LENOX, Mass. — Local organizations have great long-term plans for the future of Berkshire County. But, state Sen. Adam Hinds said the state needs to get the "fundamentals right" before that can take hold.
Hinds spoke with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission on Thursday and reviewed the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. He said 1Berkshire also has a similar blueprint with how to revitalize the Berkshire economy. But, both plans are still two or more years away, he said.
"In the interim, we need to double down on getting high-speed internet right and double down on education," Hinds said.
The Pittsfield Democrat said population loss is straining municipal and school budgets and the county's median household income is trending well below state average. The lack of high-speed internet is making business development difficult.
"Unfortunately it is easier and easier to make the case that there is more need for investment in the western part of the state," Hinds said.
When it comes to broadband, Hinds said the Massachusetts Broadband Institute's push to bring broadband to all corners of the commonwealth only gets the county "to the starting line, not the finish line." He said the Senate has asked for a full accounting of the program and has requested town-by-town updates on a regular basis.
Once that is done, "then we can start talking about what are going to be our regional strategies."
When it comes to broadband, BRPC's Mount Washington representative Jim Lovejoy is concerned with the quality of the service. Last year, the state loosened up the requirements for a private company to provide internet. The state is now incentivizing companies like Charter to expand services.
But Lovejoy said those offered services may not be as good of quality for businesses.
"It seems we are setting our sights too low," Lovejoy said. "If we are talking about economic development we need the infrastructure."
BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said there are federal regulations in place because of the Charter's merger with Time Warner Cable to upgrade 80 percent of the "legacy systems" across the nation. But, Karns is concerned that Berkshire County could end up being part of that 20 percent that is not upgraded.
Sheffield BRPC representative Rene Wood said Charter recently pulled the Springfield news station WWLP, cutting a tie to Boston and state coverage. She said if Massachusetts is going to provide the money for a rollout, then the company should have to provide Massachusetts programming and not lump the Berkshires in with the Albany, N.Y.
Hinds said he's not happy with the decision to pull the channel either but, changing the region the county is in for television service is a federal thing. He's hoping U.S. Rep. Richard Neal will help with that.
"I'm hugely disappointed that a major tool of communicating with constituents is being torn away," Hinds said.
Another concern of Hinds is Eversource's proposed rate hike. Hinds said the last time such an increase was approved, three Berkshire mills were shut down. He believes if the rate hike is approved, it could be devastating to Western Massachusetts.
Hinds also discussed the ongoing budget. Next week the Senate will start deliberations on the Senate Ways and Means budget.
"I've pretty happy with the senate version of the budget. When it comes to education, it takes steps toward early education and the foundation budget," Hinds said.
But, the state is facing a $462 million revenue shortfall so, "this is not the budget year or the revenue year to take on major investments."
Nonetheless, increases to the foundation budget for education funding is "putting a flag in the ground and saying this is something we need to get serious about as a state."
Hinds said Massachusetts looks really good on paper in a number of ways but there is a disconnect, a disconnect he said leading to the state failure to balance a budget.
"It shouldn't come as a surprise that we can't balance the budget because our economy is out of balance," Hinds said.
He used the workforce figures as an example. On paper, the state is ahead in job growth. The same number of jobs were created from 1995 to 2000 as were from 2010 to 2015. However, the income increases for the more recent five-year period is half that of the previous period.
"Employment has shifted from higher-paying sectors to lower-paying sectors," Hinds said.
He is also calling for changes to the tax code, particularly with what's known as the Fair Share Amendment, to help generate revenue. He estimates the current tax code is missing out on $3.5 billion in revenue.
Wood raised additional concerns because a number of programs BRPC provides to rural towns had been cut in the Senate's budget — particularly the District Local Technical Aid program. Small towns rely on BRPC's technical assistance with municipal projects because many cannot afford to pay full-time staff.
"We depend on Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to have that money to help us," Wood said.
The funds for BRPC's help on such planning projects had been "zeroed out," Karns said. Meanwhile, Pittsfield City Planner CJ Hoss said the state is considering major overhauls to zoning regulations, which will require a heavy amount of work with no state funds to help pay for it.
Hinds said those funds are in negotiation currently. As for unfunded mandates like Hoss mentioned, Hinds said there is a bill under consideration that will require any such new laws be coupled with a financial study to make it clear to lawmakers the impact it will have on towns. He hopes that will help contain some of those issues.
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