Questions and Answers
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Hello. My name is Patrick White and I am running to serve as your Stockbridge Selectman. I want to share my thoughts with you on some specific issues in front of the town. Please, feel free to submit more questions to me. If a candidate for office is asking for your vote, you have the right to know where he or she stands on the issues important to you. So here goes.
COVID-19 has made it harder to promote participatory democracy in small towns. How would you address this?
With town hall closed to the public, it's harder for you to exercise your right to participate in debates and decisions your government is making on your behalf. I believe the town should do everything it can to promote transparency and debate, so that if you have something to say, you can say it a way that is heard not only by your town's leaders, but by the rest of the community.
Our current policy, that you are welcome to call a selectman after the select board has taken a vote, makes no sense to me. Great Barrington takes questions at Select Board meetings by holding up a piece of paper with a phone number allowing its citizens to call in during the question period and before the board votes on a given issue. I like this approach. It's easier to manage than a Zoom conference (appropriate for the other boards in town).
Beyond that, you are always welcome to reach out to me via a call, text or email. My phone number for calls or text is 413-298-2125. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Part of the job is to encourage, not discourage, your participation in the decision-making process.
There's been a kerfuffle in the paper lately regarding spending in the wake of COVID-19. Where do you stand on this?
This is a complicated question so bear with me.
First, I believe when the select board votes to spend money, it is spending your money. These are your tax dollars. Pandemic or no, that decision should not be taken lightly.
With regard to spending during the pandemic, I believe these decisions need extra scrutiny. We don't know yet whether this will go away on its own, like the president says, or will be a long-term crisis that will shake the foundations of our economy and our governments. So, here's how I would approach things. First, I would evaluate capital spending and operational spending differently. For example, there's some repair projects (bridge, Chime Tower, Civil War Monument) we will need to address relatively soon. In each of these cases I would want to hear from engineers: if a given repair is so critical that we face some chance of imminent disaster then by all means, appropriate the money. If the projects can wait until 2021, I believe we should wait. As for parking, the town used to use the space by town hall below the tennis courts to provide a relief valve for parking in certain situations. I support looking at creative ways to augment our current parking before spending tax dollars to buy downtown property, at least this year with the uncertainties around the pandemic.
If we are going to embark on capital spending, then let's be smart about timing it with our ability to refinance other bonds when we have the right to do so. For example, in 2021 we have a bond from 2013, due in 2025 that can be called (refinanced) at a potentially lower interest rate than what we are paying. I would work with the finance committee to determine the best way to save money as we spend money. It's a little harder and more work, but let's be smart about how we spend. Our tax dollars go further thay way.
As for operational spending, I think we should be very cautious this year. I support the idea of skipping the OPEB payment as the finance committee suggested. I think we need to evaluate every proposal to spend through the lens of uncertainty we now face.
What should the town's role be in addressing the pandemic?
The simple answer is maintain the character of the town and support our citizens however we are able.
Some examples: Lenox is running a free daily meal program out of its Community Center. Just call up and volunteers deliver a daily meal for each member of your household. It's great for anyone who wants to minimize trips to the supermarket or for whom food security has become an issue. I love what the Congregational Church is doing with the Lost Lamb on Thursdays. I would support expanding and contributing to that program, possibly engaging and paying other Stockbridge restaurants to pick a day of the week so that we had a daily meal available to anyone who wants one.
Economically, we need to be cognizant of the fact that some individuals and business owners may need relief, or at least a delayed due date, to make their tax payments to the town. I believe we should be prepared for late payments based on need, to make sure at least in the short term that no property is seized for overdue taxes. These problems could get much worse if the pandemic drags on. This is one of the reasons I want to take a hard look at other areas of spending in the short term.
You opposed herbicide in the lake when you voted on the Conservation Commission. Why? Now that the court has ruled, do you still?
Let me begin by reminding you that the town voted to ban herbicides in the lake at a town meeting 20 years ago. I believe that when the voters weigh in, it is the job of our boards to implement the will of the voters, which is what we did.
Supporters of the herbicide plan have pointed out the town doesn't "own" the lake. The state does. That herbicides are legal in Massachusetts. Private organizations have the right to use them if they want. In a split ruling, the Superior Court largely sided with the lake association and ordered us to comply.
We are a nation of laws, so comply we will. I am heartened by the fact that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection seems to be taking a "go slow" approach to implementation. They want a more thorough assessment of the current state of the lake, and plans in place to monitor and ensure that native plants replace the milfoil once it is knocked back.
I've argued all along that herbicide should be a tool of last resort. That's the position of Mass. Audubon with use on their properties. I believe that is good guidance for us. With that in mind, I successfully advocated for the town to purchase a second harvester last year, which we were able to use to great effect to keep the outlet channel open for boaters.
As for the ownership question, the state may own the lake but it doesn't provide funding for the lake. You pay for the harvesters and staff. You will pay some of the dredging costs, which will be significant. To disenfranchise taxpayers from lake decisions may have been a good legal strategy, but I believe it is an affront to the voters of this town. You are expected to pay for the cost to steward the lake. You should get a say in the ways that is implemented.
Yes, but doesn't the town use pesticides on its properties and participate in the mosquito control program?
Yes, and I think we need to address that. Great Barrington is doing great work to ban the use of glyphosate (Round Up) on public property. Many oppose the mosquito control program. I believe both of these issues needs to be addressed. On multiple fronts, our Board of Health wants real-time, local surveillance that pesticide use is not creating untoward effects.
For me, this is personal. The cancer associated with glyphosate is lymphoma. I was diagnosed with lymphoma 11 years ago, which had spread to both my heart and my brain. I was told my only option was an aggressive treatment with four chemo drugs, that if they didn't get it all I would be dead in six months. I was told by my doctors to get my affairs in order. Lucky for me, I was successfully treated at Mass. General. It was the hardest year of my life, both physically and financially. You don't want to get this disease. Take my word on this one.
Beyond human health, these poisons get into our eco-system. Into our wetlands and eventually our water supply. I'd rather see a few more weeds in the cemetery. I would rather apply Skin So Soft or a non-toxic insect repellant than have our lands sprayed with mosquito killing poisons, which, by the way, kill many other types of insects. Beyond that, when I was a kid, you'd see bats out at twilight all the time. I haven't seen a bat in years. Killing their food supply isn't doing them, or us, any good.
That said, I support the efforts by folks to save critical habitats from invasives using very low doses of these chemicals to selectively treat phragmites, bittersweet, kiwi and the like. These efforts saved Kampoosa Bog. This is what I mean by "tool of last resort". In my opinion, Kampoosa was worth saving. Save it we did.
Do you use pesticide on your own property?
No. And I avoid buying flowers that have been treated with neonicotinoids, the kind they sell at the big box stores like Home Depot. These are associated with the collapse of bee colonies. Bees, by the way, are critical to farmers. Without them, many fruits and vegetables will not grow.
There's been a lot of debate on larger-scale developments in town? Do you support them?
I don't have a one-size-fits-all answer for this. As our bylaws are currently written, the select board must issue a special permit for these developments. I commit to give anyone who comes before the board a fair hearing.
I believe there are ways to develop large tracts responsibly. A good example of that is White Pines, the old Music Inn property. It's beautiful. There is a great deal of open space, fields and forest that encourage wildlife of all sorts. White Pines preserved the historic 1850s-era structures and built townhouses in character with them. I think it's a success.
The Commonwealth produced a Model Open Space Design / Natural Resource Protection Zoning sample bylaw in 2017. While in practice it is a development roadmap, it is written as a conservation document. I encourage you to read it by clicking here. If you want a good sense of my approach to these decisions, scroll all the way to the last page of this document. There you will find a page of "best practices". To the degree that development proposals adhere to this state guidance, I am open to them. Proposals that flout these best practices I am much more likely to oppose.
Finally, let's remember that our area's natural beauty is an economic driver. One of the reasons our homes have valuations that exceed those in other parts of the county is that Stockbridge is beautiful. West to east along 102, north to south along Route 7, from downtown to Mahkeenac to north Stockbridge. Glendale, Interlaken, Agawam Lake. We are blessed by beauty. As a town, we never embraced strip mall tourism or over-the-top density. Does that mean we should reject all growth? Of course not. Should we take a keen look at proposals? Absolutely. Stockbridge didn't happen by accident. We won't wreck it on my watch.
You talk about the need to attract first-time buyers and young families. How do you do that?
For a good sense of what this town was like when I was growing up here, just visit the Norman Rockwell museum (for now, you will have to do that online). There were kids everywhere, like three or four times the number of children than we have now. My mom and dad, Ronnie and Russ White, bought my house for $10,000 in 1960. She was 22 and he was 26 and she worked at Music Inn and Wheatleigh and he had an entry-level job at General Electric. Back then, a young, hardworking family could afford to buy here. It's much harder now.
In some ways we are the victims of our own success. Most of the Tanglewood property is in Stockbridge. It's made our property valuations soar, which is great for full-timers who bought a long time ago, at least on paper. It's made it harder to afford to buy here if you are starting your family or career.
I would like to make it easier for young families to buy here. To afford a house, you need a down payment and you need to be able to make the monthly mortgage and pay the property taxes. We can use some CPC funds to subsidize first time homebuyers and help with their downpayment. We can make it easier for folks to afford their mortgage payments by allowing them to add an accessory dwelling unit (or ADU, think a small apartment above the garage) to get some rental income. We can consider a residential exemption, a state-approved property tax policy that would significantly reduce the property taxes for homes valued at less than $500,000, while slightly increasing the tax burden on absentee AirBnB rentals, second homes and homes valued above $1 million. These common sense policies could breathe new life into the town, making it more affordable to young families.
The jobs situation has been dire since GE left in the 1970s. How do you attract the jobs that young families need?
There is a huge exodus of folks from cities that will happen over the next five years due to the coronavirus. There will be a huge trend toward remote work. Twitter and the other big tech companies are already embracing it. Some have said folks can work remotely permanently. Jobs no longer have to be in Pittsfield. Fast networks and Zoom have proven that. Over the next 25 years, roughly half the housing stock in this town will turn over. Who do you want buying those homes? Younger full-timers who will raise their family here? Second homeowners who add to the community just two or three months a year? Absentee short-term rental owners who simply milk Stockbridge to make money on her? Once again the trends are clear, and we can do something about this. Downpayment incentives. Tax strategies that favor full-time residents. Limits on rental days a short-term rental owner can rent per year, similar but more restrictive to what Lenox did. These policies can, on the margin, impact what kind of community this is. It's hard work to develop them and put them into place. I am willing to do that work.
Regarding housing, I do not want to downsize and I hope to age out of my house straight to the funeral home. Why should I support your ideas on elderly housing?
That is the wish of all us! Both my mom and dad died in this house. My mom was on the porch reading. Seven years later my dad was mowing the lawn. Doing what they loved.
I was an econometrics major. I am a numbers guy fundamentally. Here are the numbers I am seeing. Roughly half of the town is over 60. That's nearly 1,000 folks. Let's say 80% of us (I am nearly 60 so I will lump myself in), can, as we all hope, slog it out to the end and go from home to hearse (I like alliteration). That leaves 200 people for whom that doesn't turn out to be realistic. Maybe it's because of arthritis or heart disease. Maybe it's because a spouse or partner passes first and he or she wants more immediate community to battle the loneliness. There are many reasons why 20% or even 10% of these folks over the next 20 years might want or need a downsized lifestyle. I believe we should have 30-50 units available for these folks. If you are one of the lucky ones and it all breaks your way, great. If not, do you want to have to live in Lenox Commons or Pittsfield to meet your needs? Do you wish this reality on your less fortunate neighbors? I would rather be in Stockbridge. I am not advocating this for the 80%. I am advocating it for the 20%.
Is natural beauty and open space important to you?
Natural beauty and open space are our number one asset as a town. You are talking to someone who has literally spent hundreds of hours volunteering for Laurel Hill Association and serving on the Conservation Commission. I have been elevated to President of LHA as of next February. Last weekend for example, I worked with a landowner to conserve over 30 acres of property, worth over a million dollars, who has agreed to donate it to LHA if we want it. We are working on a forestry plan for our properties. You don't need to convince me of the value of open space and Berkshires' beauty. Time is the one most precious asset we all have and I spend mine preserving and protecting this town we live in.
What do you think the town's priorities should be in addressing its zoning bylaws?
I understand why updating the Cottage Era Estate bylaw was a priority, after the controversy surrounding DeSisto/37 Interlaken. With COVID-19, there will be significantly less capital (financing) available in the short- to medium-term for developers. I think we now have the time to do this right.
More pressing in my opinion are the bylaws we need to address the ability for young families to buy here. That means getting an ADU bylaw on the books. Getting an AirBnB bylaw similar to the one Lenox recently enacted, limiting the number of days an absentee owner can rent out a property on short-term rental websites (I would carve out an exception for full-time residents, allowing them to rent one ADU or property they owned in town). I believe we need a bylaw to encourage large developers to contribute to an elderly/missing middle housing fund, similar to section 9.8 of Lenox's zoning bylaws. These bylaw changes would encourage young families while discouraging absentee speculators.
How would you work with the town administrator?
I am a big fan of our interim town administrator. I think he has good instincts and great experience. I am relieved he has agreed to stay on longer to help us select the best candidate we can to replace him. I believe we need to empower the town administrator to do the job, which means giving him the power to run the town's day-to-day operations. Too often it seems like the select board meetings are spent reviewing and approving the mundane. The board needs time to plan and execute the big picture. We need to trust the person we hire to execute it. I also believe that better empowering the position will inevitably lead to better candidates applying. Stockbridge has a reputation of being a hard place for a town administrator to succeed. We need to change that perception to attract the best candidates for the job.
There's a lot of nastiness in our national politics. How would you avoid that in our town?
I think it starts with an acknowledgement that town issues are unique. I don't care who you plan to vote for in the presidential election. I have no litmus test on beliefs. I think it's fundamental we treat the volunteers who give their time and expertise on town boards with respect. I feel the same way about voters who want to weigh in. I believe our policies should include lively debate. The best ideas are more likely to win this way. I have no patience for personal, ad hominem attacks, for using town government to settle old scores. I want to hear from you whether we agree or not. Think I am wrong? Convince me. I promise you I will listen with an open mind.
Have a question, a suggestion, a beef with any of this?
Call me. I want to hear from you. Happy to answer your questions, write them up if appropriate for this web page.
Please vote safely. Here's how to vote via early ballot.