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Great Barrington Raises Sewer Rates, Defends Use Of Cannabis Impact Fee

Seven people participate in a Zoom meeting.
Josh Landes
The September 13th, 2021 virtual Great Barrington, Massachusetts selectboard meeting.

The Great Barrington, Massachusetts selectboard approved a 30% increase to the town’s sewer rate and discussed spending its community impact fee from the legalized cannabis industry at Monday’s meeting.

Opening the meeting in their additional role as sewer commissioners, the selectboard heard some good news about the town’s infrastructure.

“We're due for a subset a substantial upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant, somewhere in the neighborhood of like $20 million to $30 million. We received our permit from DEP a year ago. And consulting with Bill and our engineers, looking at the data over the last year, we realize that we are actually within compliance of our permit. So we will be able to avoid at least for the time being a large upgrade there, into the savings of tens of millions of dollars," said Department of Public Works Superintendent Sean VanDeusen. “However, we still have upgrades that need to happen down there, including an aeration tank, which will be millions of dollars. And we have debt service that we owe on from previous upgrades. So coming for you guys tonight looking to increase the rate for the septage received out the plant. We collect septage from all the neighboring towns, private residents who get their septic systems pumped. We've seen substantial increases in usage I've laid out before you guys in the executive summary, we expect to see more increases in usage. There are costs associated with processing percentage, and the costs continue to rise. So our current contract is has gone up quite a bit.”

VanDeusen framed the proposed rate increase as a way to help pay off the town’s sewer system upgrades while making the new users pay their fair share.

“It’d be 11 cents per gallon, or $110 per 1000 gallons," he explained. "The increase would be to $143 per 1000 gallons.”

The selectboard unanimously accepted the motion, effective November 1st.

Ed Abrahams, the board’s point person for the town’s legalized cannabis businesses, addressed public criticisms of the community impact fee levied against the industry. The Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association has described the 3% tax intended to offset potential negative local impacts of the legal marijuana trade as “legalized extortion” – a concept Abrahams rejected.

“Our local cannabis retailers have not called this ‘legalized extortion,’ and at this point they haven't balked at paying the agreed upon fees," said Abrahams. "On the contrary, they've been great neighbors and partners. Theory built this new building we collect taxes on. They were very responsive in the beginning about the early traffic problems. Calyx has that beautiful mural on their building, they were also a major sponsor of Berkshire Busk. And Farnsworth and Rebelle have both spruced up older buildings in town, they're operating successfully. I just want to Great Barrington voters and this board to know that the host agreements that we have approved are legal and the money we have spent is actually working to, among other things, help parents and teens address substance use.”

Abrahams noted that the presence of the cannabis industry has required town police to be trained in new DUI evaluation methods, and cited a Western Journal of Emergency Medicine study about the increase of health issues related to legal marijuana use in Colorado. But Abrahams says Great Barrington is most concerned about the impact on young people.

“The South Berkshire Health Coalition does a survey of students in that from 8th grade to 12th grade every two years, and this is their most recent survey," he said. "And this is just for the high school seniors. They were asked how wrong do you think it is for someone your age to drink alcohol? 11% said there was nothing wrong. Same question about pot. Twice as many, 22%, said nothing was wrong. How wrong do your friends feel it would be for you to have to drink one to two drinks nearly every day? 69% said it would be wrong or very wrong. Asked about pot use every day, only 38% said they thought their friends would think it was wrong. And this is the one I find most astounding. In the past year, about how many adults have you known personally who have used marijuana or other drugs? 63% said at least one and 17% said five or one. So there's very little good research on the long term impacts of pot. But we do know with certainty that marijuana use by people younger than their mid-20s can have a permanent impact on the developing brains. Legal marijuana makes spreading that fact to teens very important.”

So far, that concern has dictated where allocations of the millions in community impact fee dollars Great Barrington has raked in to date have ended up.

“Last year, which was the first year grants were made, Berkshire Hills Regional School District got money, Railroad Street Youth Project, Berkshire South Community Center, Volunteers In Medicine and Construct all receive this money,” said Abrahams.

At the meeting, the selectboard also learned that a segment of Route 71 that runs through Great Barrington will be paved by the state before the end of next June, saving the town $750,000.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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