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EPA Postpones Housatonic River Update

Nichole Dupont

Update: The meeting for Wednesday night has been canceled because of weather concerns, also known as snow. The EPA says it is rescheduling and we'll post the new time as soon as possible.

LENOX, Mass. — Just a reminder to concerned citizens, sportsmen, environmentalists and anyone else whose life will be impacted by the Housatonic River cleanup (namely all of us), that there is a meeting Wednesday night, Jan. 26, at 5:30 at the Lenox Town Hall auditorium.

The EPA Housatonic River Citizens Coordinating Council, which includes representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, GE, the state Department of Environmental Protection and local environmentalists and officials will meet to discuss the status of the Rest of the River Project.

The purpose of the meeting is to provide updates since the last meeting in October on several proposed projects surrounding the PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, dumped into the river by GE. These options include dredging the river to remove PCBs, proposed dump sites for PCBs, dredging and destroying PCBs using a new bacteria technology and letting the river remain as is, to name a few.

While several area organizations, including Berkshire Creative and the Berkshire Visitors Bureau are advocating for the "low-impact solution" that does not involve extensive dredging, still other groups, especially environmentalists, are demanding that the river be completely dredged and the PCBs removed and destroyed.
 
All opinions and suggestions are welcome as the EPA plans to move forward soon. In addition to this meeting, the EPA will continue to take public input and suggestions regarding GE's plan for Phase II of the cleanup until Jan. 31. To submit comments, you can visit the EPA website or e-mail Susan Svirsky, project manager for the EPA Rest of the River.

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Homeless Day Center to Open Next Month

By Nichole Dupont

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire Co-Act and other area human service organizations are moving forward with a plan to open a day center for the homeless at the United Methodist Church on Fenn Street. According to Co-Act Director Paul Deslaurier, the day center will open on February 3 and will be open from roughly 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. two days a week.

"There's a lot happening in terms of the day center," he said in a phone interview. "Anyone who needs support can come during the day and use the resources there. We're having a training for intakers and greeters on February 1 and then on the third, that will be our dry run. We're trying to coordinate with other facilities and existing organizations which offer meals and services and shelter. We're trying to find the best way to address and support the needs that people have."

These needs have increased as the temperature drops to brutal lows and the state unemployment rate stays steady.

"There are about 20 people here who are chronically homeless and who, for one reason or another, have been blackballed from the shelters here. Sometimes they can hang out at Dunkin' Donuts or the library, or maybe the hospital corridors," Deslaurier said. "This number does not include people who are in shelters and trying to stay clean, people who are couch hopping or living four to six families to an apartment and people who are living in their cars."
 
The day center will offer basic literacy and computer support and training as well as access to other support services in the area. It will be staffed by trained volunteers including retired social workers, college students studying social services as well as an intake clinician. Yet even in its intitial phases, he said that he knows that more is needed, especially from the city itself.

"We have 14 organizations that are participating in this effort. We're really drawing on the support of the faith-based community," he said. "This kind of collaboration has been uplifting. Unfortunately, I've been very disappointed in my city. In September I asked if there were some place they could propose that we could have a shelter. The mayor pointed me to the old prison on Second Street where we could only use the cell blocks in the basement. This was unacceptable. Where we are located is right across the street from City Hall. We're practically right in their face and there has been no support from the backdoor politicians. I've petitioned the city to pay for the utilities on the building, so far I haven't gotten a good response."

Utilities are not the only necessity required by the center, which Deslaurier and others had hoped to turn into an emergency night shelter as well. In addition to heating costs, the center (and possibly the shelter) also requires more volunteers, furniture, computers, printers and, of course, money.
 
"We are definitely going to need more staff and we need to be prepared for it to evolve," he said. "We have no funding and so we are reaching out to the community for help."
 

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Ask Not What Your State Can Do for You

Nichole Dupont

Not happy with what's going on in your state government? Well, now's your chance to do something about it, and win a little cash (actually a lot of cash — $10,000 to be exact).

The Boston-based Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research is sponsoring its 20th annual Better Government Competition.

The competition is open to all U.S. citizens, including students, nonprofits, entrepreneurs and muncipal officials, but the winning proposal will be developed and implemented in Massachusetts. This year's theme is "budget busters," and according to BCG director Shawni Littlehale, couldn't have come at a better time.
 
"We're always cajoling and looking for new ideas," she said in a phone interview. "It's a great opportunity for citizens to have their voices heard."

Of the roughly 250 proposals she receives every year, Littlehale said at least 50 percent are from officials in state or municipal governments. In fact, last year's winner was the mayor of Sandy Springs, Ga. His proposal, under the theme of "budget management," focused on the reduction or containment of Medicaid costs by providing housing for the homeless. The crux of his argument was that housing is a "medical intervention" and that homelessness is very expensive for everyone.

You don't have to be a mayor or a retired CIA agent to participate in the competition. Littlehale said the institute is ready to bring good ideas to fruition by providing the resources that a winner or runner-up will need to bring the proposal to completion.

"We will help them with resources for research and writing and databases," she said. "What I want is something really innovative and interesting."

She's not the only one pushing citizens to dig deep into their civic awareness and lend an idea or two. State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, is also encouraging citizens to consider sending in "smart government reform initiative."

"I urge my constituents to participate in this year's competition by suggesting new and efficient ways for public programs to operate," he said in a press relase.

Still skeptical? That's fine, according to Littlehale, but skeptical does not mean unconcerned, at least not for previous applicants.

"A lot of these bureaucracies have stayed the same. They need an injection of something new," she said. "The people who submit proposals genuinely care about the way government works. Many feel that it's not working correctly and really believe that they can change that."

If you have a good idea for fixing programs that are draining the already-sparse budget, put in your two cents. It may end up being worth $10,000 for you and millions for the state.

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