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It’s Not That Simple: What’s in a name?

When boards are making decisions about what “we” want, the first “we” they have to think about is Town Meeting.

If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.

This column is a companion to the WSBS-AM radio show, “It’s Not That Simple.”  (Listen to the podcast here.)  We look at issues facing Great Barrington and explore the question, “why don’t they just fix it?” 

We discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple.

We do our best to steer clear of opinion and to just point out the issues that make the problems more complex than they might appear.

Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column. 

This week we spent a little time discussing the introduction (above) and the name of the program, diving a little deeper into the meaning of both.

*     *     *

If solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems. We say that every week and we really mean it. If there were an obvious and easy solution to a problem, why wouldn’t those responsible just take care of it? If there really is a fast and inexpensive way to fix the Division Street bridge, for example, then Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) must be either stupid or corrupt since they insist on a process that takes years and costs millions of dollars.

The goal of our show and of this column is to make clear that town and state committees, boards, departments and staff aren’t stupid or corrupt. They are very likely looking at inconvenient realities that aren’t apparent to casual observers (the rest of us), or don’t get included in newspaper accounts.

There are often layers of what most of us call bureaucracy: regulations, processes, and procedures that, by law, must be followed. We (on the outside) often accuse “the bureaucrats” of using those regulations as an excuse for inaction, but those obstacles were put in place for reasons, including historic or environmental protection, public and worker safety, or to prevent corruption. That doesn’t mean the bureaucracy shouldn’t be streamlined and some of those protections removed, or that town boards never make bad decisions. But if something that seems like an obvious fix isn’t being tried, chances are that the people who are studying the problem have already considered it and rejected it as impossible, impractical, too expensive, or illegal.

The Division Street Bridge has now been closed for essential repairs that will take several years.

Think about it for a minute. Is it really likely that any of us who are not engineers, town planners, environmental scientists, etc. will come up with a quick, easy, obvious solution to a problem that those professionals are too blind to see? Isn’t it more likely that they considered the obvious and easy solutions first? Maybe they bumped into some of those inconvenient realities that make the easy solutions not so easy, or correct decisions not so obvious.

The next line of our introduction is, Join us as we explore the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why sometimes, It’s Not That Simple. This is where we promise you that we will consider those inconvenient realities.

Example: Why has it taken the town so long to do something about the Ried Cleaners building? If you had a barn that’s an eyesore or falling down, you would decide whether you want to repair or replace it. Then you would borrow money, tear it down, and put up a new one. The whole process would take a few months or less. Then why has the cleaners sat there for years?

If you aren’t a regular reader of “It’s Not That Simple” you might say, “What’s wrong with those idiots at town hall? Tear the building down and pave it for parking or sell it to someone who will build something useful.” But as a regular reader of this column (or listener to the broadcast), you know there might be more to it than that.

Ried Cleaners building on Main Street next to the Post Office and across from the Mason Library. Photo: David Scribner

The Ried Cleaners building is a great example of It’s Not That Simple. Here are some of the inconvenient realities.

  • Until recently, it was private property. We are all thankful that we don’t live in a country where the government can just walk onto our property and take it away from us without a legal process. It took a years-long court process just to get access to the building. (‘What’s wrong with the courts?’ we might say. ‘Why don’t they speed the process?’ Maybe It’s Not That Simple. Maybe they have limited budgets and limited staff because we taxpayers don’t want to pay more taxes to fully staff them. Maybe the law sets a very high bar before giving the government the right to take away private property. In other words, maybe there is information we don’t have.)
  • Once the town has ownership of the property there are other questions that have to be answered, some of which are expensive and complicated to answer. The ground and possibly the building are polluted, but no one knows how polluted, or how expensive remediation will be, so Town Hall has to be very careful about how it manages that liability.As soon as the site is put to productive use by the town, the town takes on the full liability for the remediation.  Don’t we, as taxpayers, want our town leaders to know how much we will have to pay before we take on a project? Maybe tearing it down and creating 30 parking spaces is a good idea we would all support, but maybe fewer of us would support it if it will cost $2 million.
  • Once we know how much the clean-up will cost, the town will need money to do the work. That can come from grants which take time to get if we can get them at all, or we can ask the voters at Town Meeting to pay for it with an increase in property taxes, which will be faster but will cost local taxpayers more. Which is the right decision? Once the source of funds (Federal, state or local) is secured, the work can begin.
  • Or can it? Since the town will use public funds, it will have to follow state-mandated laws to seek bids to conduct the work, laws in place to minimize the chance of corruption. To fix your barn, you ask a few friends for recommendations and then hire a local contractor. It would be faster if the Town Manager could just call a contractor he trusts and get the work done. But what stops him from giving the work to a friend rather than the most qualified or most affordable option? Public procurement process stops him. Requests for proposals have to be published with a state-mandated minimum amount of time for bidder response.
  • Then remediation plans have to be vetted and approved, sometimes by several state or federal agencies, to make sure the work will be done safely. All of this takes time.

In other words, fixing up a polluted, privately owned, former dry cleaners is not as simple as fixing a barn.  At some level we all know that, but when we see an eyesore sitting abandoned for many years we sometimes get frustrated and forget. Then we fire off an angry Letter To The Editor asking what’s wrong with our town.

In our introduction we also talk about competing interests. What do we mean by that? Simply, we don’t always agree with each other. Let’s go back to our last example. Should Ried Cleaners be torn down and replaced by a parking lot or an apartment building? Many people would say, ‘great we need the parking spaces.’ Others might want to see a mixed use building with more retail and badly needed affordable housing above it. Others might bemoan losing an interesting and beautiful older building.

Beautiful? Some see it as beautiful and others as old and ugly. We don’t all agree and we never will. Some might want the property sold to the highest bidder while others want it sold to someone who will do something positive for the town, even if it brings in less money. That doesn’t mean some of us are stupid, or even wrong. It just means we don’t all agree so there is no answer that will please everyone. Yet someone, or some town board, will have to decide what to do with the property and when they do, no matter what they decide, some of us will think they made the wrong decision.

Here’s another example of competing interests. Our taxes are high, we need to attract sources of revenue to the town other than property taxes. We all agree with that, right? But what if that revenue is from marijuana retail? In the first year of legal recreational marijuana sales the town will take in between $1 and $2 million. Some people think that’s great; that’s a million dollars we won’t have to pay in property taxes. Some people, one third of GB voters, were against the legalization referendum and think pot shouldn’t be legal at all. Some of the people who voted to legalize don’t think it should be sold here in GB, even if it brings in $1,000,000. Clearly, we do not all agree.

We could have the same discussion about horse racing, or the Searles school becoming a hotel, or the new coop building or the affordable housing at 100 Bridge Street. Every one of these economic development ideas will bring money to the town but were met with legitimate opposition. The interest of those who want to slow the rise in taxes competes with those who want the town to look/feel/act a certain way. No one is right or wrong, they are looking at different things and disagreeing about which is more important.

There’s another limitation to getting things done “the way we want them done,” another competing interest. When boards are making decisions about what “we” want, the first “we” they have to think about is Town Meeting. No board or staff person has any authority beyond what is given to them by state law or Town Meeting vote. Our town boards don’t represent us. We represent ourselves at Town Meeting. Our town boards do what Town Meeting tells them to do. So maybe the reason an obvious solution hasn’t been tried is that Town Meeting hasn’t allowed that solution.

It is Town Meeting that says how much our taxes will be and what they will and won’t pay for. It is Town Meeting that says where marijuana retail shops are and are not allowed, and how many of them should be permitted. It is Town Meeting that decides how much money to save for future infrastructure repairs or new school buildings. We, every voter in GB, make those decisions which town boards have to follow. And we, every voter in GB, have the ability to go back to Town Meeting to change previous decisions and give town boards new direction.

Finally, we have gotten feedback suggesting that the title of the show is condescending. One commenter suggested that we retitle the show: “It’s Not That Simple So Shut Up You Idiot,” since that is what we are really trying to say.

Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. Please keep talking. Please keep getting involved.

As voters and taxpayers, it isn’t our job to know all of the “the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information.” That’s why we elect boards, appoint committees, and hire staff. We delegate the research and deliberation to people willing to spend more time. The people working on these issues, whether paid staff or volunteer board members, aren’t smarter than the rest of us, but they do have more information. Our intent, with this column and the radio broadcast, is to describe the issues and how they do or don’t get solved so that we, all voters and taxpayers, can be part of the process.

Keep making those comments and suggestions. Keep going to board and committee meetings.  Keep offering solutions. Good policy starts with the types of “obvious” suggestions and comments we deal with in this column, but good policy can’t end there.

What we ask on the broadcast and in this column is to remember this: maybe we don’t have all the information. Maybe the people who are considering the issue have already thought of our suggestion and rejected it after considering “the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask. It just means we might want to phrase the comment differently. “Have you considered…” rather than “What’s wrong with this town…”

We hope this column presents information that is not obvious.

On our next show we will read actual comments (edited for politeness) sent to our email (NotThatSimple528@gmail.com), our Facebook page, and this column, and discuss why, maybe It’s Not That Simple.

We are on the air every other week, Fridays at 9:05 am on WSBS-AM.

We encourage you to click here to listen anytime to the WSBS podcast of It’s Not That Simple for more details than we are able to cover in print.

Is there’s an issue you’d like to discuss on the show? Have comments about this or previous episodes? We invite your contribution of topics and concerns that may be of interest and that might seem simple to address. Maybe there IS an obvious solution that no one has thought of, or maybe It’s Not That Simple.

Email your suggestions or questions to NotThatSimple528@gmail.com, of find us at Facebook.

Next Show: December 6, at 9:05 on WSBS, 860AM, 94.1FM, Your Hometown Station.

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