PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire Regional Planning Commission remains concerned about the funding for its District Local Technical Assistance program.
The organization lobbied for the state fund the program at $3.4 million during the budget season but ultimately the state Legislature funded it at $2.8 million — level with previous years. But, the administration hasn't released those funds yet and state revenues have been coming in lower than hoped.
"We think we will know more about DLTA next week, the 15th or so of October," said Assistant Director Thomas Matuszko.
Locally, the budget line translates to $200,000 that BRPC uses to assistant towns — especially the smaller ones with limited resources — on a number of projects. Past applications included updating zoning laws, master planning, Green Communities designations, solar bylaws, and mapping. Each year staff members are able to assist towns with 15 to 18 different projects.
"Without this funding, we estimates that 90 percent of the hands-on local assistance we have been providing to our cities and towns would be gone and we would lose at least one staff position," reads a memo from Executive Director Nathaniel Karns.
The program may not seem like much to major cities who employ staff to take on those type of projects, but it could hinder the smaller towns. BRPC Executive Committee member Roger Bolton said Berkshire County represents many small towns, which is disproportionate to other areas of the state. He fears that the project may eventually be pulled completely.
"It is just sort of a game in which the bureaucrats always have the advantage," Bolton said.
Matuszko said the organization has since reached out to many towns who have used the BRPC's services in the past to gain support. BRPC asked them to write letters to legislators in support of the program.
At the same time, the organization is looking at any ways to supplement the potential loss of funding.
"The good thing about the DLTA program was it was pretty flexible," Matuszko said.
There are an array of other programs the group is looking at that could support similar work, but none as wide-ranging as DLTA. One such program is a new efficiency and regionalization grant program, which is a tie-in to the Community Compact program led by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
A number of towns have signed up for the program and many are utilizing BRPC staff to do the work. That grant money to help with various best practices identified by the state could be used to hire BRPC staff.
Matuszko said the town of Lanesborough recently joined with four other towns on a project to hire an economic development staff. Bill Compton was hired by BRPC to fill a vacant planner position but the job will be focused mostly on economic development in those towns.
"This was something that was really promoted by the Lanesborough town manager," Matuszko said.
Compton will be working with five towns as well as the countywide Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, a federal program that could provide another avenue for towns to get grant funding for projects. He'll be able to focus on individual town issues while keeping a larger countywide view on economic development.
Lanesborough is expected to apply for Community Compact money to supplement those efforts.
Another avenue for possible help is through Berkshires Tomorrow, a non-profit organization established a few years ago by BRPC, which can use funds from private foundations to help with an array of planning activities. The non-profit could apply for private grants, which government agencies wouldn't be able to access, to help with specific projects.
"The mission of Berkshires Tomorrow is basically education in the broadest sense of the word," Matuszko said of the ways the non-profit funds could be used.
BRPC member Rene Wood suggested notifying towns early in the budget process next year in hopes each town will allocate budget money for BRPC services instead of relying on the state.
"For those communities who have consistently used the DLTA program, if prior to the budget cycle maybe something should be sent out," Wood said.
Bolton said in other small towns officials aren't entirely aware of the possibilities until an issue arises. Then, they contact BRPC, which can help because of the DLTA program.
"In some towns, it is not on any body's radar screen until they find they could use some services of BRPC under DLTA," Bolton said.
Karns is also serving on a rural policy board with others in the state and looking at rural issues and opportunities at a more in-depth level. So more options could come from that.
While those other programs may help offset the impacts, Wood said it is better for the organization to be prepared just in case the funding does dry up.
"I think we need to think of some other ways to support some of this planning because we may not have this money," Wood said.
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