Williamstown: Hogeland Looking to Step Up to Selectman
By Stephen Dravis On: 10:18AM / Saturday May 10, 2014
Andrew Hogeland has served on a number of town boards; this election he's trying for a seat on the Board of Selectmen.
Editor's Note: Each of the four candidates for two open seats on the Williamstown Board of Selectmen sat down with iBerkshires.com to talk about the issues facing the town. This week, we are running excerpts from those conversations.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Andrew Hogeland has served Williamstown on its Conservation Commission, Planning Board, Finance Committee and the recently formed ad hoc Public Safety Building Study Committee.
This month, he hopes to add Board of Selectmen to that list.
The recently retired attorney and Williams College graduate says his experience in town government will be an asset as the board faces a number of capital improvement projects. And his experience as a Williams alum who came "home" to finish his career is one he hopes the town can encourage other alumni to duplicate.
In Hogeland's case, his career path took him to New York University for law school, private practice and six years in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and, finally, General Electric and Sabic in Pittsfield.
The Philadelphia native and his wife, Anne, another Williams alumna, put three daughters through Williamstown's schools.
Q: Are your daughters all around here?
A: One's in Pittsfield. One is in Colorado and one is mostly in Seattle. We had a remarkable year last year. They all graduated from something, and they all had jobs within a week, so that was a pleasant surprise.
Q: And that leads to the next part of our conversation. A pleasant surprise that at least one of your daughters was able to find a job in her career in Berkshire County?
A: Yeah, in nursing, for her, which was good. For the other two, I think leaving here didn't have anything to do with the job situation. I think it was other things going on.
It wasn't the economy that made them leave.
But for segue purposes, yeah, I think it would be great if the town paid more affirmative attention to economic development. I assume the Chamber of Commerce does some, but they could probably do more. I don't think the town as a town has done much focus on that.
The hope would be to come up with a plan and a schedule and a program for trying to lure more people and businesses to town.
Q: Do you see that as the town working more closely with some of the existing infrastructure that is there, like 1Berkshire or the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission?
A: I think probably part of the initial phase would be to understand what organizations like the chambers of commerce do and see what we as a town government can do to add to or supplement that process. The first part for me is learning what's already out there and how we can add to it.
The other leveraging part for me, besides the chambers of commerce, would be talking more specifically with the college about using their contacts and their alumni to see if we should suggest their alumni come back to town or stay in town.
The college alumni are people who, in many respects, are pre-screened, in that they already know what Williamstown's all about. The idea is if they like it here and like to come back for reunions at least, maybe they should come back and do something permanent.
Q: And do it before they're of retirement age?
A: Yes. I think the benefit to the town is to have people whose jobs are not geographically limited, but who can work out of an office or work on a computer. Why not work here in this pleasant environment rather than wherever they happen to be today.
Q: Of course, telecommuters don't necessarily bring other jobs with them.
A: Not necessarily, but I think there are a few cases where people have worked for a company for many years, and the company allows them to work out of Williamstown out of their house. I'd rather have that in the house than someone who is looking for work in that house. It's partly adding a job, but it also means that person will be spending their money in the neighborhood. They'll be going to restaurants. They'll be buying tickets to movies. They'll be buying cars, whatever. So it's the ripple effect of having people here with income that would help the town longer term.
Q: And the other piece is the tourism side of economic development, which I think everyone was pretty much in agreement about at the League of Women Voters forum. Some will say that the tourism jobs are not necessarily always good-paying jobs and often times they're seasonal jobs. There's some question of whether that's the kind of economic development the town ought to be pursuing.
A: Part of the reality is a lot of the economy today is based on tourism. Since we have that, one direction is to build on that.
Another direction is to look for jobs like ... I think I called them 'satellite jobs.' So what other industries or businesses would want to be near an academic center or near an arts center.
I think I gave the example of there used to be the Roper Public Opinion Research Center, which was housed at Williams College, which brought some number of jobs. It wasn't a college job or a tourist job, but they worked with the faculty.
The other example is the conservation lab at the Clark. There's no reason for an art museum to need a conservation lab, but happily they do, and there is some number of jobs there.
So part of the effort would be to talk to the people at the college and at the Clark about what other jobs might want to be located near them.
I don't think either one of those institutions is really in the business of job creation, but if they think about it differently, they might find a way to advance their own programs that creates jobs in the community as well.
Q: Let's move away from jobs for a moment because there was a lot of talk about economic development at the League of Women Voters forum. What are some of the other priorities that you see for the town or some other issues you see coming up in the next three years that the Select Board is going to have to address?
A: I think a big need is going to be intelligent financial planning on the three proposed capital projects: police, fire and high school.
I think it would be difficult to pay for them all at the same time, so part of the challenge is to look at the timing and sequencing of those three projects to see how we can mitigate the impact on the tax rate.
Q: In the last, say, five years have there been any times when you thought the town took a wrong turn?
A: I think initial focus on affordable housing got off to a bad start, but I think that over the last year, that effort recovered and they were doing an intelligent analysis and an RFP process on two different alternatives.
I think that was a positive improvement over where we were a year ago.
But nothing else comes to mind.
Partly we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the town manager, who has been able to keep the town running on a tight budget for many years, so we're in a good cash position. We have a lot of levy capacity left if we happen to need it. So that's helped to smooth out a lot of potentially rough paths.
Q: The town manager position might be one of the big challenges the Select Board faces in the next three years.
A: I think it's the unspoken agenda item, which is we may be asked to replace Peter Fohlin sometime, soon, whenever he decides to retire. As you know, he's hinted broadly that some time in the not so distant future, he may do that. I expect there's a good chance that some time in the next three years, we may be asked to hire a new town manager.
Q: And as one of the people who might be asked to conduct those interviews and that search process, what would you be looking for in a town manager?
A: I think the baseline skill set has to be a high level of competence and experience in the subject matter.
But I'd also be curious to see what the town manager candidates have in the way of economic development experience. At least from looking at the papers, other towns have people who do this job. We don't, and maybe there's a good reason for that, but I'd be curious to ask candidates what they have done or could do for that kind of development.
Q: I asked a moment ago what in the last five years the town may have done wrong. Can you point to anything that's happened that we haven't mentioned that the town has really gotten right in the same time frame?
A: I think what the town's done right is to be on a very fiscally responsible path in terms of keeping budget increases to a tolerable minimum and running the place efficiently.
Q: All but one of the candidates for Select Board is sitting on at least one town committee. Why is that kind of experience important?
A: I think several of the bigger issues facing the town are around the three building projects, and I've worked on all three. So in terms of being up to date and engaged in what's going on, I think that would help me significantly, I think, if I take the position.
The other experience I've been lucky to have is sitting on the Finance Committee for three years. That's been a great way to understand better the finances and especially the long-term debt picture of the town. So i think my learning curve will not be as steep if I didn't have all these experiences.
And longer ago I was on the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission, and I think it will be helpful to understand what those boards do.
Q: You already alluded to where the town was a year ago in terms of the housing issue and the rancor and all that. I'll take some of the blame for this, but you've been identified with the 'timeout' idea. Did that work?
A: I think it definitely worked. I think for the next year, the housing committee organized steps to issue requests for proposals, they did listening sessions throughout the town. They got two proposals, both of which they thought could do the job. And it's led to a decision. So I think as a process, taking that timeout gave us a much better informed basis for a decision.
Q: But the town never did use that time to fully look at the Lowry property. The Select Board asked the Conservation Commission to look at it and a month later withdrew the request. So, from that standpoint, and to the extent that building on Lowry was the lightning rod issue, was it a success?
A: I think the issue should be phrased in practical terms, which is where do we have the best chance of building affordable housing. The housing committee decided they had a better chance of building on Water Street or Photech, and they — I think correctly — decided that they would focus their attention on those two properties.
The Lowry property, for me, presents a large practical concern, which is it's not currently available. And you could lose many years of money, time and resources in trying to determine whether or not it is available.
So if I was in a position of looking at three properties and one had a much more difficult set of challenges, like Lowry did, in even getting it to be available, I'd rather spend my time on the two that have a better chance of success.
Q: Do you have specific thoughts about the major capital projects the town is facing?
A: I think maybe the other thing to point out on the school and the police and fire department issue is we're going to be asked to pay for something on those projects in the next two to three years. Coincidentally, the town's long-term debt has several bond payments which will end at about the same time.
So in 2017 and 2018, our long-term debt payments go down, by I think it's about $300,000, more or less. So coincidentally, that's an opportune time to ask people to incur new debt for one of these other projects.
So in terms of long-term planning, we're lucky there's an intersection coming up where our debt payments go down at the same time we're asked to maybe take on some new things. That would mitigate the tax increase, I think.
Q: And the feasibility study vote coming up with the high school?
A: With the feasibility study, what resonates the most with me is it's a chance that only comes around once every several years. To pass up this chance, you're basically asking to pay 100 percent of everything rather than 45 percent of everything. By voting for the feasibility study, you're getting the knowledge and also keeping alive the hope that someone else is going to pay for 55 percent of the school.
It's 55 from the state and 15 from Lanesborough [with the MSBA]. So in terms of opportunity leveraging, Williamstown is paying 30 percent of a huge project instead of 60 percent.
But I don't know what Lanesborough's going to do.
Q: What was your reaction to the town's decision on the affordable housing RFPs?
A: One thing I'd say about the housing decision is, I think it would be nice to orient ourselves toward making that decision effective.
I guess I was glad to hear the chairman of the housing committee, Van Ellet, last night speak up and say the housing committee is committed to making the Photech site a positive solution. Rather than revisiting the past on this, we should focus our efforts on making sure the Photech site is useful for a project that takes into consideration the design criteria around flood plains and neighbors.
The neighbors will need to be able to tolerate the final design. Their voices will need to be heard. As of today I'm optimistic we'd be able to find some solution that avoids flood plains and too many objections.
Q: Is the 'town-gown' relationship strong enough to help find solutions to Williamstown's economic issues?
A: The mission, if we could pull this off, would be to have both the town and the college think outside the box more about longer term economic development.
The college is primarily in the business of education, so it's not no their agenda to think about economic development. But I think they recognize, as the Clark recognizes that in order to attract employees to the area, it would be nice to have an area that has some economic vitality to it as well as good schools.
I think they'll recognize it's in their interest to support these areas. And then the conversation will be what can each of us do specifically to make all that happen.
The annual town election is Tuesday, May 13, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Williamstown Elementary School.
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