PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Sen. Adam Hinds secured money for the Berkshire Flyer, his rural school aid, and for numerous local organizations in the Senate budget.
The Pittsfield Democrat said on Thursday his budget will help "get the fundamentals right" for Berkshire County. Those "fundamentals" this year, according to Hinds, is primarily education and transportation.
"This was a big budget for us especially when it came to transportation and education," Hinds said.
The Berkshire Flyer has been a project he's been working on for a few years. Last year, a Department of Transportation feasibility study determined that a train service on the weekends from New York City to Pittsfield could work. Now, Hinds has secured funding to pilot it, hoping to increase tourism in the area modeled after the successful Cape Flyer.
"It is starting as weekend, seasonal service but the objective is to make sure it goes to daily, year-round service and to add additional stops including one in West Stockbridge," Hinds said.
Hinds said the budget allocates $240,000 for operations, another $100,000 for marketing it, and $30,000 for a project manager who will oversee the operation.
"There is a bit of a resurgence in rail right now. We also this week passed a study for the Northern Tier rail, basically North Adams to Greenfield to Boston. Interestingly, it says that that will not start until the east-west rail on the Southern Tier, that study is done," Hinds said.
There are now four Western Massachusetts rail studies or pilots in the works, including the so-called "Knowledge Corridor" pilot. Hinds said rail is a way to connect regional economic centers and is better for the environment than vehicle travel.
The Flyer's pilot may take more than one year and Hinds said determining what qualifies as a success is still be decided.
In education, the big piece is a significant increase in Chapter 70 school aid. The Senate raised that funding by $268 million and the increases are particularly targeted to help educate low-income students.
"It is largely viewed as a down-payment for the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommendations," Hinds said. "The big headline here is Pittsfield alone gets over $5 million more money in this budget than last year, which is tremendous."
The Foundation Budget Review Commission had recommended the state significantly increase support to districts for low-income students, health insurance, English language learners, and special education. Hinds said he and Pittsfield state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier focused on low-income students because that will have an impact on Pittsfield.
"There was a recognition from the Legislature that there were some schools in dire need," Hinds said.
The other aspects of the recommendations are expected to be addressed this summer when lawmakers take on a full review of the Chapter 70 formula.
For those outside of Pittsfield, Hinds also secured a $1 million increase in rural school aid. The program was started last year and give rural districts of a certain size a little bit extra. Hinds said by upping that to $2.5 million this year will give those small districts even more.
"We hope that gives us the ability to expand who is eligible and also increase the amount schools are receiving," Hinds said.
He said the Senate was also able to increase the regional school transportation reimbursements to 82 percent and fully fund the special education circuit breaker.
"These are things that mean a lot to superintendents, principals, and school committee members because those are the major buckets of money where you can make a difference outside of Chapter 70," Hinds said.
The combination of those illustrates what Hinds said is taking different approaches to help different school districts.
Meanwhile, he said the Senate allocated $50,000 to support the Berkshire Education Task Force.
"The state really likes this group is doing this work and it can be a model across the commonwealth," Hinds said.
Hinds said the budget also includes a number of local projects such as $50,000 for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, $50,000 for MCLA Gallery 51 in North Adams, $50,000 for the Susan B. Anthony Memorial Park in Adams, $25,000 for the Norman Rockwell Museum to renovate the old Stockbridge town hall, and $10,000 for the Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade.
The budget also includes $150,000 for Berkshire homeless shelters to provide emergency housing in the winter.
"In the winter months there is an influx and a need for bringing folks in during cold nights and the funding for that has always been a challenge," Hinds said. "It is challenging to balance all of these demands but this is one that is just a bit of a no-brainer."
Hinds said the budget also includes a look at the formula determining payment in lieu of taxes to towns for state-owned land. Hinds said there are towns in his district with a significant amount of state-owned land -- in Clarksburg, it's half the town -- and the funding levels are hampering those towns' ability to develop and maintain value.
"We've seen it devalue large blocks of land and guess what? We have large blocks of land in Western Mass. We've seen it be drastically different between two towns that own the same amount of acreage in one state forest, in particular, I'm thinking of Washington and Lenox and they get a vastly different amount of money per acre. It is just one issue after another in terms of how the state determines where the money goes," Hinds said.
The senator estimates that his towns are "losing" $78,000 per year because of the formula. He said it is taking land off of the tax rolls while at the same time serving as a way to sequester carbon generated in the eastern part of the state. The budget calls for a deeper look at the formula to recognize both of those aspects.
Overall, Hinds said the Berkshires did well. The state entered the process with a $900 million surplus and Hinds is chairing a group looking at possible restructuring the revenue system in the future. The budget now goes to a conference committee consisting of representatives from both the Senate and the House that will balance the two budgets. It then goes to the governor's office who will likely veto a number of items. The Legislature then gets a chance to override those vetoes.
"It feels like there is an acknowledgment for the need for regional equity and putting your money where your mouth is," Hinds said. "We do expect some pushback from the governor on some issues but I think we are in a good position."
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