PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Rural towns can have unique challenges apart from their urban counterparts. And now the state is taking a closer look at these issues.
In 2015, the Legislature created the Rural Policy Advisory Commission and this year the group has been on a listening tour to dig into problems and situations that smaller towns are grappling with.
On Thursday, the tour was in Berkshire County to get a better understanding of the issues here.
"It will be the first time Massachusetts has really focused on rural areas," said Linda Dunlavy, the Franklin County representative on the commission.
Dunlavy said Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash tasked the group with developing a plan for rural areas. She outlined many of the issues already identified asked those in attendance to help determine whether those are specific to rural areas and if there are any other unique concerns.
"We don't want this to try to be a plan for all of Massachusetts. This needs to focus on rural issues," Dunlavy said.
The biggest issue Dunlavy sees is the demographics.
"In the most rural areas of Massachusetts, Franklin County, Berkshire County, and parts of Cape Cod, the population is declining," she said.
There are fewer people living in smaller towns and those who do are getting older. Dunlavy said the same trend is happening throughout rural areas whereas Massachusetts' population growth has been coming from foreign-born residents migrating to the urban areas, particularly in the Boston area.
"We aren't having as many kids, we aren't attracting people to our regions," she said.
The housing stock in places like Berkshire County may be less expensive. However, Dunlavy said transportation costs outweigh that. In Boston, 38 percent of a household's income goes to housing and transportation, in Springfield that jumps to 44 percent, and in the small town of Leyden, it is at 59 percent.
Clarksburg Town Administrator Carl McKinney pushed for a focus on both east-west rail and a rail line to the Albany, N.Y., area, the latter with a path into Vermont. He said that would allow people to live in places like Clarksburg and still be able to work in urban areas. In turn, that would also raise the demand for housing in Western Massachusetts.
Sheffield Selectwoman Rene Wood said the lack of connection to Boston also impacts civics. For someone in the Berkshires to attend meetings with state officials, it means an early morning and lengthy drive. And at the end of the day, driving back.
"We are being cut out from our participation in government," she said.
Williamstown Selectman Andy Hogeland is pushing for state officials to travel this way more often.
Dunlavy also highlighted that in rural towns 59 percent of the workforce is in for-profit enterprises while it is 66 percent in the urban areas. That puts rural areas in a more vulnerable situation should federal or state policies change.
"We also have more reliance on government and non-profit employment," she said.
At the same time, many rural towns have few people working for the municipalities. For towns with populations less than 1,000, there is an average of five total employees.
"They have the same reporting requirements and the same needs," Dunlavy said.
McKinney gave an example of a water operator. He needs a certified person for only one hour a day but can't find anybody to take the job. He continued to say that if the town hires somebody for 20 hours a week, then it is on the hook for 75 percent of the health-care benefits as well. He pushed for a policy to allow towns to pay a smaller percentage for those benefits for those who work less than 40 hours a week.
Dunlavy added that it can be difficult for towns to find enough elected officials. She said towns tend to hire part-time and offer low wages and aren't attracting the expertise they need.
Washington Selectman Jim Huebner encouraged regionalization as a means to help provide the services. Heubner said his town struggles to find somebody to run a council on aging and sees an opportunity for a regional service.
In recent years, a Public Health Alliance was created to provide various health services to an array of towns and Huebner said that is the only way some of those services would be provided at all.
"We don't have a choice," he said. "It is the only way to get professional public health nursing and inspectors."
Mount Washington Selectman Jim Lovejoy disagrees on that though. He wouldn't want to see the state require more regionalization but instead have state-hired circuit riders. With the health alliance, he contends that it doesn't save the towns any money by regionalizing.
"I resist the temptation that regionalization is the cure to all of our ills because it is a matter of cost shifting," Lovejoy said.
Keith Girouard, from the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, added to that saying the lack of employees and time available hurts businesses. With limited staff, volunteers, and limited hours, permitting and inspections for small businesses is more difficult, takes more time, and ultimately costs more.
"It is the inspections that are a problem," he said.
Economically, Dunlavy said small towns tend to have small businesses and this plan is hoped to show state officials that many programs aimed for business development aren't applicable to the smallest of businesses.
"We know in the very rural areas of Massachusetts most of our employers are under five employees so small business support and small business development is very important," she said.
Mark Siegars, from Lanesborough, went further to say businesses in small towns have a different philosophy. He said they are more community oriented, helping out and employing others from the community, and not just focused on the bottom line.
"It is a completely different view of the world," Siegars said. "They're comfortable living in their community helping out kids or relatives."
Dunlavy also highlighted infrastructure, particularly noting that most rural towns do not have sewer systems and only limited water systems.
"Without a solid infrastructure, we aren't going anywhere in Massachusetts," she said.
Small towns have routinely raised concern with the state's payment in lieu of taxes for property here. McKinney said more than half of Clarksburg is owned by the state but the amount it's paying for it is woefully inadequate. At the same time, the town is maintaining roads that provide access to those lands and if there is a forest fire, the town will be the one to pay for it.
He suggested an additional metric to be added to the Chapter 90 formula for road projects accounting for areas where there is a lot of state-owned lands.
Chapter 90 is based on population, road miles, and employment -- two of which work against rural towns. Lovejoy said efforts to change the formula have been unsuccessful and he'd advocate for the state to start all over and develop a new one. He said even if spending on the program increased by 50 percent, the current formula would only give Mount Washington an additional $30,000.
The average cost to fix a mile of road is $1 million.
Huebner added that beyond having smaller budgets and smaller staff getting road projects done is even more difficult with state regulations.
"We're putting in a lousy 20-foot culvert and I have to wait for the Army Corps of Engineer and Boston and my $200,000 engineer to tell me water will run through it," he said.
Dunlavy identified that senior and workforce housing is an issue in rural towns. She said there need to be more financial resources eyed to rehabilitate an older housing stock. But, other than Berkshire Housing, there isn't much for a development capacity.
The commission also noted a shortage of primary-care doctors and issues of isolation with those aging in place. Towns also struggle to find volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians, with many rural towns getting special permission to allow volunteer firefighters to stay on the job past the age restriction.
Siegars added that isolation isn't just among the elderly but with everyone who lives in rural areas.
In education, declining enrollment poses a threat and with that, the geographic distance makes it difficult.
Windsor Selectman Doug McNally said 10 percent of his town's municipal budget is directed to just six students going to vocational programs. The cost to tuition students elsewhere for that education is costly for a small town, he said.
Meanwhile, "our job openings are in those post-secondary but not college-skilled based areas," he said.
McKinney said the budget in Clarksburg for town services has decreased by 10 percent over the years while school costs rose by more than 200 percent.
The commission is hoping that when the plan identifying and addressing the issues is completed, lawmakers will start considering the impact bills have on rural issues first, rather than being an afterthought.
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