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Pittsfield to Welcome Syrian Refugees

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Some people can't go home. They are in fear for their lives and all they want is to be productive and happy.
 
They come from war-torn countries or areas wrecked by natural disasters. They come running from prosecution because of their religious or personal beliefs. They come wanting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And they hope to find that in the city of Pittsfield.
 
Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts runs a refugee replacement program in the Springfield area and is looking to expand into Pittsfield. The organization wants to settle 51 refugees from Iraq, Syria, and other Arab-speaking countries and give them the opportunity to assimilate into the American culture here in the Berkshires.
 
"These are people who cannot go home. They are in fear for their lives," Maxine J. Stein, president and CEO of JFS, said on Wednesday. "The whole idea is to get people standing on their own two feet."
 
The organization works with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the U.S. Department of State to run the replacement program. In Springfield, some 250 refugees were accepted and in the coming year, little by little, 51 more are eyed for Pittsfield and the surrounding area. JFS works with area landlords to accommodate rents and each refugee family is given a case worker who will help them find jobs and access needed health services. 
 
The federal government subsidizes the program and gives each individual $925 to last three months, which Stein said isn't enough for a first, last, and security deposit for a rent. So, the group arranges a housing situation first with landlords, brings the refugees in, and then starts the three-month process of getting them into a situation where they can sustain themselves. The organization solicits volunteers and donations to help these new Americans get back on their feet. By the end of those three months, the refugees are contributing members of society.
 
"I think the success of the program is the community partners," Stein said. "It has to be that we are doing this together."
 
The city has affordable housing units, an array of entry-level jobs available for refugees to start out at, schools with the ability to work with any students, and an array of community partners willing to step up and help, Stein said. Pittsfield has the right combination of assets to help refugees and experience with replacement programs in the past — it was a settlement community for a Russian-Jewish population during the Cold War. 
 
"This is a community that has done it before and they know how to do it," Stein said.
 
City Council Vice President John Krol has been involved with the plans for weeks now and says there is plenty of support from those in the housing business, the school system, and faith-based groups. 
 
"I think generally speaking there is a great deal of support for it," Krol said. 
 
For Krol, the issue isn't just one of compassion for those escaping war-torn cities and natural disaster sites, but also a boon for the city of Pittsfield. The city has been losing population and additional families will quickly become contributing members of the community, he said.
 
"People who come from other countries have a great work ethic and have a huge incentive to build a new life for themselves," Krol said. "By and large, these individuals and families are contributing positively."
 
Krol said Pittsfield was built by immigrants coming here to start new lives. Throughout the years there have been influxes of immigrants from different parts of the world and, eventually, the families assimilated well into the local culture. Not only that, but those immigrants also give back to residents here by providing the enriching experiences of understanding new cultures.
 
"We have a long history of successfully welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees in our community," Krol said.
 
Stein said refugees come with different skill levels and talent, but overall most are dedicated to making themselves a better life and are willing to take the jobs others are unwilling to do. And what that brings to the community is a sense of pride, greater cultural competency, enriched diversity, and a deeper workforce. 
 
"It increases diversity, which I think is important. They bring optimism and hope," Stein said. "This could be a very unifying thing for a community."
 
The national conversation, however, has been one of wariness about the refugees — particularly when it comes to safety. Krol refutes that argument and says the federal government has strong screening processes and very few refugees are dangerous.
 
"The statistics show the number of people who are dangerous to society is miniscule," Krol said. "There is a very strong vetting process the United States currently has for the refugees."
 
He countered the safety argument by asking "how can you ensure anyone coming into the community won't do something wrong?"
 
Stein also said the program is "very stringent and tightly held by the U.S. government." Not only does each refugee family have to be screened but so does JFS, which has been running such programs since the 1980s, and Pittsfield as a community. 
 
And the people of Pittsfield seem supportive, according to Krol. 
 
"There were already getting a lot of people reaching out from the Berkshires saying 'how can we help?'" Krol said.
 
JFS has scheduled a meeting on Monday at the Berkshire Athenaeum at 6 p.m. to explain the plans to the public but has been in discussions with community leaders for some time. While Pittsfield is identified as the main location to accept the refugees — particularly because of difficulties accessing such things as public transportation outside it — there may be some families finding homes in surrounding towns.
 
"There is no expectation that every one of these families will be in Pittsfield proper and not all of the children will be in Pittsfield public Schools," Krol said.
 
Mayor Linda Tyer is aware of the plans but has not yet taken a stance on the issue.
 
"This is the start of a long series of community engagement activities led by a coalition of community partners around this important issue. As the conversations continue, we plan to actively observe, listen and learn from those discussions as to how best we can serve those who may be our new neighbors," Tyer wrote in a statement on Wednesday.
 
Overall, Krol believes the city will greatly benefit from additional families while costing the city very little, if anything at all. 

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Pittsfield Continues Tax Classification Hearing Over Free Cash

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff

Mayor Linda Tyer says she wants to focus on building reserves. 
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday continued the tax classification hearing after clashing with the mayor over how much free cash should be used to offset the tax rate.
 
At the end of a nearly three-hour meeting, councilors and Mayor Linda Tyer were at a stalemate with the majority of the council unsatisfied with Tyer's $750,000 compromise.
 
"We are taking this out of the pockets of our taxpayers and putting it into the city coffers," Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers said. "I know that's how it works but at this moment we can afford to give some of that savings back."
 
The original proposal was a residential tax rate of $19.99 per $1,000 valuation and a commercial rate of $39.96 per $1,000 valuation, which holds the residential rate to a 57 cent increase and the commercial rate to a 2 cent increase.
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