PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- No one could have foreseen the exact nature or timing of a global pandemic, but some of the infrastructure put in place by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has helped area communities deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
On Thursday, BRPC Executive Director Tom Matuszko told the agency's executive committee that one of its initiatives was able to quickly pivot to addressing the fallout from the novel coronavirus.
"Through the Berkshire Public Health Alliance, in tandem with Tri-Town Health, local public health in the Berkshires were in a strong position to immediately respond," Matuszko wrote in his report to the board.
In the committee meeting that followed, Matuszko elaborated on some of the efforts that the commission's staff have undertaken since the crisis began.
"I want to call out our program manager for Public Health [Laura Kittross]," Matuszko said. "She's really cranking out the hours as well as [senior planner] Alison Egan and our public health nurses, Leslie Drager in particular, she was one of the only ones … who was in the forefront when we got our first cases out here."
Matuszko told the committee that he has been able to move money in the budget to reallocate staff from other projects to the COVID-19 response.
"There is money coming to Public Health people to reimburse them for their response to the emergency, but there is, as yet, no money for other staff participating in items not directly related to the Public Health response," he said. "We have some of our staff helping Berkshire United Way with things like weekend lunches for students, working with social service agencies, figuring out needs assessments and a range of activities.
"In the short term, I'm redirecting some of our [District Local Technical Assistance] toward that funding. It felt like it was important for us to be engaged and respond."
Matuszko said the agency is tracking its expenditures on the crisis separately in case there is an opportunity down the road to put in for grants to reimburse some of that expense.
He also reported that the agency had received $200,000 in grants from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health since the COVID-19 emergency began, and he asked the executive committee for retroactive approval to receive the funds, which it gave.
BRPC accepted $50,000 from the commonwealth to pay for additional Public Health nurses and reimburse the agency's staff time managing the direct Public Health response. Another $150,000 was to help reimburse municipalities for their COVID-related expenses.
Matuszko also asked the executive committee -- which currently includes representatives from eight member towns -- how it wanted to handle other grants that may become available during the crisis that would be helpful to accept immediately but normally would require committee approval.
"How do we become fluid in our response to COVID-19 in terms of applying for grants?" Matuszko asked. "Typically, when we hear about a grant, we get the executive committee's approval before we apply. I think the circumstances will be very different as they were with the Public Health money, where we were told the money was coming our way in a couple of days, we got the money and disbursed it. The quickness of disbursement was important.
"If you're all OK with approving after the fact, we can continue with monthly meetings. Or we can do more frequent meetings. Or here may be some blanket approval."
Sheffield's Rene Wood, the chair of the BRPC's Development Committee and a member of the Executive Committee, moved that the body give Matuszko and his staff blanket approval "to go after any grant or program to support what they're working on and report back to us" for a six-month period or 90 days after the governor's state of emergency order is rescinded.
The committee voted unanimously to support Wood's motion.
The meeting was held on the Zoom video conferencing platform, one of many adjustments to the BRPC's operations necessitated by the pandemic.
Matuszko told the committee that staff is adjusting well to the new reality of working from home.
"We had some laptops already that have been loaned out," he said. "We started a program where we're lending equipment out of the office. If someone needs a printer, there's no sense in having it sit in the office [unused]. The goal is, by the beginning of next week, to have everyone at full functionality.
"I don't think it will be a major cost to do that in the short term. Long term, it would warrant us rethinking how we do our operation."
Matuszko said it is likely any new investment in computer hardware will be used for laptops and indicated it may make sense to continue some of the telecommuting practices in place now after the pandemic has passed.
"There may be a way to save money on a smaller office," he said.
Matuszko said that while being "locked in the house" is getting old, the worst of the pandemic is still to come and he is concerned about reports he is seeing that some in the general public are not taking COVID-19 seriously.
Executive Committee Chairman Kyle Hanlon of North Adams drove that point home.
"I lost a close friend to it last week," Hanlon said. "Yes, it's real and it's out there, everywhere."
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