Dartmouth, and was co-sponsored by Pignatelli and 48 other representatives.
Pignatelli said that because this law is so obscure, he had never heard of any company actually being charged the $100 fine.
"You'd have to turn in a company for them to find out, and that would be nuts," he said. Still, he said the revision is needed to eliminate even the potential for onerous fines in the midst of a recession.
Tom Rich, co-owner of Paul Rich & Sons Home Furnishings in Pittsfield, said he hadn't heard of such an advertising law before, but said it didn't make sense.
"I don't understand it because you're giving a customer a further discount, and as far as I know it's legal to give a customer any discount you want," he said.
In his case, his store has given 6.25 percent discounts, equal to that of the state's new sales tax.
"I only hope they bring the sales tax holiday back," he said. "It would only be good for retail and for Massachusetts, where you don't need to give potential customers a reason to get out of the state."
Of course, some smaller businesses are concerned that this advertising blitz could push them to the sidelines.
"We're such a small store, I can't afford to compete with the big stores that advertise that for a full week," said Christine Natale, owner of Christine's Home Furnishings in Pittsfield. That said, Natale stated, "It should be up to the people if they want to kick in the money."
"If a business feels this would spur some economic activity, we should support them in any way we can," Pignatelli said. "[This legislation] could give them some piece of mind that the Department of Revenue isn't going to crack down on them because they advertised illegally."
"Local pols tip their hats to a ‘regular guy'"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009
PITTSFIELD -- While Sen. Edward M. Kennedy came from a well-to-do family that influenced American politics for more than half a century, locally he's being remembered as a "regular guy" who was always willing to help and listen to the people he served.
Kennedy died late Tuesday at the family home on Cape Cod, surrounded by his family and close friends. The 77-year-old elder statesman of the Senate had been battling a brain tumor.
Great Barrington attorney Edward McCormick got to meet Kennedy several times during his trips to the Berkshires and found him very approachable.
"He was a regular guy who would talk to you about anything," said McCormick, who also found Kennedy to be a man of action.
He recalled how Kennedy quickly responded to the deadly tornado that swept through Egremont, Great Barrington and Monterey on Memorial Day evening in 1995.
"He was on the phone with me the next morning asking what we needed," said McCormick, then Great Barrington's emergency management director.
Kennedy wasted no time in sending his top aide to assist the devastated community for the next three weeks with the cleanup and recovery.
McCormick's remarks came during an interview with The Eagle during a political fundraiser and 50th birthday party for state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D- Lenox, at the Country Club of Pittsfield. The more than 150 people gathered in the ballroom observed a moment of silence for Kennedy before the program began.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick was scheduled to appear, but returned to Boston from his Richmond home upon hearing of Kennedy's death.
"We've lost a major part of American history," Pignatelli told the crowd. "Whether you agreed with his views or not, you have to respect his desire to serve."
Pignatelli's father, John J. Pignatelli, told The Eagle that he often wrote Kennedy -- and always got a reply.
"I appreciated he took the time to address a letter from a little old selectman," said Pignatelli, who had his own lengthy political career as a Lenox selectman and Berkshire County commissioner.
The senior Pignatelli praised Kennedy's ability to continually overcome family tragedy and still be a champion for civil rights, the elderly and universal health care.
"Citizens should take their hats off to him," he added.
Kennedy was also known for making powerful public speeches on the Senate floor, at political conventions or on college campuses.
Pittsfield's health department director, James Wilusz, a 2006 graduate of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, said Kennedy was inspirational when he gave the commencement speech at MCLA three years ago.
"He said, ‘Be a leader,' " recalled Wilusz. "He also urged us to take the opportunities given us and go with it."
And when Sen., Edward M. Kennedy spoke, people listened.
"If you're in a room with Ted Kennedy when he spoke," said McCormick, "you were on the edge of your chair."
John Pignatelli believes Kennedy's speaking skills coupled with his ability to "mend fences" with political opponents could have helped get more support for President Barack Obama's health care proposal.
"[Kennedy] had the one thing most people don't," Pignatelli said, "and that's be able to jump across the aisle and get things done."
"The Berkshires in the Internet Age"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Sunday, September 13, 2009
Mary Grant, president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, starts her days at about 5:30 a.m.
Before she does just about anything else, she heads for her computer to read her e-mail.
"I have two accounts: One for work, and one for personal [mail]," she said. "I've found it's a good thing to get it out of the way early, and I tend to do my best thinking and writing early in the day."
Grant isn't alone.
Logging onto the home computer used to be a more leisurely task, often set aside until near the beginning of the work day -- or later.
But that's no longer the case.
The sheer volume of electronic communication -- via e-mail, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, texting and other methods -- has moved monitoring that traffic to the front of the day for many.
Such are mornings in America in the Internet Age.
"First thing," state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox said about when he checks his e-mail. "It always amazes me how much e-mail I get overnight."
"It's too distracting to [check e-mail] at work," Grant said, "because a lot of it is either Spam or people just checking in: ‘Hey! What's up with you today!' Those kinds of messages. It's easier to go through that stuff in the morning [before work]."
Adams resident Kaylee Morey, a sophomore at Berkshire Community College, said she visits her Facebook page in the morning, and three to four more times after that.
Adams resident Kaylee Morey, a sophomore at Berkshire Community College, said she visits her Facebook page in the morning, and three to four more times after that.
Adams resident Kaylee Morey, a sophomore at Berkshire Community College, said she visits her Facebook page in the morning, and three to four more times after that.
Morey has a friend in Longmeadow she communicates with exclusively through the social networking site.
"It's not our main form [of communication] -- it's our only form," she said.
According to Arbor Networks, a Boston company that analyzes Internet patterns, Web use in the United States takes off at about 6 a.m. on the East Coast, peaks at about 11 p.m., and then stays relatively high -- at about 60 percent of peak use or more -- until 3 a.m., when Internet use curtails dramatically.
In the texting world, messaging begins to rise at about 7 a.m., with a peak at 7 p.m. and again at 11 p.m., according to www.youtext.com.
With the jump-start for Internet use coming at 6 a.m., do families fight for the home computer in 2009 the way they battled for the bathroom in previous generations?
The answer often is no.
"Oh, I don't want to tell you how many laptops we have," Lenox attorney Shawn L. Considine said, laughing.
Her husband Tim, also an attorney, and son Chris, a student at Lenox Memorial Junior and Senior High School, have their own machines. So do the family's two college-age daughters, Nora and Annie. But in the case of the two girls, Considine feels it is a good investment, as the family can communicate with them, and vice versa.
Maura Kavanah, of Great Barrington, said families with several siblings in school need more than one computer.
Kavanah, a student at BCC, has an older sister in college and a younger brother in middle school, all of whom need time on a computer.
Kavanah, a student at BCC, has an older sister in college and a younger brother in middle school, all of whom need time on a computer.
Kavanah, a student at BCC, has an older sister in college and a younger brother in middle school, all of whom need time on a computer.
"We all have homework, we all have papers to research," Maura said. "At BCC, my professors send us assignments via e-mail. If I have a paper to write, what am I going to do, use a typewriter?"
Grant and her husband, Jim Canavan, don't have children, but both have their own computers. They have work spaces in different parts of their North Adams home, which compels them to occasionally communicate electronically, even though they're only a few hundred feet from each other.
"Oh yeah, when I need to get a message to Jim, I e-mail him," Grant said. "It beats hollering."
But, Grant acknowledges, there is an element of peculiarity to that method of communication.
"Sometimes one of us will send a message to the other, something like, ‘What are we doing?' " Grant said, explaining the couple's amazement at talking via e-mail while in the same house. "But it's an efficient way for me to send him something I think he'll be interested in."
Pignatelli said he doesn't consider the Internet distracting or a bad thing.
"It's just the way of the world," he said. "I think about how my father and I ran our [electrical installation and repair] business years ago without it. We'd go out in the morning, check our [phone] messages at noon, and go back out after lunch."
Kaylee Morey's father, Tim, said that while electronic communication has its place, he isn't necessarily a fan.
"I just think it's rude and intrusive," he said. "Particularly when someone is texting when you're trying to talk to them."
Tim said texting or e-mailing isn't allowed at the breakfast or dinner table in the Morey household.
The Considines have the same rules.
"[During meals], you just have to stop in our house," Shawn said. "But I think that checking your e-mail -- and Facebook page and Twitter -- has sort of taken the place of listening to your messages on the answering machine. The ease of e-mailing has made people more inclined to use it."
She said there still is one morning tradition in the Considine household.
"It involves going out and getting the newspaper," she said. "We still sit around and read it."
"Senate Hopeful Khazei Campaigns in WMass"
Staff reports - iBerkshires - September 22, 2009
BOSTON — City Year founder Alan Khazei will tour Western Massachusetts — including a stop in Pittsfield — on Wednesday before announcing his bid for the Senate on Thursday.
He's already picked up a Berkshires endorsement from state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
"While I won't be able to be with Alan on Wednesday because I'll be at work at the State House, I strongly support Alan's candidacy," said Pignatelli in a press release. "He's the best person to represent the needs of Western Mass."
The Brookline resident will join the race for the Democratic nomination to fill the seat left by the death of the U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy last month. Attorney General Martha Coakley, a former North Adams resident, and U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano of Somerville have already thrown their hats into the ring.
The tour will include stops at organizations that are working to strengthen communities and empower citizens. It starts at 10 a.m. at Soldier On, 360 W. Housatonic St., Pittsfield, an organization that helps homeless veterans.
Then it's on to the Treehouse Foundation in Easthampton, a support group for foster children, at 3 p.m. and meetings with Democratic and progressive activists at the Springfield Sheraton at 6:15. In between, he'll make unscheduled swing through North Adams.
Khazei's planning a "What Works" tour, an effort to identify solutions by talking with community members about the best practices they use to solve tough problems. The tour parallels the approach he has used in his work at City Year and Be the Change Inc., both nonprofits that promote volunteerism and community service.
Former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania will accompany Khazei to the scheduled events in Pittsfield, Northampton and Springfield.
"I look forward to traveling in the western part of the state to identify the best practices from organizations making a real difference in the lives of people," said Khazei. "This tour will give me the opportunity to witness examples of effective solutions being implemented by citizens across Massachusetts every day."
The Citizens for Alan Khazei campaign is circulating nominating papers for Khazei across the state. Khazei's formal campaign announcement is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 24, at the gazebo on Boston Common at noon.
A Democratic primary election will be held Dec. 8; the special election to fill Kennedy's seat is set for Jan. 19. Both houses of the General Court have passed legislation that would authorize the governor to select someone to fill the seat until the special election. Gov. Deval Patrick is expected to choose someone by Thursday.
"Rural Schools Forming Districts: 'It's over,' Pignatelli says"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Thursday, November 26, 2009
GREAT BARRINGTON -- Citing the reduction in the state reimbursements for regional school transportation, State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli says the state's push for rural schools to form districts "is over -- it's not going to happen."
The state Department of Education has been urging rural school districts like Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the Southern Berkshire Regional School Districts to look into a more extensive regionalization plan this past year. That initiative has lost considerable momentum in the wake of the latest round of state budget cuts to schools.
The incentive for schools to regionalize into districts was the state's reimbursement of their transportation costs, Pignatelli told Selectmen on Monday.
However, he said, "The state has never reimbursed districts 100 percent, which is something they promised to do for years. But that reimbursement is now the lowest it's ever been. If there is no incentive for districts to regionalize, it won't happen."
This year, the state's regional transportation aid evaporated, leaving schools districts in a financial bind.
Pignatelli spoke in the wake of a bleak financial picture painted by Berkshire Hills Regional School District in a meeting with the Selectmen.
Berkshire Hills faces immediate cuts of more than $600,000 this fiscal year, a scenario which may force up to 35 school personnel layoffs. By far, the largest piece of that cut is a $390,000 reduction in state transportation aid.
Pignatelli said that he does not hold out much hope of any help from the state, and he was critical of Gov. Deval Patrick's budget cuts.
Patrick vowed not to cut local aid, and he has not, conceded Pignatelli. But, the state representative said, Patrick's slash in regional transportation money has dropped the rate of reimbursement to regional schools across the state to about 29 percent per district.
"It's having a devastating effect on local school districts," said Pignatelli. "We're in a revenue free-fall. I think the governor made a huge mistake, and we're trying to get him to reconsider."
Pignatelli said that the budget shortfall is affecting every portion of the state. The staff of every legislator on Beacon Hill are taking five-day furloughs.
Town Accountant Lauren Sartori suggested that the school district contact the private schools who are also transported by the district. The school district, in addition to paying the transportation costs of public school students, also cover the cost of transporting local students to the many private schools in the area.
Sartori suggested there might be a way to ask those private schools to pick up some of those transportation costs. Superintendent Peter Dillon agreed to reach out to the area private schools and seek their input.
"Tough times loom ahead"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, December 28, 2009
GREAT BARRINGTON -- As uplifting as last week's distictwide rally to try to reduce the ungainly shortfall in the coffers of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, school and state officials warn that the upcoming fiscal year may be even worse in terms of state aid for schools.
Although the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a non-profit, independent financial assessment organization, projects a slight uptick in state revenues in the upcoming fiscal year, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said Sunday that rising energy and infrastructure costs within the state will negate any gains.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think officials in every city and town should prepare for another reduction in state aid," he said.
"Unless something dramatic happens, and I don't see that coming down the road, I would suggest communities budget for another reduction."
Pignatelli said that he doesn't believe his statements are going to surprise local communities or regional school districts.
"From what we've heard, as bad as this fiscal year was, the upcoming year could be even worse," he said.
Last week, officials at the Berkshire Hills Regional School District wee buoyed by a stunning grassroots effort that raised nearly $60,000 to offset a mid-season reduction in state aid of about $620,000.
Layoffs can't be helped
Although the district will still be forced to lay off seven people, including three teachers, the last-minute fundraising effort still saved six positions.
But last Tuesday, when the final fundraising tally was announced, district superintendent Peter Dillon conceded that the effort was a "Band-Aid" and that the district would have to come back after the holidays with the understanding that Berkshire Hills would still face a potential budget shortfall.
BerkshireWorks Career Center
"Work fund about to end: Career Center reps try to save it"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 1/14/2010
PITTSFIELD -- Two representatives of the BerkshireWorks Career Center traveled to the Statehouse in Boston on Wednesday to ask lawmakers to extend funds that focus on employee training, youth internships and hiring incentives.
Barbara Emanuel and Tom McDonough asked the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development to continue the Massachusetts Workforce Training Fund through 2015, according to Heather P. Boulger, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board. Emanuel and McDonough could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The fund is scheduled to end in December.
"These training dollars are used for the current work force," Boulger said. "[The funds] help to advance [employees] within their industry, help to promote wage increases. ... It really runs the gamut."
The funds come from a surplus in the state's Unemployment Insurance pool, which all companies in the state must pay into. Approximately $175 million statewide has gone into these funds, Boulger said.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who sits on the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, said the funds were "critical" for rebuilding the state economy.
"I think in this economic climate, these sorts of investments make all the sense in the world," he said. "It's stuff we should have been doing years ago, in a serious way."
Boulger said that since the program began, 72 Berkshire County businesses had accessed more than $5.8 million to train employees. These grants are matched dollar-for-dollar by each applicant, providing employee wages during the training.
Groups that have utilized these funds include Berkshire Health Systems, Crane & Co., Unistress Corp., Interprint Inc. and Hancock Shaker Village.
In the past, the Workforce Development Training Fund also utilized Hiring Incentive Training Grants, which provide companies with $2,000 for each new hire. Boulger said she hopes officials will reinstate this policy if the proposal passes.
Art Sanders, the production manager at Crane & Co., said his company received $200,000 in 2009 for manufacturing and troubleshooting training over the course of two years.
"The program makes it so much more easy to invest in employees," Sanders said. "We're able to hire somebody from the outside with skills that we might not necessarily acquire."
"I think it's a wonderful plan, it's a wonderful program," said Louis Perez, hiring coordinator and safety manager at Unistress Corp. With the Workforce Training Funds, new hires at Unistress go through a one-week program that focuses on printreading, measurements and blueprints.
Perez said if the Workforce Training Funds are extended, he would gladly apply again.
"They reimbursed us $2,000 per employee, and we took advantage of it," Perez said. "We were able to train quite a few guys with that."
According to Boulger, Emanuel and McDonough also promoted the Youth Solutions Act, which would coordinate youth-related resources and provide more than $18.5 million for career training and internship opportunities for young adults.
"With the economy being what it is, youth aren't able to get employment, because adults are taking the jobs that are usually youth-friendly," Boulger said. "Anytime that we connect a young person to a work opportunity, it's beneficial for them, the educational system -- and those companies. This could be the future of the work force."
Ellen Spear, president and CEO of Hancock Shaker Village, said that in the midst of the recession, resources such as the Workforce Development Training Fund were critical assets for not-for-profit organizations in the commonwealth.
"They not only help the business, they help the individual, because the skills that the individual learns are obviously portable," Spear said. "In terms of our countywide effort to attract workers, to retain the best and the brightest, and to encourage our young people to stay in the Berkshires, the work force funds are a vital ingredient."
"Downtown project hits stumbling block"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, January 20, 2010
LEE -- A downtown housing rehabilitation project is on hold after it failed to obtain key state funding for the second time in two years.
Berkshire Housing Development Corp. was counting on a $1.6 million grant toward the $2.1 million cost of purchasing a mixed use building at 57 Main St., and converting the 16 upper-floor apartments into affordable housing units. BHDC president Elton Ogden said bank financing would make up the difference.
However, the nearly $154 million in affordable housing grants that the Patrick administration awarded earlier this month didn't include either the BHDC proposal in Lee, or a similar project in Great Barrington. A pair of Northampton proposals were the only Western Massachusetts projects funded out of the 26 that were considered statewide.
"We're very disappointed," said Ogden. "I was very optimistic Lee was to be funded."
"I thought the application [Ogden] put forward would rise to the top," added state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
The state also rejected BHDC's first-time request for $1.8 million toward the $2.5 million cost of buying and renovating the 40 affordable rentals at Christian Hill Commons in Great Barrington.
"It's highly unusual for a project to be funded under the first application," noted Ogden.
This is the second time funding for the Lee project has been rejected since the project was proposed two years ago. The BHDC announced in April 2008 that it had entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement with the Consolati family to buy the building which includes three first-floor commercial tenants: Country Lady Antiques and Gifts, The Upstairs Basement consignment shop and Lee Power Equipment.
Family spokesman Frank Consolati said the contract called for the sale to be completed by Dec. 31. If the sale wasn't completed by that time, it could be negated.
"We now have the right to back out," Consolati said. "But we'll hold tight until the end of February."
BHDC could apply for another round of state housing grants that are being award next month.
"The name of the game is persistence," said Ogden. "We just need to do a better job conveying the overall importance of the housing to Lee's downtown."
Two other Main Street revitalization projects are already in the works including the much touted rehabilitation and re-use of the Bookless Block by local businessman Michael McManmon. Furthermore, a special town meeting next week will seek approval for expanded downtown parking to help stimulate the local economy.
The Consolati building upgrade is simply part of Lee's Main Street master plan.
"This is a very viable project," Pignatelli added. "We've done a good job of letting state officials know of the town's transformation, following the closing of the mills."
"Pignatelli Honored at Youth Mentoring Day"
iBerkshires.com - January 21, 2010
BOSTON — State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, was recognized on Thursday by the Massachusetts Mentoring Partnership and the Massachusetts Service Alliance for his advocacy and his continued support for youth-mentoring programs.
Also honored at the 4th annual Youth Mentoring Day event at the State House were state Sens. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Jack Hart, D-Boston, and state Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset.
"It was a truly wonderful event today and I am so honored to be mentioned among these other great advocates for youth mentoring programs," said Pignatelli in a statement. "Today is really about all the mentors that have touched so many young lives and have provided the positive influence when needed. We are all aware of the budget constraints we are facing right now, but the small amount of public money these programs receive really goes a long way.
"I have been a strong advocate for this funding the past and I look forward to continuing the fight to provide the essential funds these programs deserve. Railroad Street Youth Project, which is supported by Mass Mentoring, is a great example of the wonderful work these organizations do. I think we are all aware of the success RSYP has had working with Berkshire County youth and hopefully events like this will heighten the public's awareness of these essential programs."
The annual event is aimed at heightening public awareness about the impact of youth mentoring, the need for mentors and the continuing fight for much needed public support. The Mass Mentoring Partnership is the only statewide organization solely dedicated to strategically expanding quality youth mentoring. The MMP counts more than 165 mentoring programs under its umbrella and provides them with all the training, assistance and support needed. This work results in hundreds of constructive and supportive mentoring relationships every year.
"Pignatelli to lead cultural panel"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 2/1/2010
LENOX -- State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli will lead a newly formed legislative group seeking to support growth in the state’s cultural economy.
The Lenox Democrat, who already serves on the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, has been elected co-chairman of the newly formed Cultural Caucus in the Massachusetts Legislature.
The caucus was organized as a way to raise awareness about the state’s $4 billion cultural sector, and bring in other legislative voices that are not appointed members of the culturalt committee.
"We have all felt that it’s time to take it to the next level, beyond appointed members," said Pignatelli.
Pignatelli will co-chair the caucus with state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, who also serves as co-chairwoman of the cultural development committee.
The caucus’ inception has garnered the attention of dozens of legislators, according to Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
"There isn’t a square inch of Massachusetts that isn’t touched in some way by the cultural economy," she said.
Having a local representative on the caucus will give a voice to the area.
"I would argue with anybody that this is the driving force behind the Berkshires, so to have a voice was critical."
"Cultural panel a good idea"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, February 3, 2010
The Legislature did in fairness act wisely by forming a Cultural Caucus to expand awareness of the importance of the state’s cultural sector. Co-chairing the caucus is Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat who already serves on a related committee and is in a position to advocate for the considerable cultural institutions in Berkshire County. A panel that focuses Boston’s attention on the arts, tourism and culture is by definition of value to the Berkshires.
“I am pleased that we were able to draft such a comprehensive piece of legislation that will go a long way in restricting these obnoxious phone calls.”
— Sen. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) commenting on his proposed legislation that would allow consumers the option of registering for a Do Not Call List that would prevent them from receiving robo calls. The measure was filed in response to the millions of robo calls placed by the Coakley and Brown campaigns in the recent special election.
Source: "House approves bill banning drivers from texting", By Bob Katzen, Beacon Hill Roll Call, State House News Service, February 5, 2010, wickedlocal.com - Somerville, Massachusetts. — The Massachusetts State House and Senate during the week of February 1-5, 2010. There were no roll calls in the Senate last week.
"No casino vote from Pignatelli"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, April 7, 2010
LENOX -- State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli is defending his decision not to cast a committee-level vote on a state casino bill this week.
The Lenox Democrat was among five members of the Economic Development Committee who didn't cast their vote on a bill that would create two resort casinos and allow 3,000 slot machines in the state's four race tracks.
The bill, introduced by House Speaker Robert DeLeo last week, passed the committee and will debated in the House next week.
Pignatelli said he reserved his right not to vote on it in committee. He cited concerns with the lack of a public hearing on the bill, as well as not wanting to take a stand before any potential amendments are added.
"You can't take a position on something you haven't seen," he said.
House leaders opted not to commission an economic analysis of DeLeo's casino proposal. Instead, Democratic leaders have based their estimates -- that it would generate between $300 million and $600 million in new tax revenues -- on their own projections combined with an updated version of a report that looked at an older three-casino plan.
Gov. Deval Patrick has urged lawmakers to commission a new economic analysis. Casino foes said the state has yet to look at the costs associated with expanded gaming.
Pignatelli's likely opponent in the November election criticized him for not voting.
L. Scott Laugenour, a Green-Rainbow Party candidate for the Fourth Berkshire District seat held by Pignatelli, sent out an e-mail on Tuesday questioning the representative's position.
"I am against casino gambling and would have voted ‘nay' on this bill," Laugenour wrote in the e-mail. "I expect there are many voters in the 4th Berkshire District like me who desire to know why our representative voted the way he did."
In a telephone interview later Tuesday, Laugenour stood by his statements, adding, "Someone who is firmly against [casinos] would be firmly against it in committee."
Pignatelli said he has been working closely with the Cultural Caucus, of which he is a member, to find ways to implement changes to the bill that would protect the state's cultural attractions from the negative impacts of casinos.
"We've actually been working with the Cultural Caucus to make sure we protect our cultural attractions," said Pignatelli. "As the economic driver of the Berkshires, we are very concerned that this [current bill] will have negative impacts on our cultural attractions."
Pignatelli would not rule out voting for a bill that included protections for cultural venues, but said he "doesn't anticipate a change in position," pointing to his record of voting down previous efforts to increase gambling in the state.
"It's a sad day when we in government need to turn to gambling and gamblers to pay our bills," he said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
To reach Trevor Jones: email@example.com, or (413) 528-3660.
"Lenox man in 4th Berkshire race"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, April 2, 2010
LENOX -- Lee Scott Laugenour said he will challenge state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, in the fall election.
The Green-Rainbow Party member and Lenox resident who unsuccessfully ran for the Lenox Board of Selectman last spring is the first declared candidate in the 4th Berkshire District race. While Pignatelli hasn't formally announced his re-election campaign, the Democrat recently told an Eagle reporter he will be seeking a fifth, two-year term this fall.
Pignatelli is also the first incumbent of the Berkshire delegation to garner opposition. So far, state Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, are running unopposed.
State representatives Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, and Denis E. Guyer, D-Dalton, aren't seeking re-election, creating wide-open races in the 1st and 2nd Berkshire districts, respectively.
Candidates for legislative offices have until April 27 to submit signatures to local election officials for certification, and then the nomination papers are due to the Secretary of State on May 25.
While Laugenour hopes to capitalize on the anti-incumbent sentiment which emerged in the local elections last November, he realizes Pignatelli is well established locally and at the Statehouse.
"I'm not going to pretend it'll be easy defeating him," he said. "It'll take hard work if I'm going to do it. But I'm talking to people in bars and supermarkets and there's a lot of unhappiness among voters about their individual situations."
Nevertheless, Laugenour, 53, believes he can defeat the four-term incumbent because his campaign and party-platform "resonates with the people."
"Our job as lawmakers is to make sure people are healthy, educated and protected against troubling economic times," said Laugenour.
The California native who moved to Berkshire County 16 years ago, cited how state-mandated health insurance coverage and increasing the sales tax from 5 to 6.25 percent -- both supported by Pignatelli -- are hurting Massachusetts residents.
Laugenour called for a comprehensive Medicare program on the national level which would make the state's health insurance plan unnecessary.
"I would love to see a health system that's the pride of the world -- but I haven't found it yet," he said.
Laugenour, who's worked in hotel management and the arts, also advocated for a progressive state income tax and rolling back the sales tax to 5 percent to ensure a "fairer collection of revenue."
"The tax burden has shifted more to the low and moderate income in recent years," he noted.
As a member of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority board, Laugenour encourages more use of public transportation to reduce automobile emissions and save money.
"Being on the BRTA route, I often take the bus to Pittsfield," he said. "The car, once a symbol of freedom, is now a symbol of debt."
Lee Scott Laugenour, of Lenox, talks with Great Barrington resident Rose Levine at the Big Y in South County while campaigning to represent the 4th Berkshire District. (Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
"Off and running ... : Political candidates find that it's never too early to rev up their campaigns"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, May 2, 2010
WILLIAMSTOWN -- On a brisk spring morning, Gail Cariddi stands alone in the shadow of the town's post office, at the nascent stages of a nearly yearlong journey.
Armed with business cards, pens and a folder, she approaches strangers walking by, apprehension strewn across their faces, and asks: "Excuse me, are you a registered voter here in town?"
And with that, Cariddi, a 20-year veteran of the North Adams City Council who works for her family's wholesale business, expounds upon her campaign to be elected in the 1st Berkshire District, gets a signature, and moves on to the next passer-by.
"This is my job right now," said Cariddi, 56. "My job is to be the next state representative in the 1st District, and I'm going to do everything I can to do my job."
Cariddi is one of 12 locals seeking to represent Berkshire County on Beacon Hill next year. And with vacant seats and contested races all the way up to the governor's office, candidates and supporters already are laying the groundwork for a campaign season that could reshape the political landscape in the county and state even though most people won't pay close attention until a month before the Nov. 2 general election.
Cariddi, a Democrat, is running against Ed MacDonald and David Bissaillon, two Democrats from Adams, in hopes of filling the seat that will be vacated by Daniel Bosley, who after 24 years as a state representative is retiring from the position to run against Thomas Bowler for county sheriff.
While candidates such as Cariddi are seeking to supplant a retiring member of their party, others are running because they aren't content with the governing on Beacon Hill.
"Frustration, more than anything else," said Republican Michael Case, a former Pittsfield police officer. "We can do better."
Case is running for state representative in the 2nd Berkshire District, where Denis Guyer is stepping down after six years of representing the 22-town district.
"The overarching sentiment now is this climate of insecurity," said state Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, who is running unopposed for the position. "People are unsure about whether or not their job is secure and if their personal economic picture is stable."
Downing, who is seeking his third term as a state senator, said the key to understanding one's constituents, regardless of the economic climate, is by meeting people where they're comfortable.
That means a lot of spaghetti dinners, fundraisers, shaking hands at a supermarket, or simply going door-to-door. And all that adds up to 40 to 60 hours a week of getting the word out about a candidate's aspirations for state office.
"You have to be willing to go nonstop," said Paul Mark, a Hancock resident who services phones, is a licensed attorney, and is running for Guyer's seat.
Mark, who has worked on other campaigns in the past, said the difference between supporting a candidate and being a candidate is that the responsibilities of the campaign fall squarely on the candidate.
He emphasized that running for office has built-in pressures.
"It's like a really big job interview and 42,000 or so people are hiring you," he said.
In addition to the local races, all statewide offices are up for election this year, including governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, treasurer, secretary of state, and governor's council.
In addition to the local races, all statewide offices are up for election this year, including governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, treasurer, secretary of state, and governor's council.
The governor's race already is going full bore, with incumbent Deval Patrick facing challenges from Republican Charlie Baker; Democrat Grace Ross; Treasurer Timothy Cahill, a former Democrat running as an independent; and Jill Stein of the Green-Rainbow Party.
Patrick, who ran as an outsider and grass-roots organizer in 2006, officially kicked off his campaign last month, spending a weekend visiting 22 events in 18 municipalities across the state.
His camp is seeking to follow the grass-roots path again, attempting to recruit 21,700 organizers to find 50 people apiece to vote for him -- amassing enough votes to win regardless of the number of candidates in the race.
Sydney Asbury, Patrick's campaign manager, said the goal is to compete in all sectors of the state by getting the governor out in public and keeping organizers informed of the issues.
"Everything that we're doing as a campaign is toward giving people an opportunity not only to meet the governor, but to push back against people in the field," Asbury said.
Rick Gorka, Baker's press secretary, agreed that the race will come down to the man who currently holds the office.
"Ultimately, this is an election about Deval Patrick and who is the best person suited to reform Beacon Hill and regain some fiscal sanity," Gorka said.
Despite the Democrats' dominance in recent election cycles, the Baker campaign and the rest of the state's Republicans say the party is becoming re-energized in the wake of ire over health care, taxes and jobs, as well as amid positive signs from the election of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in January.
"Sen. Brown's election was a fantastic example of how things are changing in Massachusetts," said Jennifer Nassour, Massachusetts Republican Party chair. "He was able to outwork his opponent [Democrat Martha Coakley]. He was able to connect with people in a different way."
Nassour said the party already had 75 candidates for state office, compared with only 60 in 2008.
Building on that momentum for the fall is key, according to Matthew Kerwood, Richmond town administrator and a superdelegate for Baker at April's state Republican Convention.
"It's important from our perspective, and from really any campaign, that you use the time that you have before voters start paying attention to lay the ground work, to get the message out so that when that day in September or October comes, you kind of build on it," Kerwood said.
Lee Harrison, president of Berkshire Brigades, joked that for campaign supporters, politics -- not golf -- is their hobby. And though it's still early, he expects another wild ride this year.
"It becomes all-consuming," Harrison said. "Not as much as in a presidential year, but it's going to be a crazy summer -- no doubt about it."
To reach Trevor Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 528-3660
"A special election year"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, May 2, 2010
Even-numbered election years are too often quiet ones in Berkshire County, but that will not be the case this fall. With all four seats for state representative contested and a race for Berkshire County sheriff for the first time in three decades, issues important to county voters should get the kind of thorough airing that has become all too rare.
With last Tuesday's deadline for the submission of nomination papers to local officials having passed, and assuming sufficient signatures will be verified by the state, Berkshire County can look forward to significant races in the September 14 primaries and the November 2 elections. With only two Democratic rivals in the field, veteran Pittsfield Police Detective Thomas Bowler and state Representative Daniel Bosley, the sheriff's race will be determined in September. Carmen Massimiano Jr., who announced in January that he would not seek re-election, has been sheriff for 32 years and last had an opponent 30 years ago. The sheriff's term lasts for six years, and perhaps because the office, like that of district attorney, isn't seen as political in nature, election year challenges are few. The Bowler-Bosley campaign provides a unique opportunity, one that like a comet, circles around every few decades.
Mr. Bosley routinely won his 1st Berkshire District with little or no opposition, so his decision to leave the Legislature and seek the sheriff's office triggered a hotly contested race for that vacant seat. Again, because there are no Republican candidates, that race will be settled in September among three Democrats. Similarly, the decision of Democrat Denis Guyer not to seek re-election opened the field in the 2nd Berkshire District, where two Democrats and two Republicans will meet in the preliminaries and the winners will be joined by an independent candidate in the November election. (Write-in candidates could still emerge in all of the races but they are the longest of long-shots.)
The 2nd District was long held by Republican Shaun Kelly and the emergence of two Republican challengers is no surprise, but no Republicans came forward for the other local races for representative. However, the Green-Rainbow Party stepped up, with Mark Miller of Pittsfield running under that banner against incumbent Democrat Christopher Speranzo in the 3rd District and the Green-Rainbow Party's Scott Laugenour challenging incumbent Democrat "Smitty" Pignatelli in the 4th District. With no races there is no debate, and debate is healthy.
Statewide, a Republican Party that has had difficulty for years in mustering candidates for state offices, emerged from its convention with a solid slate. Ironically, the only statewide office the GOP could not find a candidate for was attorney general, where Democrat Martha Coakley, who lost to Scott Brown in the U.S. Senate special election in January, will apparently cruise back into office.
State Republican officials believe the Brown win energized the party and they hope to challenge Democrats in the vast majority of races for state representative and state senator. That would be good for Massachusetts, and with 25 percent of the seats in the Senate open because of retirement or the pursuit of other offices, the GOP has a chance to gain ground in a legislative body where it has been all but irrelevant. Pundits and pollsters claim to sense an anti-incumbent mood among voters as if that is some kind of revelation. Voters tend to be unhappy about whoever is in office, but good races may test the anti-incumbent theories.
We hope voters will take the opportunity to educate themselves on the candidates and the issues in the months ahead. Every election is important, but the votes cast in both September and November this year may be particularly significant.
"Immigrant rights bill hot topic State officials barely nix law for new federal database"
Staff and wire reports via The North Adams Transcript, May 2, 2010
Massachusetts is about as far from south of the border as it gets, but that hasn’t stopped immigration from catapulting to the front burner of state politics.
In just the past several months, the state has seen Republican Scott Brown elected to the U.S. Senate in part by opposing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, while Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick was forced to concede defeat on a bill to give undocumented students the same in-state tuition rates as legal residents.
Then this past week, the Democrat-controlled House came within a hair’s breadth of passing a bill that would have required anyone seeking state benefits -- from food stamps to affordable housing -- to be cleared by a federal database designed to weed out those in the country illegally.
The fact that the bill nearly passed on a 75-82 vote just a year after it was easily defeated by a wider 40-118 vote shows how nervous some Democratic incumbent lawmakers have become in a year when the vastly outnumbered Republicans hope to gain ground.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, was among the legislators to vote against the bill, which was part of a broader budget debate.
"I voted against that bill for two reasons," Pignatelli said Sunday. "One, I thought it was inappropriate for the budget we’re trying to pass. But two, and more importantly, I’m embarrassed that the federal government is so inept in drawing up immigration legislation. That’s why you see individual states trying to do it. There are folks who came here legally and filed the necessary paperwork to become citizens, and who are still not processed, years later. They are technically illegal immigrants, although they are trying to do the right thing."
Flaws in the federal database could unfairly trap responsible immigrants, advocates said.
"A huge percentage of mismatches would come back not just for people without social security numbers but regular citizens," said Hilary Greene, director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield.
The vote -- which came in the wake of the passage of Arizona’s tough new immigration law -- immediately caught the attention of the two top candidates hoping to deny Patrick a second term.
Republican Charles Baker said he supports the amendment, which he said would have ensured only legal citizens and Massachusetts residents receive public benefits.
Independent candidate Tim Cahill, a former Democrat, also supports the proposal.
"We have to focus on providing benefits to U.S. citizens first and foremost," he said. "You can’t reward illegal behavior because you just encourage more of it."
Greene described that argument as something of a red herring.
"[Undocumented immigrants] are not abusing welfare. That’s not even an issue," she said. "Especially in Berkshire County, they’re not eligible for benefits and they’re not looking for handouts. They’re looking for work."
Even in the Berkshires, where Greene’s group estimates that there are between 500 and 800 illegal immigrants, the issue is getting heated. Stories on The Eagle website regarding immigration often generate the most comments, many of them calling for strict rules against illegal immigrants.
Greene said she detected the heightened volatility surrounding the issue.
One undocumented immigrant from Central America, who has worked in construction in the area for almost a decade, said he agreed with Pignatelli. He said has been trying to file the proper paperwork for more than five years, but has been stymied by "red tape."
"Technically, I’m an illegal," said the Lee resident, who asked that his name not be used. "But I’m here because of the opportunities this country offers me. I don’t want a handout. But I want to stay here."
"Tax returns turn political"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, May 26, 2010
LENOX -- L. Scott Laugenour, a Green-Rainbow Party candidate for state representative in the 4th Berkshire District, is following the lead of fellow party member and gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein in releasing his 2009 tax returns.
Laugenour, a Lenox resident running against state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he released his state and federal returns, which candidates are not required to do, for the sake of transparency.
Laugenour's joint family income, including that of his husband, Mark Woodward, a paralegal in New York, was $178,391 for 2009. Laugenour's personal taxable income was $31,076, primarily coming from consulting work in the hospitality industry. The couple paid $8,876 in sate taxes and Laugenour paid $2,841 in federal taxes.
Lagenour has made the returns available to any one seeking them by contacting Jeff Turner at email@example.com.
Laugenour released his returns after hearing of Stein's response to an Associated Press request for the tax returns of the state's gubernatorial candidates. So far, Stein has been the only candidate running for governor to provide the information to the news agency.
"It gives voters a more complete picture and we [the Green-Rainbow Party] believe in transparency," said Laugenour.
Pignatelli, seeking his fifth term as a state representative, called the move a "political ploy," adding that Laugenour's actions show "how truly green he is in this political process."
"If he wants to disclose his tax returns, go for it. I don't see any relevancy whatsoever in it," said Pignatelli. "This is his big issue? It's kind of sad."
Pignatelli said he already discloses all of his income and earnings and is subject to an annual ethics review.
"It's only this job that you're held to a higher standard, and I've abided by every law over the last eight years. I'm an open book," said Pignatelli.
Mark C. Miller, a Pittsfield resident and Green-Rainbow Party member seeking to unseat 3rd Berkshire District state Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, said he will release his returns when he formally kicks off his campaign in the coming weeks.
"It has to do with truth and transparency," said Miller. "People who are going for this, going to be in public life, especially if they are going to be taking campaign contributions, should have all of their finances known by the people who are voting for them."
Speranzo also noted the financial interests and liabilities forms state officials are required to fill out.
"I think that is sufficient," said Speranzo. "I just don't see the need to do anything further."
The problem with releasing tax returns as well, Speranzo said, is it would require his wife, who is not in public office, to divulge her personal income.
Other candidates for state representative in Berkshire County responding to inquiries from The Eagle did not see the relevance of releasing their own returns, especially since all candidates must submit a statement of financial interests to the state Ethics Commission.
"I don't think there is a big push in who makes what and why," said Thomas S. Szczepaniak, a Dalton Democrat and one of six candidates running to fill the 2nd Berkshire District seat. "The voters -- they're asking about the issues, not tax returns."
To reach Trevor Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 528-3660.
"Green-Rainbow candidate makes pitch for state rep"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, September 3, 2010
LENOX -- Candidate for state representative L. Scott Laugenour hosted a "meet and greet" Thursday night, talking to supporters at the Firefly Restaurant.
The evening itself was low-key, with Laugenour meeting with supporters and speaking mostly one-on-one. There were probably a few dozen people moving in and out of the restaurant during the event.
Fellow Green-Rainbow Party member Mark Miller was also on hand. Laugenour is running for a two-year term in the 4th Berkshire District, while Miller is seeking a similar term in the 3rd Berkshire District.
"I've been out there, knocking on doors, meeting people," said Laugenour. "And a lot of them don't recall the last time they had a choice in this district."
For the record, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli last faced an opponent in 2004, when he defeated Republican challenger James Bashour.
Laugenour said one of his party's platforms is refusing to take money from lobbyists or officers of corporations who hire lobbyists.
He said a local campaign like his does not particularly count on such funds anyway, but that it probably affects Green Party candidates running for more regional or national office.
Laugenour said his principal platforms are a single-payer health care system; tax fairness; the environment, which includes conservation and maintaining a strong public sector.
The latter position means making sure that individuals can afford health care and educational costs.
"You shouldn't have to go into debt to get well," he said. "You shouldn't have to go into debt to go to college.
"We have a regressive tax situation, with all the insider deals," he said.
"As Nov. 2 nears, races find pulse"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, September 20, 2010
The state representative candidates in the 3rd and 4th Berkshire districts have shifted their campaigns into high gear for the general election, after being overshadowed by last week's primary.
The political contests pit a pair of Green-Rainbow Party challengers against two Democratic incumbents who are well-established on Beacon Hill.
Mark C. Miller is seeking to unseat state Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo, who was first elected to the 3rd Berkshire seat in 2004. The district encompasses all of Pittsfield except for Precinct B in Wards 1 and 5.
Meanwhile Lee Scott Laugenour battles fellow Lenox resident, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who seeks a fifth two-year term. Pignatelli represents 17 towns in Berkshire and Hampden counties and Pittsfield's Ward 5B in the 4th Berkshire District.
Since the two contests lacked primaries, all four candidates advanced to the ballot on Nov. 2, but their campaigns took a back seat to the high-profile primary races in the 1st and 2nd Berkshire districts.
Paul W. Mark and Michael F. Case won hotly contested Democratic and Republican primaries, respectively, in the 2nd Berkshire District. The two men, along with independent candidate Stefan G. Racz, want to replace state Rep. Denis E. Guyer, who isn't seeking re-election.
Gailanne Cariddi has essentially won the 1st Berkshire District race after her victory in a three-way Democratic primary. The North Adams city councilor has no opposition in November in her quest to succeed state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley. Bosley ran for Berkshire County sheriff and lost to fellow Democrat Thomas Bowler in Tuesday's primary.
The political spotlight now shining on the general election, the candidates in the 3rd and 4th Berkshire races are ramping up campaign advertising and increasing their visibility among the voters.
Miller, 64, the former executive editor of The Eagle, said he's building support from people who want better health care coverage.
"I'm finding more and more people dissatisfied with the current health insurance system in Massachusetts," said Miller, a proponent of the single-payer plan. He also opposes casino gambling and slot machines as ways to raise revenue for cash-strapped cities and towns.
As for Speranzo, 37, he's citing his six years of accomplishments such as court reform, fighting to keep illegal prescription drugs off the streets, and fighting for local funding as a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
"I'm communicating that message to the district voters, no matter who my opponent is," he said. "And having been on Ways and Means the past four years, I've helped build the last four budgets. In a situation like that, knowing the needs of your district is very important."
Pignatelli, 51, also cites eight years of legislative experience and being upfront with voters as reasons he should be re-elected in the 4th Berkshire District.
"I'm straight-forward and honest," he said. "Candy-coating the issues sends the wrong message to voters."
While Pignatelli has easily won re-election three times following his initial victory in 2002, he's not taking his opponent lightly.
"I'm being challenged by someone trying to get me fired," he said.
Laugenour, 53, has been after Pignatelli's job since he announced his candidacy in February, but he too has intensified his campaign because, "more people are paying attention to the race," he said.
"My campaign is about beginning a new dialog, about reaching out to those of all political persuasions, including those who have been disenfranchised by the current system."
Laugenour is the Lenox representative to the Berkshire Regi-onal Transit Authority and is a member of the Lenox Environ-mental Committee. He ran unsuccessfully for selectman in 2009.
Derek Gentile contributed to this story.
To reach Dick Lindsay: email@example.com, or (413) 496-6233.
Whether it's money or votes, politics is a numbers game. With that in mind, several candidates' financial statements, filed with the state, show a few interesting numbers. Here's a look:
$26,309: Amount raised by Berkshire County sheriff's candidate Tom Bowler.
227: Berkshire natives or residents who donated to the Bowler campaign; out of 237 total donors.
10: Donations from employees of the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction to Bowler's campaign, which became a campaign issue.
74: Number of individual donations to the successful campaign of Gailanne Cariddi for the 1st Berkshire District.
40.5%: Percentage of donations from North Adams to Cariddi, who has been a member of the North Adams City Council for 20 years.
$34,904: Amount Cariddi raised.
175: Number of individual donations to the successful campaign of Paul Mark of Hancock for the 2nd Berkshire District.
18: Number of donations from Berkshire County to Mark's campaign. Mark lost the vote in Berkshire County, but made up for it with a wide margin outside the Berkshires.
$22,361: Amount Mark raised.
"Laugenour predicts win"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, October 21, 2010
PITTSFIELD -- State representative candidate Lee Scott Laugenour wants to be a ground-breaking lawmaker in Massachusetts who'll put the fear into the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
"I do want to become the first Green-Rainbow Party candidate elected to Beacon Hill," he said.
Laugenour is battling fellow Lenox resident, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who seeks a fifth two-year term. Pignatelli represents 17 towns in Berkshire and Hampden counties and Pittsfield's Ward 5B in the 4th Berkshire District.
Laugenour said when he arrives at the Statehouse in January, his victory will have the entrenched Democrats trembling for their political futures.
"It'll be time for the speaker of the House and legislative leaders to be afraid," he said. "When I beat Smitty Pignatelli, they should be afraid the same thing could happen to them."
Laugenour's bold prediction of winning on Nov. 2 came as he outlined his campaign platform during an editorial board meeting with The Eagle on Wednesday.
Laugenour, 53, was a language teacher in Tokyo and later worked in various capacities for the Marriott Hotel chain. The California native who moved to Berkshire County in 1994 and to Lenox in 1998 is currently campaigning full time. He is the Lenox representative to the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and is a member of the Lenox Environmental Committee. He ran unsuccessfully for selectman in 2009.
Laugenour's top priority, if elected, is tax fairness, especially for low- and middle-income households hit the hardest by regressive taxes such as property taxes.
"It doesn't take a whole lot to explain to people the need for tax fairness," he said. "They can smell a rat with the current tax structure."
Laugenour called for a progressive income tax as one way to achieve tax fairness, which also includes tax value.
"The value we get from our tax dollars we also have to change," he said. "If we don't spend it wisely and it results in more tax breaks for the wealthy -- it's more money for the beast."
While Laugenour opposes Question 3 on the ballot to roll back the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, he said the referendum gets voters talking about tax fairness. Laugenour said he would have supported returning to a 5 percent sales tax, before the Legislature voted to increase to the current rate last year.
The Green-Rainbow Party candidate vows to push for so-called "single-payer" health care coverage, a term he's found is confusing to the voters.
"There will be no stronger advocate for public health insurance than myself," he said. "Let's call it what it is -- public health insurance."
Laugenour is also a big advocate of expanding BRTA bus service to nights and Sundays and educating people that public transportation is a cheaper and envrionmentally friendly alternative to driving a car.
"When people move into town, give them a bus schedule and get them to try [the BRTA]," he said.
Laugenour lives at 205 Housatonic St. in Lenox with his partner, Mark Woodward, a full-time paralegal in New York City.
To reach Dick Lindsay: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6233.
"Pignatelli seeks 5th term"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, October 21, 2010
PITTSFIELD -- State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli wants cooperation, not confrontation, when it comes to resolving issues in Berkshire County.
Pignatelli, seeking re-election next month in the 4th Berkshire District, cited how building a consortium of the 32 cities and towns can help in developing alternative energy sources, such as wind power.
"Even if no wind turbine goes up in your town, [the consortium] can still be a benefit to other communities seeking alternative energy programs," said the Lenox Democrat.
Pignatelli said the consortium could "drive local control" over siting wind turbine projects with assistance from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
"The regional planning office could be that technical expert the towns need," he said.
Pignatelli, 51, wants a fifth two-year term on Nov. 2, but must defeat challenger Lee Scott Laugenour, a candidate from the Green-Rainbow Party.
Pignatelli's political career spans nearly 25 years dating back to when he served on the Lenox Planning Board from 1987 to 1992. He was a town selectman from 1992 to 2003 and served as county commissioner from 1995 to 1999.
As a member of the state House of Representatives, Pignatelli serves on the Higher Education, the Economic Development and Emerging Technology and the Cultural Development committees.
He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Berkshire County Red Cross from 1995 to 2002 and the Pittsfield Chapter of UNICO from 2000 to 2009.
During an editorial board meeting with The Eagle on Wednesday, Pignatelli also called on cultural venues to cooperate when seeking to boost attendance through tourist dollars.
"We need to promote the Berkshires as a single theater-destination," he said. "Enhancing existing cultural activities is true economic development."
Local municipalities must also cooperate -- not compete -- for job opportunities such as when LTI Smart Glass left Lenox for Pittsfield last year.
"We need to promote the Berkshires as one and quit poaching from each other," he said.
Pignatelli also opposes casino gambling as a way to create jobs and raise revenue for cash-strapped municipalities, but supports keeping the state sales tax at 6.25 percent. Question 3 on the ballot, if approved, would roll back the current rate to 3 percent which opponents say would cost the commonwealth billions in revenue.
"We might as well shut off the lights if that passes," Pignatelli said. "A higher sales tax was how we protected local aid from devastating cuts leading to layoffs of police officers and teachers."
As for health care reform, Pignatelli said keeping local hospitals financially healthy, as well as a single-payer insurance system, are both needed.
"We need to stabilize our hospitals, like Fairview in Great Barrington, which provides critical access to health care in South County," he said.
To reach Dick Lindsay: email@example.com, or (413) 496-6233.
"Pignatelli re-elected in 4th Berkshire District"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, November 2, 2010
LEE -- State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli parlayed significant margins in the major towns in his district to earn re-election to his fifth term Tuesday night. Pignatelli now becomes the dean of the Berkshire County legislative delegation on Beacon Hill.
With the five principal population centers in the 4th Berkshire District in, as well as several smaller towns, Pignatelli held a commanding 5-1 advantage at presstime over Green-Rainbow Party opponent L. Scott Laugenour.
Pignatelli's totals in the largest towns in his district were the foundation of his victory. He won Great Barrington, 2,026 to 387; Lenox, 1,868 to 318; Lee, 1,525 to 345, Stockbridge, 736 to 115; and the section of Pittsfield he represents, 682 to 159. Pignatelli also won in the Hampshire County towns of Blandford and Tolland.
Pignatelli credited his campaign workers and supporters for the convincing victory.
"I am humbled by your support," he said at about 9:30 p.m.
The Lee Democrat admitted that the past two weeks have been difficult on his family, "but this morning, when I woke up, believe it or not, I was at peace. I knew we had done everything we could possibly have done in this election."
Pignatelli pointed out that many of his fellow state representatives were being beaten in this anti-incumbent era.
"I've always thought I was a little different from most incumbents," he said. "I've always thought my staff and I worked a little harder for the people of the district."
On Wednesday, he said, "we go back to work. For the people of the 4th Berkshire District, I thank you again for your support."
Laugenour, in defeat, was feisty and defiant.
"I feel very good right now," he said. "I mean, are you just going by the numbers, like this is some sports event?"
Laugenour said that one of the most important points in this election is that voters had a choice.
"Did you see the turnout [at the polls]?" he said. "That was because of me."
He added that he was encouraged by his performance and was already planning for another run at the position in 2012.
"I read where your editorial writer said he hopes I'm not going away," he said. "We'll I'm not."
"Tourism and cultural groups to feel the pinch"
By Clarence Fanto, Berkshire Eagle Staff, January 28, 2011
GREAT BARRINGTON -- Berkshire tourism and cultural organizations are bracing for a third year of sharp cuts in state support.
Under Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed budget for fiscal 2012, the Massachusetts Cultural Council would get $8.4 million -- 7 percent less than the current year
If the projected cut survives final action by state lawmakers this spring, the combined three-year reduction for the Cultural Council would be 33 percent, putting state support at its lowest level in nine years, said Executive Director Anita Walker.
At the same time, the 16 regional tourism councils funding the Berkshire Visitors Bureau and similar groups statewide also are taking a big hit.
"The Cultural Council cuts will have an impact throughout the Berkshires, especially on smaller and mid-sized organizations," said state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development.
"I don't think any will be shutting their doors," he said. "But some of the more innovative programs that directly benefit local residents and created with the help of this funding will go away. I'm not very optimistic that we'll be able to restore any cuts, though they're not set in stone."
He asserted that a budget solution would require reworking of the state's health-payment system, "a gigantic, if not seismic shift" that won't be resolved before the next fiscal year begins July 1.
"It's a big blow, but keep it in perspective," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "The governor's budget is a political document, a template of his vision."
Pignatelli described the arts and tourism cuts as "very distressing" because investment in those areas reaps big dividends for the county's economy. He called years of reduced funding "death by a thousand cuts. It's wrong, it may be good politics but not good sense."
However, he voiced some optimism that the cuts could be eased if state tax revenue continues to rebound and if soaring health care costs can be contained.
'Cut to the bone'
The Berkshire Visitors Bureau is being "cut to the bone," Pignatelli said.
Visitors Bureau CEO Laurie Klefos, citing an 11 percent reduction proposed for regional tourism councils, said that this year, the state is funding only 12 percent of her current $865,000 budget, compared to 43 percent of the Adams-based organization's budget of $1.5 million in 2008.
"We've done all the cutting we can do," Klefos said, noting that the staff of 14 when she arrived three years ago is now down to seven and that out-of-state advertising for Berkshire tourism has been cut back.
Cooperation among Visitors Bureau members as well as the pending 1Berkshire alliance of four countywide economic-development agencies could help ease the effects of state cutbacks, Klefos said.
Colonial Theatre and Berkshire Theatre Festival CEO Kate Maguire urged lawmakers to consider the economic impact of cultural organizations on the region's economic health. She pointed out that BTF and the Colonial draw over 100,000 patrons a year who spend over $4 million on food, goods, services and accommodations.
"On top of that, we play a vital role in arts education, reaching well over 10,000 students through programs that improve performance in and out of the classroom," she said.
At Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Artistic Director Julianne Boyd acknowledged that "any cut hurts us, we're so lean." She said the theater gets grants from the state's Cultural Council for operations and the Playwright Mentoring program for at-risk youth. "We have to raise more money elsewhere," she added, "as we see less and less from government."
About 100 Berkshire residents with disabilities who are under 25 are aided by the Great Barrington-based Community Access to the Arts. CATA's Development and Marketing Director Liana Toscanini of Sandisfield, who describes the nonprofit as mid-sized, said state support this year is only $5,500, about half the level prior to budget cuts.
Specific programs may go by the wayside, such as a planned collaboration with Monument Mountain Regional High School to bring in a drama program for youngsters with special needs. "This means a wide impact across all kinds of programs that need funding," she said.
"We're spending a lot of time and energy figuring out how to make up that money," Toscanini said. For example, last May's gala at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, which attracted 700 people, raised more than $50,000 for CATA after expenses. Another gala is scheduled at the theater on May 14.
CATA is among the organizations planning direct appeals to state lawmakers in an effort to help restore at least some of the aid that's now on the chopping block.
"Local pols weigh in on Patrick insurance plan"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, February 4, 2011
Calling Gov. Deval Patrick's push for cities and towns to adopt plans similar to those of state employees a step in the right direction, local and state officials insist something has to be done to reduce the budgetary impact of rising health care costs.
As part of his budget proposal, Patrick wants cities and towns to either join the Group Insurance Commission -- the program offered to state employees and some municipal workers -- or institute a program of equivalent value by the start of the 2012 fiscal year. Combined with a requirement to move eligible municipal retirees to Medicare, the governor estimates these proposals could save municipalities more than $120 million.
"Health care is going to be the topic to discuss this year," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "I applaud the governor for forcing the dialogue to happen, but I hope that he gets much more aggressive."
Pignatelli favors having all municipalities enroll in the GIC, adding, "It would be much easier and more seamless to have everyone on the same program."
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, isn't sure what the best answer is, but called the proposal "one of several good ones out there," adding, "in this session, it would be my hope that we come to some resolution to reducing municipal insurance costs."
Rising health insurance costs are weighing down the budgets of cities and towns throughout the state, with most local public unions negotiating insurance plans during collective bargaining. There are a number of towns in which employees still pay $5 co-pays.
In Lenox, health insurance costs make up 15 percent of the town's budget -- an increase of 50 percent in the past 10 years. Town Manager Gregory Federspiel said he would like to see a push toward "plan design," which would, to a large extent, take insurance coverage out of collective bargaining.
"Just give us the same level playing field [as the GIC] and we would be fine, or we would at least be doing better," said Federspiel.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, an advocacy group for towns and cities in the state, is a proponent of plan design. Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the MMA, said the GIC is not a "one size fits all" solution, as costs are uneven throughout the state and towns should have their own say in developing plans that fit them.
Pittsfield is the only municipality in Berkshire County to have signed up for the GIC since it became eligible to cities and towns in 2007. Since joining, it's believed the city has saved more than $3 million.
Patrick's proposal was made, in part, to offset cuts in local aid. But Downing is concerned about its impact on cities like Pittsfield, saying the they won't realize any new savings to offset those losses.
To reach Trevor Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 528-3660.
"Rate hike will hurt economy"
By Shitty PIGnutelli, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, March 1, 2011
This past August I submitted testimony in opposition to the original rate increase request by Western Massachusetts Electric Co. for $28.4 million. While I am glad that the Department of Public Utilities reduced the amount to $16.9 million, it is still a substantial increase that will disproportionately affect senior citizens, fixed- and low-income citizens, and businesses. It is hard to justify this rate increase when WMECO is spending $10 million to install solar panels that will not result in any immediate benefit to ratepayers.
But what really troubles me is that WMECO is getting the benefit of these solar panels, and all customers are seeing is a monthly surcharge on their bills of 30 cents. I am all for renewable energy and promoting alternative fuels development, but we must be mindful of how these projects affect homeowners and businesses.
A very real example is the effect rising rates had on the paper mills in Lee which were forced to shut down, partly because of the constantly increasing cost of electricity. In Massachusetts we have some of the highest industrial electric rates in the country and this increase will result in added costs of tens of thousands of dollars per month. This forces businesses to decide between hiring additional employees, giving a deserved raise, and making capital improvements; or paying their electric bill. High electricity rates are by far the number one deterrent for businesses that are looking to expand or relocate to the Berkshires, which puts us at an extreme economic disadvantage.
Many of you have commented on these pages about the benefits of solar energy and more specifically the recently completed WMECO solar array at the William Stanley Business Park. This project has undoubtedly put the Berkshires on the map in terms of being a leader in renewable energy and could potentially attract new industry and much-needed jobs to the area. I think it is great that WMECO chose Pittsfield for this solar array and I applaud them for their renewable energy initiatives. This is a great step to reduce the company's carbon footprint and mitigate the effects of global warming.
At the surface this may seem like a win-win situation and I am not disputing the fact that there are tangible benefits of this project, but someone has to pay for those 6,500 solar panels and unfortunately it is the average consumer who is getting hit with large rate increases to help pay for this and other solar projects. WMECO touts the numerous benefits of this project and others in the area, but really the only immediate impact on consumers is a 30 cent monthly surcharge on their electric bills and a rate increase of an average of $6 a month.
Through energy efficiency programs and increased awareness by consumers, they may be able to mitigate the effects of these rate increases through conservation and changes in their daily habits. But for low- and fixed-income families who may not have the means to weatherize their home, or buy new high efficiency appliances, these higher rates have potentially devastating consequences.
Instead of pushing these large solar projects that do not directly help consumers through lower electric bills, I believe it would be much more cost-effective and efficient to take that money and help homeowners or businesses put up photovoltaic panels on their roofs or property. By doing this, they would see an immediate reduction in monthly bills while also benefiting from the numerous indirect benefits of renewable energy.
In the end, I will continue to push for more renewable energy projects, but only those that will directly benefit consumers in the form of reduced monthly bills.
Smitty Pignatelli is the state representative from the 4th Berkshire District.
"Lawmakers exempt from open meeting law"
By Bob Salsberg, Associated Press, March 13, 2011
BOSTON -- Massachusetts lawmakers are promising transparency as they begin work on what could be one of the most difficult state budgets in years. Yet some key decisions on how to spend the state's money and bridge an estimated $1.5 billion gap could still be made in private, out of earshot of the public and the press.
One reason: The Legislature enjoys an exemption from the state's open meeting law -- the same law to which city councils, boards of selectmen and most other governmental bodies must adhere. It's an arrangement that makes government watchdog groups uncomfortable, even as they acknowledge improvement in how tax and spending information has been made accessible to the public.
"A whole lot of things that would not fly in town government are perfectly legal and standard practice in the Legislature," said Pam Wilmot, president of Common Cause Massachusetts.
For example, Wilmot said, Democrats who are an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate can hold caucuses and discuss key legislation behind closed doors -- usually with no records kept of the proceedings.
One such private caucus was held last week. Democrats said prior to the meeting that they would be discussing legislation that makes organizational changes in a state agency, but provided no other details. A court officer stood near the door to ensure that only legislators entered.
Common Cause believes the door should be open to all at any legislative meeting in which a quorum -- a majority of members in either the House or Senate -- is present.
"When there is a quorum of members who are deliberating public policy it should be open to the public, or at least the eyes and ears of the public, which is the press," Wilmot said.
Some lawmakers agree.
"To be perfectly honest, I have been here 10 years and nothing that has been said in caucus hasn't also been said in public," said Rep. Thomas Stanley, a Waltham Democrat who believes the Legislature's open meeting exemption is unnecessary.
"Having the exemption presents an appearance that does not shed a great light on the Legislature," said Stanley, who has filed legislation to remove it.
A spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo said all votes taken and committee hearings held by the House are open to the public, but declined to say whether the speaker would support lifting the exemption.
In defending the exemption, lawmakers have said the ability to confer in private, set priorities and have frank exchanges of ideas out of public view is vital to the smooth operation of government.
With certain exceptions, the Massachusetts open meeting law requires a governmental body to open any meeting to the public in which a matter under its jurisdiction is being discussed. The law also requires advance notice of public meetings and that accurate minutes be kept of the meeting and made available to the public.
Meetings can go into closed, or executive, session under several specific conditions that include collective bargaining with unions; interviewing of job applicants; disciplinary proceedings against employees; or discussing sensitive security procedures.
A significant change in the law came last year when enforcement shifted from district attorneys to the state attorney general. But critics complain that the law still lacks teeth, in that it limits fines to $1,000 for violations, and then only those that are deemed intentional.
Massachusetts is one of about 20 states where the Legislature is fully or partially exempt from open meeting requirements.
Robert Ambrogi, president of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said his organization would like to see the Legislature made subject to not only the open meeting law, but the state's public records law, from which it is also exempt.
"Just as it is useful in an open meeting to see the discussions that lead up to a conclusion, it's also useful to see the documents that go into that decision," he said.
Critics have cited other examples of secrecy during the budget process. Amendments offered during debate on the spending plan are often consolidated or eliminated out of earshot of microphones. A House-Senate conference committee appointed to reconcile differences between the budgets passed by both branches routinely conducts most of its critical negotiations in private.
But legislative leaders point to a series of rules changes and budget amendments over the last three years aimed at improving accountability and transparency. They include an online, searchable database of government expenditures and the posting of all bills on the Internet.
Noah Berger, president of Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, an independent research group, said the state has made significant progress in making tax and spending data available to citizens.
"Now when you go to the state budget website, you can fairly easily find spending proposals for each area of the budget, see how spending levels have changed over the past several years, click to descriptions of what the various programs do and what the missions of different parts of government are," said Berger.
"Legislators see pros, cons to open meetings"
By David Pepose Berkshire Eagle Staff, March 28, 2011
PITTSFIELD -- Should the Statehouse be allowed to hold a meeting behind closed doors?
That’s a question that’s far from hypothetical -- unlike its City Council and Select Board counterparts, the Massachusetts Legislature is exempt from the state’s open meeting law.
But that soon could change with state Rep. Thomas Stanley, D-Waltham, recently filed a bill to end that exemption. With the bill still pending, the Berkshire legislative delegation had a range of thoughts about the current state of affairs.
"I would say [the exemption is] probably not black and white, not necessarily a good or necessarily a bad thing," said State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, adding that "I don’t believe that anyone’s ever made a proposal that’s ever come to a vote" out of the public eye.
Currently, the Statehouse can bar the public and go into closed, or executive, session to discuss topics such as collective bargaining, disciplinary hearings or security issues. Critics say that violating the law doesn’t evoke strict enough punishments, with a maximum fine of $1,000 for "intentional" violations.
When asked about justifications for the law, Downing said that the rationale for allowing the Legislature to hold discussions behind closed doors is to "allows members to have frank discussions ... about various proposals and the impacts of those proposals" without the fear of political reprisal.
He said the public was able to watch several of the state’s high-profile debates, including those on the gas tax, sales taxes and the casino bill. But Downing said that if the Legislature could improve, it would be by also being open to the public in the earlier stages of debate.
"Oftentimes we leave people trying to read the tea leaves about why we did or did not move forward on certain proposals," Downing said. "I think we tend to wait until we have a very good starting point before moving ahead on legislative debate, instead of just discussing a topic and figuring out what agreement we can come to on the floor."
Yet freshman state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, said that while she had only attended a handful of hearings, she found that "executive session" was far from a hard-and-fast rule.
During a hearing to consolidate several similar environmental bills, Cariddi said, "I was really surprised because that was done in executive session, but no one left the room. The press was still there."
The questions she heard in executive session, Cariddi added, were far from inflammatory.
"I’m not sure if that discussion wouldn’t have happened in an open session," she said. "They were all regular questions, things that the public would ask, and I think those answers could even be said out of the caucus meeting."
The delagation’s other freshman, state Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Hinsdale, agreed.
"I think we have the same discussion whether it’s an executive session or a public session," he said. "In the two months I’ve been here, people don’t talk differently because of the type of session they’re in."
State Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, meanwhile, said that the open meetings he had with the judiciary had exactly the kind of transparency that should be continued.
"I thought it worked really well. Those [kinds of meetings] are often closed, but for reasons of transparency we thought you should hear everything we say," he said. "I’m not philosophically opposed to [having open meetings] -- having the media and any interested person at all. I didn’t have any problem with it at all."
However, he did say that with the bigger debates -- such as the upcoming one on the budget, which could go from 10 a.m. to midnight and continue over the course several days -- there might be some bumps in the road, such as announcing a meeting with 48 hours notice.
"How you would [advertise] those meetings, and how you would handle that, it would create some challenges, although I don’t know if they’re insurmountable" Speranzo said.
Meanwhile, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said "certain things are discussed and are done in private. I don’t think it’s a big deal."
Pignatelli said that with each representative’s votes being open to the public, ultimately every politician will have to be accountable to their constituents. But having ubiquitous scrutiny or TV cameras at every meeting, he said, might have detrimental effects.
"It suppresses debate. It suppresses discussion. People aren’t always comfortable saying what’s on their mind, and the Legislature is no different than a selectmen’s meeting," he said. "But when they’re on the floor, they have to make a vote, and they have to defend that vote."
"Lawmakers team up to beef up tourism"
By Clarence Fanto, Berkshire Eagle Staff, April 20, 2011
With steep slashes in funding for cities, towns and social services looming as the Massachusetts budget for the upcoming fiscal year advances on Beacon Hill, two lawmakers from the Berkshires and Cape Cod are on a mission to shore up support for cultural tourism that's crucial for those prime vacation destinations.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, now dean of the Berkshire delegation, and a newcomer, state Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, are leading the charge as co-chairs of the Cultural Caucus.
Interviewed from Boston, Pignatelli voiced disappointment in Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed cutbacks affecting local, regional and statewide cultural organizations. The Massachusetts Cultural Council has lost a third of its state support since 2008, and the Berkshire Visitors Bureau has cut its budget nearly in half during the same period as state funding dries up to a trickle.
"All the more reason we need a Cultural Caucus to raise awareness," said Pignatelli, who was elected by House lawmakers for another term as co-chairman for the organization's second year.
Citing the need to lure younger audiences to area attractions, he contended that "Tanglewood has recognized this." By booking Grammy award-winners like Train, he said, the Boston Symphony's summer home can "bring in a whole new audience of young people who love that group" in order to "get this younger generation exposed to the orchestra."
"This is very positive," he said, "but it will take time and leaders with vision to keep things moving in that direction."
Train is among the rock and pop acts slated at Tanglewood this summer for its Popular Artists series, along with Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan and James Taylor.
In Pignatelli's view, "there's a lack of understanding of the need to generate wise investments" that can boost the region's culture- and tourism-based economy.
"Budgets are tight," he said, "so it's all about how we spend the dollars we have. We're not looking for any quick fixes; there are no easy solutions."
Within the Berkshire Creative Economy, a broadly defined cluster encompassing a wide range of occupations, the focus of the Cultural Caucus is on support for performing-arts venues such as Tanglewood, Shakespeare & Company, Jacob's Pillow, the Berkshire Theatre Festival-Colonial Theatre alliance, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Berkshire Museum, among others.
While "donor fatigue" is a factor hampering bottom lines at many organizations, Pignatelli stressed the need to "cultivate the next generation of donors."
"That's where we're lacking," he said. "We can't keep going back to the same people time and time again."
According to Pignatelli, "there's still a great deal of wealth in the Berkshires that we're not tapping into."
The state Legislature's Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development formed the Cultural Caucus last year to help advocate for funding and legislative changes favorable to tourism and the creative economy, and to help educate state lawmakers about the importance of that sector.
"Massachusetts House vote on municipal health care provisions panned and praised by advocates"
Patrick Donges (2011-04-27) WAMC news
PITTSFIELD, MA (WAMC) - The state House of Representatives voted 113 to 42 Tuesday night in favor of the budget amendment proposed by Rep. Brian Dempsey of Haverhill that would allow municipalities to set co-payments, deductibles and other health plan design features for public employees outside of the collective bargaining process.
Russ Davis, Executive Director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, called the amendment an attack on the rights of municipal employees.
"I think it's not about trying to deal with the fact that there's a health care crisis. It's about taking away the rights of working people."
Davis identified what he said are problems with the national health insurance industry as a whole that should be addressed before taking aim at the negotiation rights of unions.
"We're not addressing the issue of why it costs so much to provide health care, that's the real issue here. If health care costs keep going up and up, you can't expect employees to keep paying more and more and that's the solution. The question is, where's all that money going? There (are) still a lot of people profiting off of health care in the United States and that's where the real costs are."
"Most other industrialized countries provide perfectly adequate health care at half the price in some cases, but significantly less than in the United States. The system is broken."
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, agrees that the country's health care system needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way, but unlike Davis, he believes the House measure is a step towards that level of reform.
"That is a huge undertaking. This step alone will save enormous dollars for citizens, for taxpayers, and clearly will be addressing health care costs. And I think the reality as well is that everybody will benefit, not only the towns, but the employees and the retirees."
Widmer said the House measure is a far cry from efforts being made in other states to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, calling it a narrow exception to those rights.
"It's nothing like Wisconsin at all. It's a common sense change, but obviously strongly opposed by the unions, though in fact the result of it will be to preserve union jobs."
The House is expected to wrap up their budget negotiations at the end of this week. Widmer said he hopes a similar measure is proposed and passed by the Senate in their 2012 budget.
"I hope the Senate will follow the House's lead. If they don't I hope they at least will preserve the essence of what the house has done."
Of the four state Representatives representing Berkshire County, only one, Rep. Paul Mark of the second Berkshire district, voted against the amendment.
Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli represents the fourth Berkshire district and voted for the measure.
"I don't think it's as bad as some people are making it out to be. When you look at the details, it's not bad at all."
Pignatelli said the measure is not mandated by the state, but is instead a local option that can be initiated by municipal governments, adding that the measure gives retirees a seat at the negotiating table for the first time.
"I think it was a fair amendment. It doesn't remove collective bargaining; it forces it to happen a little quicker that maybe they would like. But everybody will have a seat at the table."
Brian Morrison is president of the Central Berkshire Labor Council, which represents members of 26 unions living and working in Berkshire County.
"We told them what we thought would be an appropriate vote. We're disappointed in the vote of the three legislators; Cariddi, Speranzo and Pignatelli and we're very proud of Paul Mark."
Morrison said that Tuesday's vote would likely affect the candidates council members choose to endorse during the next election cycle.
"I think it would be safe to say that we're going to look long and hard about who we're going to support."
"Casino bill greets returning Mass. lawmakers"
By Bob Salsberg, Associated Press, September 2, 2011
BOSTON—Lawmakers returning from summer vacation next week appear primed to break a lengthy deadlock over casino gambling in Massachusetts, but there are longer odds against swift resolution of other looming issues as the calendar turns toward fall.
Redrawing the state's congressional districts, controlling health care costs, reforming the state's pension system and cracking down on human trafficking are but a few of the challenges before the Legislature in the coming months.
First up, however, is the casino debate, with House Speaker Robert DeLeo planning to bring the bill to the floor on the week of Sept. 12. DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick are in consensus on a plan that would authorize three resort casinos and one slot parlor in the state.
"If experience is any guide, to have the three most powerful and consequential figures in Massachusetts government essentially agreeing ... the chances are slim that their will would not prevail," said Paul Watanabe, a University of Massachusetts political science professor.
Patrick's opposition to an earlier provision allowing slot machines at two of the state's racetracks doomed the legislation a year ago.
While there are casino foes within and outside the Legislature, even groups such as the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling have found at least something to like in the current bill. Nonetheless, given the powerful special interests involved and the potentially enormous sums of money at stake, there's always a chance that even minor changes could stall the bill for weeks, if not months.
Patrick has complained that the Statehouse gambling debate "sucks all of the oxygen out of the building," crowding out issues or greater magnitude. To that end, the governor in recent months has carefully avoided placing the casino bill among his top legislative priorities.
So what is leading Patrick's wish list?
A health care cost-containment bill that he believes is "absolutely essential to removing the burden of crushing premiums for working families and small businesses," spokesman Alex Goldstein said.
Patrick's bill, filed in February, seeks to move the state from the traditional "fee-for-service" approach, in which patients are billed for each test and service, toward a global payment system designed to reward healthier outcomes.
The legislation has drawn many favorable reviews from lawmakers and segments of the industry, but its sheer complexity may prove a barrier to passage this year. House leaders have repeatedly signaled that they want more time to carefully examine the legislation. Murray has suggested a speedier timetable for the Senate, but any final action might well have to wait for 2012.
Patrick's next priority is pension reform, Goldstein said. The governor, speaker and Senate president said in January that they planned to act this year on legislation aimed at reining in state pension costs, in part by plugging loopholes and ending perceived abuses.
A public hearing on the bill was held in the spring but it has yet to emerge from committee or be scheduled for debate.
One thorny issue the Legislature cannot avoid is redistricting. Population shifts measured in the latest census will cost Massachusetts one of its 10 House seats in the next Congress. With all 10 Democratic incumbents either committed to or leaning toward seeking re-election, a redistricting committee will have few easy choices in drawing a new political map.
The panel, chaired by Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Rep. Michael Moran, D-Boston, held more than a dozen public hearings around the state and is expected to propose new districts in time for debate in October.
Watanabe believes that whatever the committee decides is likely to win passage.
"If someone wishes to contest what comes forward, they have to propose their own alternative plan," and most legislators would lack the data or expertise to do that, he said.
Opposition to the new map is more likely to emerge from community organizations or groups that represent minority voters, Watanabe said.
As lawmakers return, they are also feeling pressure to complete work on a bill that would increase penalties for the trafficking of children and adults for sex or forced labor. Both chambers have passed versions of the bill but a House-Senate conference committee has yet to agree on a final version.
Attorney General Martha Coakley, pointing to a recent independent report showing Massachusetts lagging behind other states in combatting human trafficking, called this week for its swift passage.
Even a task that might seem relatively pleasant -- deciding on how to use a $460 million surplus from the last fiscal year -- could prove contentious.
Patrick has asked the Legislature to send $300 million to the state's reserve fund, which has been whittled down in recent years. There could be some sentiment to direct more of the higher-than-expected tax revenues to restore program cuts, or to return some of it to taxpayers.
"2 out of 3 state reps vote for casino bill"
By Tony Dobrowolski, Berkshire Eagle Staff, September 16, 2011
PITTSFIELD -- Two of the three Berkshire County state representatives voted in favor of the controversial casino gambling bill passed by the House.
Gailanne Cariddi and Paul W. Mark voted for the measure, which passed the House, 123-32, on Wednesday night, saying it would create jobs and had provisions to protect Berkshire cultural institutions.
William "Smitty" Pignatelli voted against it, saying he didn’t believe the casino bill "is in our best interest as a legislature and a state."
Berkshire County has had only three state representatives since July, when Christopher N. Speranzo resigned in the 3rd Berkshire District.
The House bill would authorize three resort-style casinos and one slots-only gambling parlor in the state. The Senate is expected to consider the bill before the end of the month.
The House version would allow one casino in the eastern part of the state, another in southeastern Massachusetts and a third in western Massachusetts. The casinos would be taxed on 25 percent of their daily gaming revenue. One license would be set aside for a federally recognized Indian tribe.
Cariddi and Mark said they voted for the bill because they believe it will create jobs and stimulate the state’s sputtering economy.
"It’s going to mean 16,000 jobs for the state," said Mark, a Democrat from Hancock. "A lot of revenue that’s leaving will remain in Massachusetts. It makes sense to me."
In a statement, Pignatelli said he’s always opposed legalized gambling, and nothing was in the bill to change his mind. Pignatelli also pointed out that the revenue and employment figures forecast in the casino bill have been "drastically reduced" from two years ago.
"This comes as no surprise because of the economic downturn," said Pignatelli, the Lenox Democrat. "But nobody is paying attention to this."
Pignatelli said the social and economic issues that accompany legalized casino gambling are not worth the cost.
"Do we really want to be in the business of taking money from those that can least afford it?" Pignatelli said. "Because there hasn’t been an independent cost-benefit analysis, we may never know."
Cariddi and Mark acknowledged the concerns about the social costs of gambling. But they pointed out that the bill contains several amendments they believe will mitigate those issues, such as for treatment of compulsive gambling, and includes protections for existing live entertainment venues, such as the county’s cultural institutions.
Cariddi, a North Adams Democrat, said she co-sponsored "eight or nine" of the 150 amendments on the bill, and that the social concerns that accompany casino gambling already exist in the state.
"What evil isn’t in Massachusetts right now?" Cariddi said. "Gambling came to Massachusetts when the lottery was passed. Š That’s why we’ve tried to offset any of those fears by signing on for the amendments that help reduce the impact on live venues."
"Casino gambling is not the ideal industry," Mark said. "But you can play the lottery right now. We’re an hour away from Saratoga [the racetrack and slots parlor in New York]. You can go to Foxwoods [in Connecticut], and you can go to New Lebanon [in New York] and play OTB. It’s already in the region.
"It’s a serious concern," he added. "But I think the bill addresses those concerns and makes it the best that it can be."
Instead of promoting "blackjack and slots," Pignatelli said the state should be investing in education, scientific research, infrastructure initiatives, and job training programs.
"Until we do that, we unfortunately are going to be tempted to make the kinds of decision that may seem appropriate right now," he said. "But we have no idea how they will affect us 10 or 20 years down the road."
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
To reach Tony Dobrowolski: email@example.com, or (413) 496-6224.
"Not fooled by false promises"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letter to the Editor, September 20, 2011
I want to thank Rep. "Smitty" Pignatelli for his thoughtful and principled vote against casino gambling. He did not fall for the false promises of economic prosperity that sold the vote to too many of his colleagues.
While one can seek to add an amendment to ensure some of the revenues from the casinos would support help for those addicted to gambling, why enable the casinos to enter the commonwealth in the first place? If casinos were engines of economic development, we only need to look at its failure in Atlantic City, N.J. and to note that it has not brought widespread economic prosperity to other communities across the nation.
Voting to allow casinos to be an economic generator is lazy economic development. Rep. Pignatelli has shown us his ethical compass is intact.
Massachusetts Senate candidate Alan Khazei is pushing a grassroots agenda. (Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
"Khazei best Senate choice, Pignatelli says"
By Clarence Fanto, Berkshire Eagle Staff, September 23, 2011
PITTSFIELD -- Even though the seven-candidate primary for the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., is nearly a year away, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli has already endorsed entrepreneur and grassroots political activist Alan Khazei of Brookline.
The Lenox Democrat referred to Kazei as "not only the brightest candidate in this race but he’s got the greatest upside to do it the right away."
Pignatelli, who accompanied Khazei to a meeting with Eagle staffers on Wednesday, declared that "I get tired in Boston and disgusted personally with the partisan bickering going on in Washington."
He depicted Khazei as "a strong Democrat who’s about doing things right for the people first, and that’s what we need more of. He’s a breath of fresh air."
Pignatelli, who represents South Berkshire and part of southwest Pittsfield, argued that "there’s nobody better" on the issues that arouse Khazei’s passion. "He’s not new to this game," Pignatelli added, voicing "deep disappointment at Republicans, Democrats and tea partiers all across the board."
"Alan’s a different animal," Pignatelli contended, comparing his own views to Khazei’s. "We don’t like to play partisan politics, which doesn’t ingratiate us with party leaders sometimes. But we do what is right for the people and districts we serve."
Citing his support of Khazei in the 2009 Democratic primary, Pignatelli declared that "without a doubt, he, in my opinion, would be the best U.S. senator in this race, bar none."
In Pignatelli’s view, his chosen candidate was hurt by the brevity of the 2009 primary contest but will be aided by the length of the current campaign.
"Brown grabbed lightning in a bottle in 90 days, and Alan was building a grassroots campaign," said Pignatelli. "This is now a year away, I think you’re going to see a whole different campaign because he’s learned from the first one. I believe, because of maybe those missteps, with what he brings to the table as people have the time to get to know him and understand the issues affecting our daily lives, there’s nobody better than this guy here and he’ll be successful."
"Mass. already in the gambling biz"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letter to the Editor, October 16, 2011
I just don’t see all the controversy over casino gambling in Massachusetts.
It seems to me there is a casino in most convenient store, bar, restaurant and supermarket in Massachusetts. It is called the Lottery.
In a recent Eagle article, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said, "Do we really want be in the business of taking money from those who can least afford it?"
Well it seems to me, Smitty, we are already in that business and it is not creating any jobs. Weather it be construction, janitorial, or food and drink service.
We need to compete for tourism with surrounding states. In my opinion, we could use casinos -- as immoral as they may be. Maybe not directly in the Berkshires, but nearby would help.
"Redistricting map would move Rep. Mark"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, October 19, 2011
State Rep. Paul Mark is moving to Peru -- and just in time.
A proposed redistricting map released on Tuesday shows the 2nd Berkshire District, which Mark represents, shifting farther east in 2013. His place of residence, Hancock, would be absorbed into the 1st Berkshire District.
That would leave Mark with two options if he wants to retain his place in the Berkshire delegation: Run against 1st Berkshire District incumbent Gailanne Cariddi or move to another town in his current 2nd Berkshire District.
Mark told The Eagle on Tuesday that he never intended to stay in his current house long-term and was aware of the potential for change to his district. So when he heard about the new map, it made his decision to close on a home in Peru an easy one.
"It's bizarre the way life works sometimes," said Mark. "There's bad times and good times, and sometimes things just manage to work out."
The state Legislature's Special Joint Committee on Redistricting on Tuesday released its proposed maps for the state House of Representative and state Senate that were necessitated by the population shifts noted in the 2010 U.S. Census.
Once final district parameters are adopted by the Legislature and signed by the governor, they will be part of the 2012 election cycle, but won't change representation until the winners of those elections take office in 2013.
Mark has until Nov. 6 to move into his new residence and get on the ballot for 2012, because state law mandates a candidate live in the district for at least one year prior to election date.
Mark said he has been looking at the home for some time, but didn't want to close on it until he was certain the district would still be in place, leaving four representative seats in the Berkshire delegation.
"I'm really glad we didn't lose any House seats that could have gone away," said Mark. "It's just such a big thing to keep it."
While the Berkshire delegation will remain intact, there will be a number of changes for the local seats.
The 4th Berkshire District, represented by Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, will no longer represent Ward 5B Pittsfield. It will, however, expand to other parts of the hilltowns and South County, making it the largest representative district geographically in the state.
Pignatelli said the changes would serve the 4th Berkshire District better by providing a more natural alignment that includes Richmond and Becket. He also said Pittsfield will be better served by having a more unified district.
Pittsfield will now be left with two representatives, with the 2nd Berkshire District holding a small area in the northeast corner of the city (Ward 1B), and the rest falling into the 3rd Berkshire District, which was won Tuesday night by Tricia Farley-Bouvier.
Mayor James Ruberto said he was happy with the map.
"I'm sorry to lose Smitty's voice, but I'm very happy that Pittsfield remains as a unit," said Ruberto. "I has been important to me that Pittsfield, being the urban center of the Berkshires, has someone representing our urban interests."
Cariddi said she was satisfied with the proposed changes to the 1st Berkshire District, saying it's a more naturally squared-off composition that, by being confined to Berkshire County, can provide a unified voice for those constituents.
State Sen. Benjamin Downing's seat, already the largest Senate district in the state, will continue to expand under the proposal. Increasing to 52 communities, it would absorb several towns in Hampden County.
Downing said he's not concerned about the Berkshires' representation being watered down by the continued expansion of his district, noting that many of the new communities he could represent have shared interests. He did say, however, that whomever holds the seat in the future must remain vigilant in understanding the varying needs of the region.
"It places an emphasis on outreach and not just waiting for people to come to you," said Downing.
There will be a seven-day public comment period on the proposed maps, after which the committee will go into executive session to vote on the changes before the matter is debated by the full Legislature in early November.
Maps for the reconfigured congressional districts, which will reduce from 10 to nine in 2013 because of national population shifts, were not released on Tuesday. The committee did not give a timeline on when they will be available.
To reach Trevor Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6204.
Nov. 12 2011 in Boston
Guest speaker Chelsea Clinton and state Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox.
"Rep. Pignatelli tapped for Ways and Means"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, December 7, 2011
LENOX -- State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli has been appointed to the highly influential House Committee on Ways and Means, providing a voice for the Berkshire legislative delegation that has been absent since the resignation of Christopher Speranzo.
Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, was appointed to the committee on Tuesday by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, when he called House Democrats into a special caucus to fill a number of vacancies and reshuffle the party's leadership team.
Pignatelli said he has been advocating for months to have a local voice on a committee.
"This is the most important committee in the Legislature from a standpoint of where we go financially in this state," said Pignatelli. "The Berkshires have to have a voice."
The Ways and Means Committee has oversight of all bills related to the state's financial matters. It drafts the House budget every year.
Pignatelli, a five-term representative, is the dean of a Berkshire delegation that includes three freshman legislators. The delegation has been without a voice on the Ways and Means Committee since Speranzo, a Pittsfield Democrat, resigned in July to take over as the clerk magistrate of the Central Berkshire District Court.
In a statement, DeLeo praised Pignatelli's experience.
"I am proud to have Rep. Pignatelli's talents, experience and Western Massachusetts perspective on the House Committee on Ways and Means," wrote DeLeo. "With his position on the Ways and Means Committee, [he] will help us tackle the challenging financial issues we will face in the coming year."
Pignatelli said his appointment will provide a voice for the rural parts of the state as the Legislature prepares for another difficult budget season.
Revenues have increased, Pignatelli said, but challenges remain because many of those gains will be wiped out by increased expenses in programs formerly funded by the federal government. The expenses could total hundreds of millions of dollars.
The biggest challenge, according to Pignatelli, will be getting a handle on the rising costs of health care, which are approaching 40 percent of the state's budget. He said it will be critical for Ways and Means to manage the remaining 60 percent of the budget by controlling costs, while maintaining the "quality of services we've been accustomed" and providing assistance to municipal governments.
About Ways and Means ...
The state Legislature's House Committee on Ways and Means oversees all legislation affecting the state's finances. The committee, which is considered one of the most influential on Beacon Hill, also drafts the House budget every year.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, was appointed to the committee on Tuesday, filling a vacancy created by the resignation in July of state Rep. Christopher Speranzo, D-Pittsfield.
Pignatelli, a five-term representative and dean of the Berkshire delegation, also serves on the Joint Committee on Higher Education; the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development; and the House Committee on Personnel and Administration.
"Lawmakers eye stricter drunken-driving penalties"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, March 25, 2012
In light of the fatal crash in Sheffield late last month, members of Berkshire County’s legislative delegation are looking at ways to prevent people from becoming repeat offenders and stiffer sentences for those who commit such crimes.
"In light of this tragedy," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, "it highlights the need for looking at those laws again and the pending proposals and trying to make them more of a priority."
The push comes in light of a multi-car crash on Feb. 28 in which Moira Banks-Dobson, 24, of Sheffield, was killed.
The man allegedly at fault in the accident, Frederick Weller, 35, of Sandy Hook, Conn., faces multiple felony charges, including motor vehicle homicide while under the influence of alcohol and operating under the influence of alcohol, fifth offense. An Eagle review of his drunken driving convictions shows that he was only ever prosecuted twice as a repeat
Another man, Russell Brown, 52, of Great Barrington, was airlifted to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield following the crash, but has since been released, according to the hospital.
Downing said the delegation will seek to push through existing bills that institute harsher sentences -- both financially and in length of imprisonment -- because they provide the best opportunity for passage during this legislative session.
While more can and should be done, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said Massachusetts has some of the stiffest drunk driving laws in the nation, citing the so-called Melanie’s Law that ratcheted up penalties when enacted in 2005.
Pignatelli said the issue is more societal than legal because some drunk drivers will get behind the wheel no matter what the potential penalty. He said everyone needs to do their part to ensure these types of things don’t happen.
"More people need to do their due diligence," said Pignatelli. "More people need to be carded, restaurants need to pay more attention and not be afraid to take somebody’s keys.
"Society needs to step up to this and we should not be tolerating drunken driving of any kind," said Pignatelli.
Downing said the biggest looming challenge is properly recognizing out-of-state convictions for in-state prosecutions. Downing noted the request from the Great Barrington Select Board for the Legislature to work with New York and Connecticut because of their proximity, and while he praised the idea, he also said he and his fellow legislators have to look within their own borders first.
"We also need to try to find a way to get at it in our state alone because we don’t know what will or will not happen in Connecticut or New York," said Downing.
Regardless, Downing said the local delegation will do everything it can to ensure drunk drivers aren’t on the road, especially repeat offenders.
"It just never should have happened and we need to make sure we do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again," said Downing.
"Only state rep. race is in 4th District"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff, May 30, 2012
LENOX -- The state representative race in the 4th Berkshire District will be a rematch of the 2010 campaign and the only contested Statehouse campaign in the Berkshires this fall.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, is running for his sixth term representing the 4th Berkshire District, and for the second election in a row, he'll face off against Green-Rainbow Party candidate L. Scott Laugenour of Lenox. Pignatelli defeated Laugenour by a 5-1 margin in 2010.
Pignatelli, the longest-serving member of the Berkshire delegation, said he intends to run on his record, but his focus for now remains on the state budget and health care payment reforms.
"We're doing all the things I feel are important to our district," said Pignatelli. "We'll keep doing that and hopefully the people in November will support what we've done for the past 10 years."
Pignatelli said he isn't thinking about the election yet, but he will make a formal an nouncement about his campaign later this summer.
Despite the lopsided results of 2010, Laugenour remains proud of his effort in that election. He said he believes he can win this time because of the experience gained two years ago.
"We're stronger and the message we began conveying over the past several years is resonating with more and more people," said Laugenour.
Laugenour said his focus will be on economic development, specifically ways relieve debt associated with the cost of health care and college education. Laugenour also said he will campaign on breaking the Democratic Party's super-majority on Beacon Hill and making a more progressive tax code.
Tuesday was the deadline for candidates seeking district and county offices to file nomination papers with the Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin's office. Candidates for state representative must collect at least 150 signatures.
In 2010, all four state representative seats in the Berk shires were contested in either the primary or general election. But there's no 2012 opposition for incumbents Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams; Paul W. Mark, D-Peru; or Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
Cariddi and Mark were elected for the first time in 2010. Farley-Bouvier won her seat in a 2011 special election, filling the seat vacated by former state Rep. Christopher Speranzo.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Down ing, D-Pittsfield, is running for his fourth two-year term. He is running unopposed for the third consecutive election.
"Rep. Pignatelli fined $250 over campaign gaffe"
By Ned Oliver, Berkshire Eagle Staff, July 31, 2012
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, has agreed to pay a $250 fine following a complaint that his campaign treasurer was also a public employee.
State campaign finance law prohibits public employees from serving as committee treasurers.
Pignatelli said the violation was the result of an oversight.
"It was brought to my attention, we fixed and we've moved on," Pignatelli said. "I've paid a $250 penalty and the case is closed."
The complaint was handled by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
According to a letter from the office, Pignatelli's longtime treasurer, Marge Pero, continued to serve as his re-election committee's treasurer after she was hired as the acting town accountant in Lenox in July 2011.
Pignatelli removed Pero as treasurer as soon as he was made aware of the conflict, according to the letter. His new treasurer is listed Chris Quetti, a Great Barrington accountant.
Pignatelli said the possibility that he was in violation of state law never crossed his mind because he has handled all his own banking and state campaign filings since the process was digitized around 2006.
"She was treasurer in name only," Pignatelli said.
Both Pignatelli and Pero told state investigators that Pero never solicited funds for the campaign or attended fund raising events.
Pignatelli expressed dismay that the person who filed the complaint chose to go to the state rather than tell him about the violation.
"They could have just called me," he said. "I know this is politically motivated to embarrass me and embarrass my family, and I think that's very unfortunate."
Complaints filed with the OCPF are confidential, accor ding to the office's spokesman.
Pignatelli, who represents the 4th Berkshire District, is facing a challenge from Green-Rainbow candidate L. Scott Laugenour in the November election.
Patsy Harris celebrates Thursday at the American Legion on Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield after winning the Middle Berkshire District register of deeds race. (Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
"Harris wins register of deeds race"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, September 7, 2012
PITTSFIELD -- A political novice has overcome first-time campaign jitters and two opponents with better name recognition to become the next Middle Berkshire District register of deeds.
By a nearly 3-to-1 margin, Patsy Harris defeated Jody L. Phillips and Scott M. Pignatelli to capture the Democratic nomination in Tuesday's state primary election. Barring the emergence of a write-in candidate, Harris has essentially won the register of deeds race as she has no opposition in the November election.
The Middle Berkshire District represents Becket, Dalton, Hinsdale Lee, Lenox, Otis, Peru, Pittsfield, Rich mond, Stockbridge, Tyringham and Washington.
Harris swept 13 of Pittsfield's 14 precincts and all 11 towns. The final tally was Harris 6,691 votes, Phillips 2,446 and Pignatelli 1,832. Nearly 25 percent of voters cast ballots in the district.
"Unbelievable; I didn't think I would win by that much," Harris said during her victory celebration at the American legion Post 68 on Wendell Avenue.
Harris' opponents were also stunned by their margin of defeat.
"I can't put my finger on it, because I had a very good campaign team," Phillips said. "I respect the decision of the voters."
"My biggest disappointment was Lenox, it was a huge wake-up call for me," said Pignatelli. Harris defeated Pignatelli in his hometown of Lenox 646 to 496, with Phillips garnering 57 votes.
Despite 11 years experience working in the registry's Pittsfield office, Harris realized the need to combat the political savvy of Phillips and Pignatelli. Phillips was Pittsfield City Clerk for 10 years, an elected position. Pignatelli comes from a politically connected family: His father was former county commissioner and Lenox Selectmen John J. Pignatelli and his brother, William "Smitty" Pignatelli, is currently the state representative in the 4th Berkshire District.
"I knew I had the ability to do the job, but I initially was mistaken that would be enough," Harris said during her victory celebration Tuesday night.
"I knew I had to get out the vote and that's when I had to be political," she added. "I don't like playing those games."
Pignatelli, who has worked behind the scenes of several campaigns, praised Harris' first foray into the political arena.
"I want to credit her for running a solid campaign," he said. "As a political novice, she did all the right things and got her message out to the voters."
Harris will remain an assistant register under outgoing Middle Berkshire District Register of Deeds, Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr., until she's sworn in has his successor on Jan. 1.
"Pignatelli, Laugenour cover jobs, local economy in Becket forum"
By Clarence Fanto, Berkshire Eagle, October 10, 2012
BECKET -- In their first joint appearance of the campaign season, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and challenger Scott Laugenour of the Green Rainbow Party fielded questions from local residents in genteel fashion, staking out some contrasting positions but avoiding a debate format as instructed by the Becket Democratic Committee.
The three-hour event on Tuesday night at Town Hall was attended by at least 40 people, mostly from Becket, which joins the 4th Berkshire District currently represented by Pignatelli on Jan. 2 as a result of redistricting. The town's current 2nd Berkshire District state representative, Paul Mark, D-Peru, joined the discussion after arriving from Boston.
At the outset, Pignatelli and Laugenour confirmed that they have agreed to attend a third debate hosted by the Lenox-based Berkshire Beacon weekly newspaper on Halloween night, Oct. 31, at the Lenox Library starting at 7:30 p.m. The other two debates are at Monument Mountain Regional High School on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. and on WSBS Radio at 9 a.m. on Nov. 1.
Pignatelli explained that the 4th Berkshire District, with 21 towns (including four adjoining Berkshire County) will be the largest in the Legislature, with about 40,000 residents. He singled out as key issues the loss of employment in South Berkshire, especially in Lee's paper mills, the aging of the population, and the difficulty of attracting or retaining young residents.
"Scott and I have been neighbors in the past, we've known each other several years," said Pignatelli, a five-term state representative and former 11-year Lenox selectman. "I don't like the fact that he's trying to get me fired, but that's the democratic process, that's the beauty of politics. I've always said nobody should run unopposed but me, it doesn't always work out that well, but that's healthy. It's good to have some dialogue."
He also decried me media emphasis on the personal lives of politicians -- "good quality people aren't running for public office because of the scrutiny they have to go through today. They don't want to expose themselves nor their families to that scrutiny and public criticism. So I applaud Scott, though I wish he were running for another seat, for stepping out. This race is going to be about our vision for this district."
Laugenour, calling for respectful disagreement, emphasized his belief in "multi-partisan debate it's good to have multiple opinions." Outlining his background as a California native and graduate of the University of Hawaii, the Green Rainbow candidate outlined his early teaching experience and his career in tourism as a manager and regional vice president for Marriott Hotels.
Having settled permanently in Lenox in 2003, Laugenour, 55, served as the town's representative on the BRTA board and on the Lenox Environment Committee committees. He ran for Selectman three years ago and challenged Pignatelli in 2010, garnering 17 percent of the vote.
"I am passionate, I think more voices are better for our democracy," Laugenour declared, adding that he has advised Democrats, Republicans, Greens and independents on how to run for office.
Event moderator Ann Davek, treasurer of the Becket Democratic Committee, posed several questions before soliciting queries from the audience.
Asked to prioritize the key issues facing the state and the county, Pignatelli, 53, emphasized "good-quality, paying jobs," noting that GE had about 12,000 employees in Pittsfield when he was growing up in Lenox. He cited the importance of travel and tourism, notably Tanglewood, as a driver of the Berkshire economy.
Pignatelli commended recent economic development in Pittsfield, crediting former Mayor James Ruberto for his leadership. He also praised downtown upgrades in Lee. But he blasted major utility companies for raising electric rates to the point where some local companies, especially paper mills in Lee, have found them unaffordable.
While Laugenour also prioritized jobs, he listed "the debt people are incurring to stay healthy and educated" among his prime concerns. He mentioned meeting "someone with almost $200,000 in debt" from student loans.
"The amount of debt that our health care and education systems put people in is shocking," he added. "Debt cripples local economic development and local people from being enterprising."
As potential solutions to economic challenges, Pignatelli emphasized the need to bring broadband technology to unserved communities so that new residents who have moved to the Berkshires from urban centers can operate businesses from their homes.
"A lot of second-home owners have come up here to set up their businesses, but they need to be able to connect to the outside world," he said. "Broadband is going to light up economic opportunities."
Pignatelli noted that the famed film special-effects creator Douglas Trumbull, who lives and works in the Southfield village of New Marlborough, "needs to be able to access the outside world. He left Hollywood to come to the Berkshires because of its natural beauty. We are drawing so many high-powered, talented people who need to have that access."
Laugenour stressed the need for "Medicare for all, provided by tax revenue instead of private premiums, deductibles and co-pays." As an example, he cited Israel, where he said 5 percent of gross income goes into a public insurance fund to cover all citizens' health care expenses.
"We can be enterprising ourselves if we deal with a public infrastructure that supports private enterprise far better than what we've done," he declared, citing examples he has witnessed in Iceland and other countries."It's simple, it's not rocket science, it's not thinking outside the box," Laugenour stated. "It's progressive, proven, popular solutions that work."
"Gov. Deval Patrick's State of the State mostly pleases local lawmakers"
By Jim Therrien, Berkshire Eagle, 1/17/2013
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick delivers his State of the State address Wednesday in the House chambers at the Statehouse in Boston. Patrick called for raising the income tax 1 percent to pay for education and transportation investments. (Associated Press)
BOSTON -- Area state lawmakers were generally pleased with the forward-looking tone in Gov. Deval L. Patrick's State of the State address Wednesday evening, but they also want to see details of his income tax hike and sales tax proposals.
They said they look forward to debating the plan after it comes before the House next week.
The governor seeks to hike the state income tax rate from 5.25 to 6.25 percent and lower the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent, while earmarking sales tax revenue for public works. The plan, he said, would raise more than $2 billion in new spending for transportation and education.
"My overall impression was that the governor really laid out a vision for the next two years; he didn't do this piecemeal," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
She said Patrick also was "very clear about including everyone, about including the entire state."
In remarks earlier this week on transportation spending, the governor "was very specific about Pittsfield," she said, referring to rail and other public transportation proposals he outlined.
The representative also lauded plans to fund early childhood education and infrastructure needs in the state. The priorities, she said, "line up well with the vision of the people of Pittsfield."
Farley-Bouvier said lawmakers "need to take time to understand what the numbers mean," but added, "I think he is doing this in an interesting way, and it is a great discussion to have."
If the Legislature can agree on the additional revenue proposed, "this could have a significant positive impact on the Berkshires," she said.
"I think he touched on things I've been highly involved in, infrastructure and higher education, and I am excited about that," said Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lexox.
As for the proposed tax increase, "the devil will be in the details," Pignatelli said, adding that he will be looking for fairness in both the application of new taxes and in distribution of the resulting funding.
"Tax fairness also goes to region," he said. "The Berkshires have not gotten a fair share of funding over the years, but I think this is our opportunity to get our fair share of the pie."
Pignatelli said he is "really disappointed the governor is not running for re-election in two years, because I think he has been a forceful governor. I hope he really pushes his agenda -- I hope this is not just floated out there; let's follow through on it."
State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi says the state debate over the tax hike will be in the details. (Eagle file)
Rep. Gailanne M. Cariddi, D-North Adams, said "the details are always in the details, and that is where the debate will be," especially concerning the governor's tax proposals.
"The thing is, we do have to look ahead, but we can't just spend today," Cariddi said. "We have to look at the [correct] investments we need for our future."
She said Patrick expressed "a positive approach," in terms of infrastructure, education and economic growth. "These are all things that look ahead; these are things we have to do," she said.
Cariddi said she was pleased Patrick mentioned preparing children in kindergarten through 12th grade to go on to college or other forms of education or work beyond high school, and that he is proposing to address the kinds of infrastructure needs we have in the Berkshires.
"More taxes, more state corruption"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letter to the Editor, 8/3/2013
To the Editor of THE EAGLE:
The people of Massachusetts are so well-trained by the legislature and Gov. Patrick they believe the extra 3 cents per gallon we are now paying at the pumps will miraculously fix all the crumbling bridges and roads. The question should be -- what have legislators been doing with the other 21 cents a gallon, excise taxes, license fees, speeding tickets, inspection sticker money, etc.? If times are so bad that new taxes are needed why aren’t our legislators not making a few sacrifices, like not taking their per diem money? Don’t forget they also get to write off mileage on their federal taxes, so are they true double-dippers? Not bad for part-time employees who get paid full-time with the best benefits in the state.
It is always about spending when there are so many parts of the state budget to cut. In most cases no one outside of Beacon Hill would even notice. For example, getting rid of all but five Register of Deeds offices in the state. Did you know that Suffolk County, population 744,000, has but one register, while Berkshire County, population 130,000, has three registers? Then there are the outdated sheriffs’ departments, the last part of the corrupt county government good old days. These are just a few examples, and yet gas just went up three cents and smokes a buck.
Of course, the real place to start cutting is the Legislature and governor’s office, as both barely work part-time and most people are grateful when they aren’t in the Statehouse, as that’s one less day to steal from us. Why change things that are working so well for them? After all how can they get a full pension while not being a full-time employee? Research has shown part-time state legislators are more effective and have far less corruption. Massachusetts is a poster child as to why state government should be part-time.
So next time you fill up or buy some smokes, thank your state rep. or senator and remember they don’t buy their own gas, we buy if for them. And they thank us by taxing us more and giving us less.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
"Berkshire state reps against military strike in Syria"
By John Sakata, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 8/31/2013
LENOX -- Massachusetts state representatives don’t have a say on military intervention in Syria, but they are paying attention like many others in the country.
On Saturday, President Barack Obama announced he’d be asking Congress to approve a limited military strike against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack against his own citizens. Congress is expected to take up the issue after it returns to session on Sept. 9.
A pair of Berkshire County state representatives were not enthusiastic about the possibility of intervening in Syria.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli described himself as "seriously worried" and he unequivocally denounced taking military said. "We need to get the hell out of the Middle East," he said.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said military action should be a multi-national response she said she didn’t support any troops in Syria.
Both state representatives were at a ceremony to honor veterans at Devonshire Estate in Lenox.
"I am seriously worried," Pignatelli said after the ceremony. "We are embroiled in three wars in the Middle East that have been going on for 12 years ... The last 12 years haven’t been worth the loss of American life."
Pignatelli said a military incursion, "scares the living daylights out of me."
After the ceremony, Pignatelli said the U.S. should be reinvesting here and not become involved in a war that it may never win.
"It is my firm belief that this is not worth one American life," Pignatelli said.
Farley-Bouvier said "we need to find a way to stop these terrible, terrible bombings and the use of chemical weapons," but she "there isn’t any rason for troops to be in Syria."
"I don’t envy the decision the president has to make," Farley-Bouvier said.
"Public session should help clear up health care questions"
The Berkshire Eagle, 2/17/2014
A public information session on the state's health insurance marketplace is set for Friday, March 7, at the Lenox Town Hall, organized by State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli.
"There's a lot of confusion and misinformation out there about what people in Massachusetts have to do to be part of the Affordable Care Act," said Pignatelli, who acknowledged technical snafus at the state health connector website as a major problem. "People wonder whether the insurance they now have is good enough," he added.
The session will be held from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Kathryn Bicego, a program manager from the statewide advocacy organization Health Care For All, will discuss changes in the state's health insurance program as it aligns with ObamaCare.
"This is an opportunity to have a meeting, bring it to a head, with an expert out here to answer all those questions," Pignatelli said. She will explain how the ObamaCare changes affect the insurance marketplace in the state, and guide applicants on finding help to pay for coverage.
"It's a mess because of the confusion," Pignatelli asserted. "There's a strong possibility that with the insurance you have right now, you don't need to do anything else." He noted that low-income residents who receive subsidized insurance from MassHealth, the state's Medicaid program, have been automatically re-enrolled.
"The goal is to ensure that all consumers who attend understand how to get help, if they need it, paying for health insurance, or ensure that their options for purchasing insurance meet the federal standards in the Affordable Care Act," Bicego said.
She will cover the alternatives and offer guidance on how people can apply for coverage.
"There are very real problems," Bicego acknowledged, though she maintained that the trouble-plagued state website (www.mahealthconnector.org) is beginning to function more successfully.
-- Clarence Fanto
From right, Congressman Richard Neal, Gov. Deval Patrick, state Sen. Benjamin Downing and state Reps. William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli and Paul Mark attend the governor’s announcement Friday of a $27.5 million Community Development Block Grant at the Housatonic Community Center in Great Barrington. The grant will support housing rehabilitation and infrastructure projects in the state. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff / photos.berkshireeagle.com)
"Governor Patrick announces $27.5 million block grant"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 7/19/2014
GREAT BARRINGTON -- A throng of state and local politicians gathered Friday in front of the former Housatonic School to applaud the award of $27.5 million in federal community improvement funds to a total of 54 commonwealth communities, three of which are in Berkshire County.
The federal Community Development Block Grant program is the state’s largest available resource for neighborhood revitalization projects, said Gov. Deval Patrick.
Berkshire County communities receiving funding this year include Great Barrington, Sheffield and North Adams.
A partnership of Great Barrington and Sheffield was awarded a total of $803,100 to provide assistance for a 15-unit housing rehabilitation and infrastructure design project in Housatonic, as well as an accessibility design project slated for Sheffield Town Hall.
In North Adams, according to Mayor Richard Alcombright, the city will receive $900,000 for a variety of capital improvements, the demolition of vacant buildings and upgrades to historic properties and various sites that provide social services.
In addition to Patrick and Alcombright, other area officials in attendance included U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield; state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield; state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox; Sheffield Selectmen Rene Wood and David A. Smith; Chester Town Administrator Patricia Carlino, who is also a Lee selectwoman; Great Barrington Selectmen Sean Stanton, Stephen Bannon and Daniel Bailly.
"The beauty of the CDBG program is that towns determine the best investment in their community," said Neal.
He also visited Jacob’s Pillow in Becket on Friday night to celebrate a total of $180,000 in grants awarded earlier this year to the dance festival through the National Endowment for the Arts.
"It’s a good day for the Berkshires," said Pignatelli. "Governor, just keep sending us the money."
Downing also thanked the governor and said, "We know how competitive this particular grant program is."
The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban development (HUD), and is focused on supporting low- and moderate-income communities. Funds are distributed by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development to cities and towns with populations of less than 50,000 people. The maximum grant for a single community is $900,000. Regional applications are accepted, and thus, some awards may exceed $900,000.
"I applaud the governor for his continued commitment to our small, rural communities here in Western Massachusetts. This grant money is much needed and I know it will be put to good use," said state Rep. Paul Mark in a written statement.
According to its records, the state has awarded more than 350 grants totaling $265 million during the Patrick administration. The state estimates that for every $1 of CDBG funds granted, an estimated $3.55 is leveraged in non-CDBG funding.
Other communities in the state will use the funds for projects such as the improvement of public parks and community centers; improving elderly services; homelessness prevention; providing food and child care assistance to families in need and improving other community services.
"Where are our leaders?"
By William "Smitty" Pignatelli, The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed column, 9/21/2014
Seldom in the course of our nation's history has there been a problem that we could not overcome by working together to become heroes of change.
Lincoln during the Civil War.
FDR leading the country out of an economic depression.
JFK's dream of landing a man on the moon.
Massachusetts' own Susan B. Anthony fighting for equal rights.
A young Cassius Clay risking his freedom to object to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Tommy Smith and John Carlos being stripped of Olympic medals for standing up for human rights.
A personal friend, Richard Lapchick, who led the boycott that forced the cancellation of the Davis Cup tennis matches be cause of apartheid in South Africa.
Where are the heroes of today?
We have all followed the horrific events of this past week in the NFL, starting with the abuse of a woman and ending with the abuse of a child.
We live in a disappointing and horrifying period in America's history. Our beloved NFL and its players reflect the ugliest of our society -- domestic violence, violence against women and children.
We have more than enough superstars to whom we pay millions of dollars to play a game. Sadly, I cannot think of a single one who would risk it all to take a stand like the heroes of yesteryear. And since the problem is a reflection of society, so, I believe, can be the solution.
The athletes, team owners and corporate CEOs do not appear to be sincerely interested in solving this problem.
It is time for us to do it ourselves. Together, we can make a difference.
For inspiration, we may only look to a recent success story; that of the Market Basket supermarket chain. It was truly epic. Nothing was seemingly able to stop the infighting among a billionaire family business divided by greed. New England needed a hero and they found one -- in themselves. The supermarket's employees took a stand. They stepped up and chose sides and only then did things begin to change.
Ultimately, it was when "we the people," the customers, started to boycott those stores that we began to see the change we were looking for.
We can make a difference with the domestic violence problem in the NFL. But first we need to be honest. Will the NFL's "customers" boycott their teams until significant change is made? Will fans stop watching the NFL on television? Will stadiums be empty on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays? Will the store shelves stay full with players' and teams' jerseys? Will fans stop listening to ESPN NFL Countdown?
Are you a fan? If you are, you can make a statement and a difference.
Sadly, there are more superstars than heroes in professional sports today, and too much money at stake. Together we must demand better from our sports and our society.
We can no longer wait for heroes -- we must become them.
William "Smitty" Pignatelli is a Democratic state representative from Lenox.
"State Rep. 'Smitty' Pignatelli taps Great Barrington native as Statehouse aide"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, December 14, 2014
For Gena Frank, a Great Barrington native with deep roots in the community, her new entry-level job at the Statehouse in Boston is a natural first step in a life already dedicated to public service.
The 24-year-old Monument Mountain Regional High School graduate (class of 2008) started three weeks ago as the Boston-based legislative aide for state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. Since he was first elected in 2002, the Lenox Democrat had already hired and mentored four young aspirants to government or legal careers.
"From the beginning, I've grown up in a family that valued paying attention to public issues," Frank said in a phone interview from her Beacon Hill office. She credited her grandmother, Phyllis Curtin, 93, the esteemed opera singer and vocal coach at the Tanglewood Music Center since 1964, for sparking her interest in government work.
"She planted the seed — issues that matter to the public should matter to me," Frank said, noting that Curtin, retired dean of Boston University's College of Fine Arts, had majored in political science at Wellesley College. "She was a really important figure for me growing up."
A magnum cum laude graduate of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., Frank has degrees in psychology and women's studies. During a break from college, she held internships at a homeless shelter for women in Washington, D.C., and at a women's prison in Pennsylvania.
Those experiences sparked her interest in government, Frank said.
"A lot of these women didn't know how to read," she recalled. "It's so hard when you lose everything and the right support system isn't in place. People did things that are wrong but also went through tough stuff. They didn't have the same support growing up as I did."
Even though "disillusionment with the political system in Washington is real," Frank firmly believes that government, especially on the state level, can help people despite widespread mistrust and cynicism. She also disputes the notion that younger generations are especially turned off by politics.
"Even though people have been saying forever how apathetic and disappointed the current generation is, young people should be given more credit," she insisted. "As my grandmother used to say, 'If you don't show up and make your voice heard, you guarantee that the worst people will get into power.'"
In Frank's view, "the solution is not to disengage but to engage more. I have a lot of hope and belief in pragmatic optimism."
Pignatelli credited his new aide, who will work closely with Lenox-based district director Kerry Sullivan, for her familiarity with his sprawling, 20-town South Berkshire and Hampden County district, the largest in the state House of Representatives — "from Richmond to Russell, Washington to Mount Washington and everywhere between," as he put it.
He explained that while Sullivan is on the front lines locally, handling concerns from constituents, Frank's stepping-stone job is to track legislation and "the inner workings of the Statehouse, and that's a role she's going to fill very well."
As he observed, "every young person I've had has parlayed the opportunity with me into some very nice, lucrative jobs in Boston, and I'm very proud of that. They've gone on to bigger and better things." Pignatelli pointed out that he has told his Boston aides not to stay too long "because they can get institutionalized in that building in Boston, and it's not the real world."
He chose Frank to succeed Kerry Richards, now at Harvard Law School, because she knew his district through her five-month internship in Boston last year with state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield.
"She's kind of a 'policy wonk," Pignatelli said. "She loves the inner workings of government — how it works and doesn't work."
While Frank has not determined her specific career path, she emphasizes her full commitment "to a life of public service. This job will help me figure out how to best serve local communities, since government is the hub but not necessarily the end-all and be-all. This is an ideal first job out of college for me, it's an amazing opportunity to better understand how government works."
She's also keen on her new boss, citing his popularity in the Statehouse. "It's fun to work for Smitty," she said, "because everyone in this building loves him. He's a good guy, a straight-shooter."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551. email@example.com @BE_cfanto on Twitter
"Countywide consortium meets Sunday to discuss key needs"
By Derek Gentile, The Berkshire Eagle, January 22, 2015
PITTSFIELD - A countywide consortium of clergy, lay leaders and their regional affiliates will gather on Sunday to forge a grassroots approach to solving key areas of need in the county: transportation and food security.
The meeting will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Mark Catholic School at 400 Columbus Ave., according to Wendy Krom, lead organizer for the Berkshire Interfaith Organization (BIO).
The group includes representatives from Roman Catholic, Congregational, Jewish, Muslim and other congregations, Krom said. Since the organization's formation about two years ago, members have been conducting outreach to determine in what areas they can be helpful.
"We traveled to a large number of homes in the county and just asked, 'What makes your day tougher? What is it that can be improved?' " Krom said. "And the two responses we got the most were transportation and food. Fifty years ago, having enough food was a problem for families in poverty. Now it's a middle-class issue."
Area food pantires now face difficulties staying stocked, said Krom, and she said she hopes that the organization can also work with the BRTA to better coordinate bus routes between various towns and regions in the Berkshires.
Krom said the group has also invited local representatives state Sen. Benjamin D. Downing and state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, William "Smitty" Pignatelli, Gailanne Cariddi and Paul Mark to participate in the discussion.
"I think it's a good idea," Pignatelli said. "Improving the situation with our food pantries will be a huge help. There is a huge need there."
Pignatelli said his brother Scott Pignatelli, who is very active with the service organization UNICO, has had to make trips to Boston to pick up food to replenish local pantries.
He added that there are already several organizations working on county transportation issues, "so I don't think they'll have to reinvent the wheel. But there may be places they can help."
The Rev. James Lumsden, pastor of the First Church of Christ at Park Square, is serving as interim president of the organization.
He said the group will seek to address other issues as it moves forward.
"It's exciting," he said. "It's a faith-based grassroots effort that is the first in the county that I know of."
Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251. firstname.lastname@example.org @DerekGentile on Twitter
Kate Walker took the reins as state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli's district manager after the lawmaker's former director, Kerry Sullivan, became Lenox Town Clerk. (Ben Garver — The Berkshire Eagle)
"Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli finds new aide close to home"
By Clarence Fanto, The Berkshire Eagle, July 23, 2015
LENOX - For a state rep with the most spread-out district in Massachusetts — 17 towns in South Berkshire, three more in adjoining Hampden County — a front-line contact for the public is essential.
William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, moved quickly when his longtime district manager, Kerry Sullivan, moved one flight down from his Town Hall office to become the new town clerk.
Proving that in small towns, personal connections rule, Pignatelli chose Kate Walker from what he called "a huge family in Lee — I knew her father and her uncle." The seven-term representative, first elected in 2003, pointed out that she is the niece of his first district director, Sharon Keenan.
"Having somebody locally is critically important to me," he said. "I had to find the right person and Kate hit a home run."
Walker, 28, had been the front desk manager at the Oak N' Spruce resort in South Lee for five years when she heard about the job through family after it opened up in April. Her parents are Don and Kim Walker of Lee.
"Her father was one of my camp counselors when I was a kid," Pignatelli recalled.
"I knew that Kerry was leaving to work for the town of Lenox, and my sister Rachelle takes care of Kerry's nephew," she said. "Rachelle told me I'd be great for it and that I needed to figure out how to apply."
After contacting Sullivan, Walker learned that her mother and Sullivan were best friends in high school. After polishing up her resume, Walker prepared to be interviewed by Pignatelli, whom she had met in passing a couple of times.
"At first I was nervous," Walker recalled. "I thought I was just going to sit in his office, pick up a phone, take a message and hand it to the representative. But there's a lot more to it than that, and it's been great."
Only weeks into the job, and with Pignatelli spending much of the time in Boston, Walker was on her own and consulted with Sullivan as she learned the ropes.
"I'm really fortunate that Kerry is right downstairs," Walker said. "The representative is just a phone call away if there's anything above my head or I'm not quite sure how to handle. I'm getting comfortable pretty quickly."
A native of Lee and a 2005 graduate of Lee High School, Walker attended Berkshire Community College, studying early education, but left because she needed to work full-time.
"What she's not telling you," Pignatelli joked, "is that she heard that Smitty is a great guy to work for."
"That's all I've been hearing," Walker responded, laughing.
Turning serious, Pignatelli declared: "I love Kate's personality and I think she's going to grow very nicely into this position because it's all about customer service. I've told everybody who's ever worked for me that my name's on the door, but when I'm not here, you're my representative. How you treat people is a reflection on me."
Since her start date, June 22, Walker said she has fielded the greatest number of calls from the public on three issues — the opiate drug crisis, the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline proposal, and a House bill that would overhaul the state's public records law for the first time in 40 years, reducing the cost of accessing records and giving citizens legal recourse if they are wrongly denied access to the information.
"Kate's learning the politics and the issues that are important," Pignatelli pointed out. "If you ever ask me or Kate what a typical day is like, I'm not sure I can answer it after 13 years, because no two days are the same."
"She knows the district, she loves the Berkshires and when I'm not here, I'm very comfortable that the office is in good hands," Pignatelli said. Walker can be reached at 413-637-0631.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551. email@example.com @BE_cfanto on Twitter.
"Smitty" Pignatelli: “Sharing services for a brighter Berkshire future”
By "Smitty" Pignatelli, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, November 3, 2015
LENOX - I recall as a young boy campaigning with my Dad, John Pignatelli, when he was running for Berkshire County Commissioner in 1971. We were at a candidate forum in North Adams and my father stood up to the podium and stated that the Berkshires — with 30 towns, two cities and a population of around 160,000 people — had 32 police chiefs, 32 fire chiefs, 32 departments of public works, and 11 high schools. He said that model was simply not sustainable, and communities needed to start sharing services on a regional or a sub-regional basis.
Later, a man came up to my father and told him, "John, you've got my vote, but with that platform you'll never get elected."
Despite those words of warning, my Dad did indeed get elected and for the next 20 years had incremental successes getting towns to collaborate on issues important to them.
I've always shared my father's belief that we can maintain the individual identity and character of towns while also saving money through common-sense collaboration. In 1997 I was interviewed about the future of the Berkshires and I'm quoted saying that "I believe strongly that for the towns to maintain their integrity and for the county to prosper, there needs to be more inter-community involvement."
However, communities are slow to change. Fast forward to today: We still have 32 police, fire and public works departments and (now) 12 high schools, even though our population has declined to fewer than 130,000 residents.
Still, I think that we are now at a time where the opinion of the community is shifting: people are seeing that with rising costs and a shrinking population, we cannot keep on doing things the way they've always been done. We need to start working together, and the ideal place to start is the biggest cost to our city and town budgets: our schools.
With that in mind, 15 months ago, at a countywide school meeting, I raised concern about the financial stability of all of the school systems in Berkshire County. After that, I seized the opportunity to convene a meeting in my legislative district with the six school districts in the Southern Berkshires to start a conversation about our collective futures.
Much to my surprise, the superintendents agreed to meet each month to pursue avenues of cooperation and collaboration and seek state support. After several months of preparation and having named our venture the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project, we reached out to the Patrick administration and received great encouragement and guidance. However, when we were on the cusp of receiving a state grant to support our efforts in 2014, the funding was eliminated to close a state budget gap.
As a group, we were disappointed but not discouraged, and the project members continued to meet on a regular basis. Despite the loss of funding, the need was still there: we had to enhance educational opportunities across town boundaries and pursue taxpayer relief while simultaneously maintaining independence.
This led me to introduce this effort to the new Baker administration, which felt that these ideas could become a model for the rest of the county as well other parts of the state, and encouraged participating towns to apply for Gov. Baker's "Community Compact" initiative. We now have the six original schools in addition to 16 different communities throughout the Southern Berkshires that have agreed to the same language to explore opportunities of greater efficiency and cooperation, starting with our schools.
Today, school districts and town governments are stepping up when it comes to collaboration: I applaud the leadership in Lee for its willingness to start a conversation of a shared school superintendent, and I applaud the leadership of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and Farmington River, who have formed a committee to do the same. Recently, we have also seen Sheffield and New Marlborough come together to jointly purchase equipment for their public works department, and Lenox and Lee have agreed to share a building inspector.
This should just be the beginning of talks with endless possibilities. Our county is shrinking and aging at the same time. We have several towns with more deaths than births. Our economic base is ever changing. The industries of the past will not necessarily be part of our future.
How many remember Sprague Electric in North Adams or Rising Paper in Housatonic? Onyx Paper in Lee is going strong and we need to help them be prosperous moving forward but how many remember the once thriving mills employing nearly 4,000 workers in the other mills?
Just as we have had to shift how we personally sustain ourselves economically, we need to shift how we run our towns. We have an opportunity to show leadership at all levels to look to the future. It's time to reinvent ourselves and think about a Berkshires for the generation yet to be born.
It's now time for other communities to embrace the change. I'm proud to say that other school leaders in the rest of the county have begun that conversation through the newly-formed Berkshire County Education Task Force. I will do all that I can to see that they are successful in these efforts.
One of my favorite quotes is from Les Brown: "The only limits to the possibilities in your life tomorrow are the buts you use today." We are heading into uncharted territory, and we will not always agree. However, I am confident that, if we choose to work together, we can create a brighter Berkshires that can last well into the next generation, and the generation after that.
The conversation that my Dad started in 1971 may have been premature for many to believe in at that time, but I believe that the time has come for all of us to embrace his vision of a better Berkshire County. What kind on community do we see as we get older? What kind of community do we see for our children? If we answer these questions and others with "a prosperous and vibrant future for all," let's take this moment in time and make it great.
"Smitty" Pignatelli is the state representative from the Fourth Berkshire District.
- Jonathan Melle
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- I am a citizen defending the people against corrupt Pols who only serve their Corporate Elite masters, not the people! / My 2 political enemies are Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr., nicknamed "Luciforo" and former Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen C. Massimiano, Jr. / I have also pasted many of my political essays on "The Berkshire Blog": berkshireeagle.blogspot.com / I AM THE ANTI-FRANK GUINTA! / Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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