In the Berkshires, does regional sustainability mean a return to county government?More Info
Berkshires — The concept has been raised several times since Berkshire County ceased to have a government of its own, but it’s gained some currency since a regional education task force put forward a controversial proposal for a single countywide school district this summer.
It remains to be seen whether there is a need for county government, which was completely abolished in Berkshire County and in seven other counties across the state in 2000. But some people are wondering whether a regional approach to governing Berkshire County’s is in order, given the many challenges confronting its 32 municipalities.
When the Berkshire Hills Regional School District made the decision to pull out of the Berkshire County Education Task Force earlier this month, some school and town officials questioned whether a countywide school district could even become a reality without a regional government or taxing authority.
“We couldn’t get three towns to pass a high-school renovation project,” said School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon. “And now we’re going to get 32 towns to approve this?”
At a school committee meeting this month, Bannon was talking about the recent failure — twice in 12 months — of Berkshire Hills taxpayers to approve major renovation projects for Monument Mountain Regional High School at a cost of more than $50 million. Berkshire Hills has three member towns — Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge — while Berkshire County itself is much larger and more diverse.
“Could we envision a one-county [school] district without a one-county taxing authority?” asked Andy Potter, a school committee member from West Stockbridge. “And that’s what it comes down to.”
Potter moved to Berkshire County 25 years ago, about the time, as he put it, “when county government was being wrapped up, and shipped back to Boston.”
“So the taxing authority at that point went away,” Potter recalled. “It wasn’t successful then; what makes people think that somehow it will be now?”
Great Barrington Town Moderator Michael Wise, who also chairs the Democratic Town Committee and is a member of the task force, said Potter’s was “an interesting thought.”
“It might have been a mistake to eliminate county government,” Wise said. But he added that reinstating it would be “a very, very steep climb” and would probably require that “we reinvent county government.” Wise said there are some who have advocated for an alternative method for funding regional schools, “and a larger scale would be one way to get there.”
It was a reference to the partly successful push from Great Barrington’s Chip Elitzer and others, to have a single district-wide tax rate to fund Berkshire Hills, as is done in the state of New York, rather than have the district bill the towns separately and mostly according to their respective enrollments.
But moving to a larger governmental or taxing authority could prove problematic. Though there are still remnants of what appears to be county government in the Berkshires, they are largely illusory.
Both the Berkshire County court system and the county sheriff’s office are actually arms of the state government, and have been at least since county government was formally abolished 17 years ago.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli worked in county government when it was still in effect. Pignatelli was a county commissioner from 1995-1999, serving as chair of the county commission for two years. His father John was a county commissioner for 20 years during the 1970s and 80s.
“That’s when it was a good legitimate regional government,” Pignatelli, referring to his father’s time as a commissioner, said in a Edge interview. “When I was a commissioner in 90s, the state had already broken it down and diminished it. The state wasn’t committed to it at all.”
Only a few months after county government officially ended in 2000, residents managed to place an initiative on the ballot that would have created a Berkshire County regional council of governments, of the sort that was created in neighboring Franklin County after county government was abolished there in 1997. Similar regional councils of government (known as “COGs”) exist in Connecticut, which formally abandoned county government in 1960.
The Berkshire County Council of Governments would have created a voluntary regional services organization that would also advocate for the county and would provide, in the words of one Williamstown selectmen who helped draft the proposal, “an opportunity for the cities and towns of the Berkshires to speak with one voice and take advantage of some economies of scale that would be available for joint purchases and bulk bidding on some goods and services.” Pignatelli said the proposition failed in 32 of 33 towns.
“We spent a year and a half researching it, and we brought it to all the towns,” Pignatelli recalled. “And here we are 16 or 17 years later having that same conversation.”
Pignatelli does not support a return to county government but has long been an advocate for towns becoming more aggressive in sharing services. The 17-town Community compact, signed by member towns and celebrated with a visit by Gov. Charlie Baker to Great Barrington, was created as one of Baker’s first executive acts in January 2015.
The compact is a voluntary, mutual agreement entered into between the state and individual municipalities for a variety of initiatives designed to control costs and achieve economies of scale. It eventually resulted in the realization of sharing opportunities this year that included Lee and Lenox sharing a town manager, Christopher Ketchen.
“I don’t believe county government would work in this day and age in the Berkshires because we’re still so parochial, although sub-regionally there’s endless possibilities,” Pignatelli said. “That’s what shared services are all about.”
Pignatelli did not single out any specific towns, but when asked he did confirm that there is no reason why a tiny town that has its own police department such as Monterey (pop. 800), could not contract out to a larger town like Great Barrington for police coverage through an intermunicipal agreement of the sort signed by Lee and Lenox.
Pignatelli pointed to Alford, which is even smaller than Monterey, and does not have its own police department but contracts out to the State Police for service.
One of other organizations regionally that some might think is a vestige of county government is the Berkshire County Regional Planning Commission but it has no taxing or legislative authority, as counties do in the state of New York, for example.
BRPC is a regional planning agency for Berkshire County but it cannot set policy. It performs studies and provides services for the county’s towns, including economic development, environmental and energy planning and transportation.
Nat Karns heads the BRPC. He has been in Berkshire County for 28 years and so was around when county government was abolished. He said county governments across the state “had generally been viewed as expensive and ineffective.”
“Cities and towns had to pay what they viewed as an exorbitant amount to support county government,” Karns said in an interview. “Basically Pittsfield and North Adams controlled the advisory board that set the budget, so large numbers of communities felt they had no say.”
Pressure was then applied on Beacon Hill and the legislature was receptive to eliminating county government where it appeared to be most ineffective. Franklin County had “seen the handwriting on the wall and had done an orderly transition,” Karns explained.
Even among those counties that are still said to have government, it is pretty much in name only. John Birtwell is director of public information for the sheriff’s office of Plymouth County, one of the five that technically still operates with county government. He said corruption scandals also played a part in the legislature’s decision to abolish county government.
“County government still exists in Massachusetts, but it is a shell of its former self,” Birtwell told the Edge. “In 2010, the so-called county sheriffs became essentially state agencies, when their budgets became wholly funded state line items.”
The Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office budget is now fully funded by the state. Even when the office, which runs a prison and a civil process court, “derives a relatively small income from civil process, and reimbursement from the feds for contracted beds … these monies are turned over to the state general fund,” Birtwell said.
The closest thing to county government in a form its advocates would recognize is in Barnstable County, which comprises all of Cape Cod. There is an assembly of delegates with some legislative authority and the county taxes each town government for regional services.
The move away from county government in the 1950s had similar roots in Connecticut, where then-Gov. Abraham Ribicoff led the charge to abolish county government, which he called “a museum piece” — “eight little empires” that exist “for purely political purposes of power, prestige and patronage.”
One of the reasons county government exists in other states is that there are areas in counties that are not incorporated as municipalities and therefore must obtain local government services the state cannot provide.
In New England, with very few exceptions, all settlements are part of a town or city. The only exception is in Maine, where more than 400 settlements known as the unorganized territories have no municipal government and so services are provided by the state and the county.
Some problems in Berkshire County beg for a regional authority to settle disputes among towns such as the expense of maintaining the Stockbridge Bowl, says Michael S. Nathan, a board member of the Stockbridge Bowl Association.
The bowl has an invasive aquatic weed problem but, as a so-called “great pond,” the bowl is owned by the state. However, the town of Stockbridge alone is responsible for the expense of fighting the plague of milfoil and other maintenance issues.
This creates crosstown friction since multiple towns use the bowl, especially with Lenox, whose residents comprise more than half the boaters in the summer. The Stockbridge Bowl Association and the town checks every boat that uses the public launch for zebra mussels.
“This year we decided to see who uses the boat launch,” Nathan said. “The numbers are astounding.”
Lenox residents make up fully 55 percent of the boaters using the bowl, while Stockbridge trails far behind at 16 percent, followed by Pittsfield (15 percent), Lee (11 percent) and Great Barrington (3 percent).
Nathan, who is also a member of the Stockbridge Bowl Committee, a town panel overseeing all aspects of the bowl and the town park abutting it, said his town has approached the town of Lenox about helping to fund maintenance projects at the bowl but has been rebuffed.
“We need some sort of central government,” Nathan said. “Imagine if the state told Lenox it had to admit anyone into their schools and not charge tuition.”
Nathan is convinced the lack of a regional authority has the effect of pitting towns against one another and that a regional government would be more inclined to take into account “the common, bigger good.”
Back to the education front: John Hockridge, who chairs the Berkshire County Education Task Force, told the Edge he agrees that the issue of how a taxing authority would be organized is an important one if the task force’s vision of one countywide school district is to be realized.
“I think the issue raised is a correct one and needs to be explored,” said Hockridge.
To that end, at the task force’s next meeting on Oct. 7 at 9 a.m. at the Nessacus Middle School in Dalton, State Auditor Suzanne Bump will present her office’s “findings and recommendations concerning structural issues in the funding of regional school districts — specifically as to how it relates to discouraging further regionalization,” Hockridge said.
Meanwhile, Pignatelli said fewer full-time residents, a graying population and rapidly declining school enrollments means it is imperative for more towns to start sharing services and for school districts to consider mergers, as Berkshire Hills intends to pursue with Lee and Southern Berkshire.
“When you look at the Berkshires compared to the rest of the state, we’re smaller, we’re older, we’re sicker, we’re poorer,” Pignatelli said. “We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing it. I’m not an advocate for a regional government, but for the next generation, we need to be sustainable.”