Grants support shared services
More than $860,000 in Community Compact Cabinet grants were awarded statewide to 38 towns and eight school districts for potential efficiency and regionalization efforts.
Lee and Lenox gained an $86,000 award as town leaders move toward a potential agreement for a shared Chief Administrative Officer and an assistant specializing in human resources.
The Adams-Cheshire Regional School District was granted $28,000 to explore possible additional consolidation, while the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is getting $22,735 to assist Clarksburg, Great Barrington, Hinsdale and Lanesborough in planning economic development strategies.
Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen, who would be the two-town chief administrative officer, and Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason, set to retire on June 30, had applied jointly for $196,000 to jump-start the transition if the three-year inter-municipal agreement for joint leadership wins approval in both towns this spring.
The $86,000 grant to Lee and Lenox can be used for administrative and one-time startup costs if the agreement goes into effect, according to Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner for local services at the state Department of Revenue.
For enhanced technological services, a separate IT grant program would yield $110,000 for the two towns because they rank "right at the top" of potential applicants, he said.
Polito, in an Eagle interview, pointed out that partnerships between the state and towns are "100 percent community-driven. Local leaders decide what they want to work on for future improvements."
"We need to strengthen every city and town through best practices and to professionalize, modernize and innovate the way local government delivers services," the lieutenant governor added.
She touted the potential shared administrator for Lenox and Lee for eventual budget savings through strong leadership and better services for taxpayers.
"This empowers the communities to make their own decisions about the future," she said.
"This would be transformational," Polito said. "We have a strong tradition of local control, so for local leaders to consider working together is exceptional and makes it more likely that state funds would be available. This is a voluntary and funded program, the opposite of unfunded mandates."
Asked about reservations expressed by some citizens about a possible loss of local identity and control, Polito acknowledged that "it's a legitimate concern that needs to be at the forefront of discussion so local identity is not overshadowed. It takes the right person to be the shared administrator, who understands and respects the unique values that need to be honored and supported."
Cronin cited strong local support in Lee and Lenox for the concept.
"It's understandable that they're cautious about it because it's brand new and different," he said. "But all I hear are positive things from the towns for embracing the possibility."
"When you talk about sharing services, we want to see an up-front commitment by those involved," he said. "We don't want to supply funds when there's no appetite."
"We're hoping communities can step up and try something new as an example for other towns to emulate," Polito said.
On the prospect of shared leadership in Lee and Lenox, Cronin agreed that "we firmly believe that this will be a great positive example of one success story for other parts of the state."
"For us, this would be the first time that towns have come together to share a full-time administrator," he said. "If it can work there, we can use it as a model for other parts of the state facing budget and economic challenges because of a declining and aging population."
Friday's grants were the second round in a series first unveiled in late 2015, when more than $1 million was awarded to more than 70 towns.
"Our administration formed the Community Compact Cabinet, led by Lt.-Gov. Polito, to solidify state government's role as a reliable partner for cities and towns," Baker said in a prepared statement. "We are proud to announce the second round of grants to help cities, towns, and school districts from across the Commonwealth work together on improving their regionalization and efficiency efforts to better serve their residents."
The Community Compacts aim to improve how state government works with and assists towns and school districts to become more efficient with their financial resources.
Cronin stressed that state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, deserves great credit for advocating the shared services model.
"It makes so much sense for communities to be looking at this," Cronin said, "especially when there's an opportunity with town administrators retiring. State funds through the Community Compact program are set up for examples like this, to help a difficult local discussion and then get a really good success story."
Last month, Polito signed agreements with Lanesborough and Windsor to strengthen those towns' ties with the state government. Assistance is planned for housing and economic development, shared services with other towns and a consultant to work with the town on stormwater management.
Lanesborough gained a $15,000 grant to help pay for a consultant to spearhead efforts to market and solicit businesses for the town. Windsor will get assistance from the state to work with town officials on a long-range financial forecast and a capital plan for large, one-time projects.
Polito also took a walking tour of Pittsfield on Feb. 16 with Mayor Linda Tyer to view market-rate housing at the Onota Building, entertainment at the Beacon Cinema and at the Hotel on North. All three were developed through combined private and public funding.
Baker and Polito visited Great Barrington on Dec. 22, 2015, for a ceremony at Great Barrington Town Hall to sign an agreement to encourage collaborations of shared services, personnel and equipment among the 17 towns and six school systems in South Berkshire represented by Pignatelli.
Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-637-2551.
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