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BRPC Eliminates Community Assessment Increases

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission accepted an amended budget Thursday with no increases to community assessments.
The Committee voted to rescind the assessment increases to member communities in response to the financial impacts COVID-19 will surely have throughout Berkshire County.
"The situation has changed dramatically since January and understanding the fiscal challenges that our communities are going to be facing over the next year and possibly longer," BRPC Executive Director Thomas Matuszko said. "It is a recommendation to roll back that increase."
Originally in January, the commission voted to implement a 2.5 percent increase to all member communities but earlier this month agreed it may be better to keep the assessment level funded.
Matuszko said this amount may be small, around $2,600 and is more symbolic.
"I think it is an important symbol to our communities to show that we recognize their plight," he said. 
The committee then accepted the full fiscal 2021 budget of $3,434,072. Matuszko said the budget is actually $574,564 higher than fiscal 2020. This is primarily because of several new grants for Education, Public Health and Environmental programs.
Toward the end of the meeting, the committee took some time to talk about the impacts of COVID-19 and Matuszko asked if any of the communities were considering new zoning that would expand outdoor dining and shopping.
"It seems that the social distancing requirements might be with us over the summer," Matuszko said. "Something that might allow for greater flexibility for outdoor dining."
Sheila Irvin, the Pittsfield representative, said the city is considering such changes. She said other communities have found ways to use public space for dining.
Pedro Panchano, the Great Barrington representative, said his town has had early conversations about closing down roads to vehicles and allowing open markets that would allow social distancing. 
James Sullivan, the Hinsdale representative, said he was hesitant to change town or city codes until there is more information on the virus. 
"Making changes to the zoning bylaws and having to go back and change them again later would be redundant to begin with," he said. "We are 4 1/2 months into this and are literally talking about restructuring everything we do."
He reiterated that the virus was not permanent and noted there is not a one size fits all zoning change that would help all communities and businesses.
Commissioner Roger Bolton said these changes could be temporary and they did not have to try to push full on zoning changes. 
Commissioner Malcolm Fick added that he did not see a zoning change as restrictive but something that could help restaurants and businesses recover and cope with social distancing requirements.
"Every town is suffering a lot and if we can do something small to help businesses that are suffering it is a worthwhile endeavor," he said. " What we can do to help small businesses now is vital."
Chairman Kyle Hanlon agreed and said restaurants specifically are going to "take it on the chin" this summer and it may be helpful if planners could find a way for them to capture more revenue through this next short term period. 
John Duval of Adams said it also may help build consumer confidence if communities can find ways to alter zoning to allow people to visit establishments while maintaining social distancing.
"It is a matter of confidence," Duval said. "They can be open, they can be clean, and have all of the social distancing but if people don't have the confidence to go out and visit these restaurants or stores ... we need to get people confident to help them in the short term."
In other business, the commission approved the Berkshire County Metropolitan Planning Organization draft Transportation Improvement Program that ranges from fiscal years 2021 to 2025.  
Anuja Koirala, senior transportation planner, went through the plan and requested that the chair vote for the plan at the upcoming MPO meeting. 
A comprehensive view of the plan can be found here in the meeting documents.
The commission also accepted the proposed Transportation Unified Planning Work Program for fiscal 2021 and some changes to the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program Regulations
Both of these can be found in the meeting documents.

Tags: BRPC,   fiscal 2021,   

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College Leaders Talk about Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Crisis

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Higher education is learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that it will inform their operations long after the crisis has passed, a group of top administrators agreed on Friday.
"I had begun to think about the ways in which the modalities of teaching that remote learning offers can infuse and enrich some aspects of teaching, without suggesting that we would move in any way to a fully remote learning platform or even a largely remote platform," Williams College President Maud Mandel said.
"There are aspects of the modality of remote learning I think faculty have found to be enriching of their teaching, and that's one area that I think could have significant impact in a positive way."
Mandel joined Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge, Berkshire Community College Ellen Kennedy and Bard College at Simon's Rock Provost John Weinstein in a virtual town hall hosted by 1Berkshire.
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