State Senators Hear Western Mass. Accomplishments And Concerns
A little less than a month after Republican Governor Charlie Baker and members of his team embarked on a statewide tour, leaders of the Democratic legislature are following suit. And the Senate’s Commonwealth Conversation Tour included a stop in Great Barrington.People representing government, tourism, business and education in the Berkshires spelled out a laundry list of accomplishments and needs to eight state senators at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center. Among the lawmakers in attendance was Democrat Stan Rosenberg. He was elected as Senate President in January.
“This is all part of a new beginning for us,” Rosenberg said. “We really need to reach out and give people the opportunity to communicate with us and set the priorities going forward so that we’re being responsive to the real needs of the people.”
Most of the issues on the table centered around the three western Massachusetts counties of Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire. The region makes up 20 percent of the state, but with 360,000 people it’s just five percent of the population. And outside of eight cities, 67 towns have 2,000 people or less, according to Dave Christopolis, executive director of the Hilltown Community Development Corporation. He advocated for the creation of an Office of Rural Policy which has been put forth in the legislature.
“There are a lot of similarities in what we do across this region,” Christopolis said. “It’s important for me to think about it in terms of a system. How can we work together to encourage collaboration, cooperation and develop an action plan that’s regional?”
Christopolis says having state leaders encouraging town governmental officials, who often wear multiple hats, to collaborate across community lines can help address housing, transportation and broadband deficiencies. Nat Karns of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission says there are really two Berkshires—the affluent communities and those that are struggling. Because of that he says policies need to be adaptable to address the previously stated needs.
“We are probably the most demographically and economically challenged region in the commonwealth,” Karns said. “North Adams ranks 348 in income out of 351 municipalities. Adams is 346. Pittsfield is 338. About half of the population lives in those three largest communities.”
Pat Begrowicz is co-owner and president of Onyx Specialty Papers in Lee. The company has 155 employees with an annual payroll exceeding $10 million. It ships half of its products out of the U.S. But it uses as much energy as 3,500 homes, making energy the company’s third highest cost behind raw materials and labor. Despite cutting electricity consumption by half over the past decade, Begrowicz says the company’s electric bill in 2014 was $2.4 million.
“While we celebrate new jobs created by the growing green industry have we reviewed the data to see the impact on the jobs in more traditional manufacturing businesses?” Begrowicz asked. “Seventy of my co-workers lost their jobs in 2007 due in large part to spikes in electricity costs. That was certainly an unintended consequence of some regulatory and legislative decision making, but it was a very serious consequence nonetheless for those 70 families.”
Senate President Stan Rosenberg says the statewide listening tour is meant to help lawmakers better understand needs in areas they don’t represent.
“It is really clear that there are some very significant needs out here,” Rosenberg said. “Particularly in terms of transportation, job creation, broadband and municipal services having adequate support from the commonwealth in local aid and those sorts of things.”
Jonathan Butler, COO of 1Berkshire, the county’s economic development agency, says having Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, in a power position could help western Massachusetts better connect to Boston.
“I think that’s going to give us a bigger voice in western Mass. so we’re excited right of the gates to have him here listening to some of our needs and I think more importantly listening to all the good things that are happening here in the Berkshires,” Butler said. “That’s the message that we really want to convey.”
State Senators Jim Welch, Donald Hummason, Eric Lesser, Michael Rodrigues, John Keenan, William Brownsberger and Ben Downing were also part of the Conversation Tour.