A Note from Patrick White/January 8, 2024
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2024 and Beyond

First, happy new year to all. I wish you all health and happiness for the year, the decade, the century!

This note is long because we have a lot going on. It's not intended as a definitive statement on policy; rather it is a conversation starter. Your input is important. All these efforts are being discussed at public meetings. Please, be a part of the decision-making process.

While some of what you will read are personal initiatives of mine, most are the work of our town boards and committees. We have well over 100 volunteers working on your behalf. I write these notes to help keep you informed of the many efforts underway.

If your email is clipped due to the length, you can read this entire post on my website by clicking here.

Patrick White


The dial atop of Laura's Tower.

Budget

There will be some upward pressure on the budget in the coming years.

FY2024 budget

The Select Board, the Finance Committee and Town Administrator Michael Canales have worked closely to develop the budgets we have brought forth to Town Meeting. Michael is tasked each year with developing a proposal for the Select Board to consider, and it is the Select Board that "raises and appropriates" on your behalf. This past year, the budget included a spending increase of just 1%, compared with 4% to 8% for surrounding towns. We have controlled spending while still investing in the Town's overall needs. We accelerated the investment in our bridges. We funded significant paving projects. We successfully advocated for the renovation of all the historic landmarks on Main Street. We increased our investment in both the Chamber of Commerce and town programming via funding of the Cultural Council.

Let me just say this about Michael: He is very good at his job. He has added discipline to the budgeting process. He is easy to work with. He is a team player but also doesn't hesitate to give candid advice when he has a different perspective he wants to share. We talk daily and our confidence in him allows us to focus on many of the longer-term initiatives you will read about below.

Budget outlook: FY2025 and beyond

Expect the budget increase to be higher this year but still comparable to surrounding towns. We are in the midst of union contract negotiations, and our team of both union and non-union employees will be given pay increases at or above the rate of inflation, so that there is no erosion in the real dollar purchasing power of the paycheck they bring home to their families. In the coming years, depending on Town Meeting votes, we may see increases in the school budget due to the anticipated reimagining of MMRHS, we will consider funding the dredging of Stockbridge Bowl, and we anticipate increased costs related to fire and emergency medical services. You must know by now that I am very concerned about the ability for townsfolk to afford their taxes. Rest assured; we will continue to work to keep these increases as reasonable as possible. Specifically, Michael has done solid work with our town department heads to begin to implement zero-based budgeting as opposed to incremental budgeting. We will continue to expand these efforts to offset increased staff salary costs.

Finally, one of the areas of the town budget we have and continue to address is the issue of pay equity. This year, we will advocate for the same cost-of-living-based increase for our non-union employees that we are negotiating with our unions.

Environment and Climate

Climate change poses many challenges to the health and well-being of the town and the environment. Here are some ways we can tackle them.

Decision Making and Enforcement

Two years ago, the Select Board added a Conservation Agent to the Town Budget. We have been working with David Cameron, who formerly ran the Western Massachusetts DEP Wetlands Division. If you want to see how valuable he has become to the Town, just watch a ConCom wetlands permit application or a Planning Board meeting where an LPOD permit is being considered. There is also a lot of activity around doing better in terms of enforcing the laws we already have on the books, namely the stormwater bylaw as it relates to clear cutting and the Town and State wetlands bylaw. We try to strike a balance between being reasonable and ensuring that applicants follow our procedures before doing impactful work. We also endeavor to follow through on ensuring the commitments applicants make as a condition of permits is implemented as proposed.

Agriculture and Forestry/Kampoosa Bog Stewardship Commissions

In the past few years, the Select Board resurrected our Agricultural and Forestry Commission and established the Kampoosa Bog Stewardship Commission. Between the two, we have around a dozen volunteers doing tremendous work to advocate for our farms, steward our forests, and protect Kampoosa Bog, a rare and important calcareous basin fen that is home to many globally-rare endangered species. Please thank these volunteers for the tremendous work they are doing.

Kampoosa Bog Pilot Animal Crossing Culvert

Speaking of Kampoosa, the state has proposed a federal grant of over $3 million to redesign a culvert on route 7 and enlarge it so that it can serve not only as a stream crossing but as an animal crossing as well. It's an example of our renewed efforts to work closely with state and federal partners to bring investment to Stockbridge.

Ice Glen's Old Growth Forest

We continue to manage the treatment of both Ash and Hemlock trees to save our Old Growth Forest. Did you know that of the 7 million acres of land in Massachusetts, only 1,200 or so acres of old growth still exist? Ice Glen contains over 30 acres of old growth trees, some of which are approaching 400 years old. Protecting these trees, in the face of unrelenting attacks by invasive insect pests, is a huge and ongoing task, but one that so far, we have been able to accomplish.

Stockbridge Bowl Watershed

We are making a lot of progress in terms of focusing our engineering partner, GZA, on accomplishing critical path tasks related to the dredging project. Make no mistake, protecting that lake is critical to the town in three ways: environmentally, recreationally, and budgetarily. It's why I support the dredging project.

We know that water temperatures will rise with climate change. We must ensure we can offset the impacts of warmer temperatures on the risk of cyanobacteria. Dredging will keep the water temperatures cooler.

We also know that replacing septic systems within the watershed with sewer expansion will reduce the nutrient load, which in turn reduces the chance of cyanobacteria blooms. The Water & Sewer Commission is in the process of producing a master plan for sewer expansion. I have and will continue to advocate for expansion of our sewer system on the west and north sides of the Stockbridge Bowl, as well as in the areas of town with existing homes where we are experiencing failed systems.

MVP

In my first year on the board, Green Communities chair Laura Dubester and I managed the Municipal Vulnerabilities Planning grant process with the state, putting in place the Town's MVP plan. The plan documents the climate challenges we face in our town and details our priority actions to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Having a plan in place is a prerequisite to applying for action grants, funding to implement the plan. To date, we and our partners have received grants for two high-profile projects. The first grant allowed us to work with several surrounding towns to assess every one of our town culverts. The second grant related to our efforts to partner with the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans to preserve 351 acres at Fenn Farm/Monument Mountain.

Land Preservation/Conservation Funding

We continue to keep an eye out for parcels that have conservation value to the town. I worked closely with town hall staff to identify opportunities to claw back unused Community Preservation Funds, some dating back nearly 20 years. Ericka, our Town Treasurer, has done fantastic work to support and improve upon these initial efforts that predated her. This year, we have over $1.1 million in available CPC funds due to these efforts, which is over three times the typical amount available for CPC.

Tree Plantings

Speaking of CPC, I will propose an aggressive effort to plant up to 1,000 trees per year with CPC funding for this year's cycle. We have seen the mass die-offs of Chestnut and Elm trees. We are experiencing a similar die-off of Ash, Hemlock, Beech, and other species. We need to be replacing these trees with hardy species that are pest and climate change resistant.

Fence Removal

Just a few days ago, I witnessed a bobcat get stuck under a rusty old wire fence in my neighborhood. We know a lot more about wildlife migration patterns and needs than we did a century ago. Fencing does little to protect you and your property while creating significant and even cruel impediments to wildlife. First, I'd like to encourage you to remove fencing, especially old and rusty wire and chain link fences. Second, I plan to explore whether CPC can fund grants for nonprofits and private landowners to remove old fences.

Housatonic Rest of River

The settlement is the beginning of the process, not the end.

Settlement

The settlement agreement between the five Rest of River towns, GE, and the EPA is imperfect. It was signed by all five towns' select boards in 2019 before my term of office began. It is critically important that we work with all our neighboring towns over the next 24 months to ensure we have as much influence over the details as possible.

Transparency

The Town is working to get as much detail as legally possible released related to minutes from past Rest of River meetings.

Trucks vs. Trains

Stockbridge has joined with its Rest of River partners and West Stockbridge to insist that the EPA and GE preference rail transport of PCBs over truck transport. Managing this project, with its duration of more than a decade, is essential to the health of our residents and the economic health of our town, including tourism and property values.

Zoning

There's a great deal of activity at the state level surrounding zoning and land use. We need to see how these initiatives play out and how they will impact the town.

ADUs and Short-Term Rentals

The governor has proposed legislation that would allow accessory dwelling units by right. In resort towns such as Stockbridge, this might on the one hand help with housing, but on the other might upend the real estate and hotel market by impacting short-term rentals. We are monitoring these initiatives and evaluating whether we will propose modifications to our short-term rental bylaw to ensure that we protect our neighborhoods.

Main Street

With new merchants, a new school, and restorations, a Main Street renaissance is under way.

Monuments, Fountains, and the Cemetery

We have completed the restoration of the Civil War Monument and the restoration of the bells at the Children's Chime Tower. The Fountain Committee is working to complete the restoration of the Cat & Dog Fountain and the Watering Trough. At the other end of Main Street, the Cemetery Commission has done fantastic work to repair and clean headstones in the old portion of the cemetery and is actively pursuing a plan to save the 19th century hearse building on the grounds.

Old Town Hall

The Berkshire Waldorf High School plans to close on its purchase of Old Town Hall this month (full disclosure: I am the Chief Financial Officer). This project is as the last, best hope to save this iconic building and breathe new life into Main Street. Thanks to all who worked tirelessly over the past 15 years, who refused to give up on this historic structure that dates back to 1829 and is such an important part of the town's history. The presence of the school also helps our local merchants in the off-season, as the students and staff buy thousands of lunches each year from our local eateries.

Crosswalks

We completed the redesign of our Main Street crosswalks, which will be painted this spring.

Community and Advocacy

Our government is a force for good. Let's use it to continue to strengthen our community.

Council on Aging

Polly Mann Salenovich is making a lot of progress as the new COA Director. Just take a look at the January flyer to see the fruits of her efforts already apparent. Keep up the good work, Polly!

Pine Woods and Heaton Court

Efforts are underway to add playground equipment and revitalized gardens to Pine Woods, and the town helped fund both the garden boxes and community space improvements at Heaton Court. I strongly support efforts to continually improve the quality of life in these communities.

Housatonic Water Works Intervenor

As a named intervenor for the rate increase, I have worked closely with Town Counsel to protect the interest of Stockbridge ratepayers on the HWW system. We have filed comments with the Department of Public Utilities and have a scheduled conference with the Attorney General's office next week.

Library

I want to applaud the Library Board and staff on their stewardship of our library. While many towns fund their entire library budget, Stockbridge taxpayers have traditionally funded just 40% of ours. This year, that may be inadequate. My position is clear: we must protect the library from budget cuts and reduced services, even if that means increasing our share of the library's budget. I recently signed up to make a monthly donation, which you can do from their website. We can all do our part during the library's fundraising efforts.

I also point out that unlike town employees who get a benefit of funding for pension and post-employment health insurance, library staff gets no such benefits as employees of a non-profit. I will consider support for a supplemental appropriation, beyond the town's share of the operating costs, to contribute to library staff members' 401k retirement plans, should the Library Board make such a request. I believe strongly that we must ensure folks who work for our library, like our town, have a living wage and funded retirement benefits. I also think these efforts help to attract and retain staff in the face of exorbitant increases in the cost of living and housing in our area.

Municipal Aggregation

We have completed efforts to join other Berkshire towns in the municipal aggregation of electricity purchasing. Once approved by the Commonwealth, which is backlogged, this should protect you from spikes in electric rates like what residents experienced last year.

Beach Upgrades

Thanks to the Highway Department and the Parks and Recreation commissioners for the nice work they did to implement the redesign of the beach parking lot. This year, under their leadership, we are adding more kayak racks and making further improvements to the beach itself.

CTSB and Zoom

CTSB-TV plays a vital role in transparency and is in the midst of a funding crisis due to folks replacing cable subscriptions with lower-cost streaming services. There are initiatives at the state level to fund this deficit. Should that legislation fail, I will strongly advocate with our partners in other towns to continue to fund CTSB and ensure its long-term viability. I remain absolutely and unequivocally committed to keeping all our town committee meetings available via Zoom and, after the fact, via on-demand streaming.

Boat Ramp

Efforts are underway to improve the boat ramp, as we funded at the last town meeting. Michael is working closely with our state partners to move this project forward.

Micro Transit/On-Demand Rides When You Need Them

Thanks to my colleague Jamie Minacci for serving as part of the team that got Micro Transit funded. Avail yourself of this awesome service: on demand transportation when you need it.

Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans

The Fenn Farm purchase is historic. Now the task is to bring our communities together.

Fenn Farm

It was an honor to work with the tribe, with land preservation nonprofits from Stockbridge and throughout the county, and with the state's MVP team to secure funding for the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans to preserve the Fenn Farm/Monument parcel. The land is in probate, and we look forward to the closing of this purchase soon.

Document Return

We have returned the documents to the tribe that was authorized at Town Meeting in 2021 and approved by special legislation and signed by the governor.

Housatonic River Signage

Three town residents approached me with a novel idea: to partner with the Tribe on Housatonic River road signage. The Tribe likes the idea, and we will discuss this at an upcoming meeting of the Select Board. New signage will signal an embrace of not only how we can work together but also of the importance of the Housatonic River to our town. Look for the sign design in an upcoming meeting packet.

Stockbridge Mohican Commission

One part of this job I have found especially rewarding is to work with Shannon Holsey, Sherry White, Bonney Hartley, and others to advance the relationship between the town and tribe. The Select Board and the Tribe will bring forth a proposal to formalize this relationship at an upcoming meeting. Stay tuned!

Infrastructure

Infrastructure is a fundamental responsibility of town government. Here is an overview of our work in progress.

Roads and Bridges

We have major initiatives under way for both bridge repair/replacement and paving. These include the completed Main Street crosswalks, Larrywaug, and the first Averic Road Bridge; current efforts to repair the Tuckerman Bridge and replace the second Averic Road Bridge; and funding for repairs of the Memorial Foot Bridge at the end of Park Street via ARPA funds. We did all of this while still keeping the budget to a 1% increase last year, which translated into an average increase in taxes of just 1% as well.

I remain committed to finding a way to save the historic 1840s Curtisville Bridge. With the help of a town resident with an engineering background, we are exploring new options to do just that. We are working out a contract with a specialized engineering firm to ascertain whether the Curtisville can be saved and reopened to the public as a pedestrian bridge.

Water & Sewer

The Town has continued the work of maintaining our water and sewer infrastructure, including the Inflow & Infiltration study, the new pump station on Park Street, and ongoing repair and replacement of underground pipes.

Pine Woods Sidewalk

Finally, thanks to Christine Goretti for her work to secure funding from MassDOT for a sidewalk from Pine Woods to Church Street. This has been a town priority for years. The Select Board funded a portion of the project with ARPA funds, with the majority coming from MassDOT. MassDOT is in the process of an environmental review, the first step toward completion of this critical public safety project.

Public Safety

Your safety is one of your government's highest priorities. Here are some of our public safety initiatives.

New Police Hire

The Select Board voted to hire a new police officer at its last meeting, a gentleman named Officer Messina (yes, he is related to the current Officer Messina). Say hello when you see him on the beat!

Fire/EMS Discussions

Kudos to my colleague Chuck Cardillo, Fire Chief Vinny Garofoli, and Michael Canales for their work to ensure the long-term viability of our EMS/Fire services. We continue to work with Lee and other towns to enhance services. This is a complex, nuanced conversation that is progressing toward a proposal.

Ongoing Safety Issues

Thanks to the Police Department, Peter Dillon, Michael Canales, and advocates from Pine Woods to successfully move the school bus stop from 102 to inside the driveway at Pine Woods. Similarly, we addressed the question of the speeding in Glendale with the installation of a radar sign. We addressed the sidewalk locations to improve safety and ADA compliance on Main Street. Please, do not hesitate to contact us. You are the eyes and ears on the ground and we are listening and responding.

Housing

Our newest committee, the Affordable Housing Trust, is working on a number of initiatives to preserve our well-rounded community. Thanks to these volunteers for the hard work of establishing a game plan.

Housing Production Plan

Last year the Select Board funded the creation of a Housing Production Plan with ARPA funds. This is a comprehensive evaluation of the state of housing in Stockbridge. A draft of the final plan will be discussed at the Jan. 11 meeting of the Affordable Housing Trust. Once it is posted, I encourage you to review it and take part in this important planning process. Thanks to Jan Ackerman and the entire AHT team for this herculean effort!

Community Block Grants

Stockbridge is partnering with Bailey Boyd and the Town of Great Barrington on the next round of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which are grants to income-eligible homeowners to help them complete home repairs.

At our upcoming January 11 meeting, the Affordable Housing Trust will discuss its proposals for CPC funding, including impediment remediation. The state and federal grant programs that govern solutions like CDBG and insulation services often will not fund households with other conditions such as knob and tube wiring. Local funding to remove impediments is essential to ensuring that more homes—and homeowners—qualify.

Land Donation

Thanks to Kate and Hans Morris for their donation of land for housing on Glendale Middle Road. The Affordable Housing Trusts looks forward to working with neighbors and other stakeholders on a plan to develop this parcel in keeping with the character of the neighborhood, while providing housing opportunities for folks who are in need.

Heaton Court Expansion

The Affordable Housing Trust has been working with Andrea and the Stockbridge Housing Authority Board to explore options related to adding some units up at Heaton Court, including potential market rate units. With the continued exodus of longtime residents who need to downsize, I'd like to see us have more in-town options for elderly homeowners to consider if they decide to downsize.

Funding Initiatives and Options

Housing is expensive, whether we seek to build new units or renovate existing structures. I am committed to finding ways to build it without relying on property tax dollars. We are looking at all funding options available to us, especially important if we are to fund so-called "missing middle" housing for teachers, town employees, and others who are a necessary part of the fabric of a well-rounded community. Funding for missing middle efforts is notoriously absent from state and federal partners, so it is all the more important we explore ways as a region to augment traditional funding sources with local revenues.

We have begun to address the challenge of funding, specifically by adoption of a Residential Inclusionary Bylaw this past May. We will keep you apprised of other efforts as they materialize.

Schools

The new high school project is proceeding. The school district merger is not.

District Merger

As you are probably aware, the merger proposal for Berkshire Hills and South Berkshire Regional School Districts failed this past November. I appreciate the strong support for this effort shown at the Special Town Meeting by the voters of Stockbridge and applaud efforts by the district administration and School Committee to invest in our children and our future through robust offerings at Muddy Brook, DuBois, and Monument Mountain.

New High School/Vocational School

The new high school project is proceeding, albeit with a smaller school due to the failure of the merger initiative. This will include a proposal for additional Chapter 74 vocational school offerings. 50% of South County students either do not attend or do not finish college. A robust vocational offering is essential, if we are to encourage our young adults to stay in the Berkshires. Doing so requires vocational training to ensure they can earn a living wage working in their chosen field.

Town Scholarship Fund

To date, we have raised $3,511 for the new town scholarship fund, which passed at Town Meeting last year. We are in the process of working out the details to deploy this money to students and I am hoping to have that in place in time for the 2024 graduation.

Volunteerism

You are what makes Stockbridge exceptional.

Town Boards and Committees

I am an optimist, and in Stockbridge I have every reason to be. Many Berkshire towns have difficulty in finding folks to serve in either elected or appointed positions on their boards. Not here in Stockbridge. In fact, with nearly 150 positions on our boards and regional positions we are tasked to fill, we do not currently have a single open/unfilled position. That's a great testament to the strength and resiliency of this community. That's not to say we don't have opportunities to volunteer. If you want to get more involved, please feel free to contact me. It takes a village, and we have a great one!

Just so it's said...

This email represents my personal thoughts. It's not from the Town of Stockbridge, it's from Patrick White. It isn't an "official" communication! You can read all issues of this newsletter at www.patrickwhitestockbridge.com

Feel free to forward this email and let me know if you like it, or not. You can also sign up to receive it at: www.patrickwhitestockbridge.com

Patrick White
81 Hawthorne Street
Stockbridge, MA
413-441-5231
www.patrickwhitestockbridge.com

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