Adams Council on Aging Director Erica Girgenti participates in Wednesday's virtual town hall.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Economic development agency 1Berkshire billed Wednesday's virtual town hall as one in a series of discussions dealing with non-pandemic issues.
But, as with most areas of life these days, the novel coronavirus was never far from the conversation.
The topic of the agency's weekly webinar was the decennial U.S. Census: its history, its importance and the efforts of local officials to ensure that Berkshire County will be accurately counted.
One of the big reasons the Census is important is that it determines how federal tax dollars are distributed throughout the country. State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, was making a point in that regard when he noted how COVID-19 changes the equation.
"I believe the estimate is $2,300 [in federal dollars] a year for the next 10 years, and it's an important point to mention," Mark said. "The 2020 Census, the numbers we get now, we're stuck with until 2030. So if you don't fill it out, that's what you're costing your community for the next 10 years at least.
"I can only estimate that with [pandemic] relief packages, with recovery packages, the amount of federal and state dollars that are going to be dependent on these Census numbers is only going to grow."
Of course, dollars are only one thing that are distributed based on population size. The main historical purpose of the Census, as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, is to decide on apportionment of representation in Congress.
Massachusetts, which actually increased in population between 2000 and 2010, lost a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives because it did not increase as much as other states.
Although Mark noted the data from Census Bureau analysis since 2010 indicates that Massachusetts may hold onto its current nine congressional districts, the shape of those districts likely will continue to skew toward the eastern end of the commonwealth.
"When Massachusetts lost a member in the House [10 years ago], guess where we lost it? Western Mass," Mark said.
"The growth is really concentrated in Boston and the surrounding communities. Meanwhile, Berkshire County, we're looking at a decline of 3.7 percent. Franklin County is looking at a decline of 0.5 percent."
The impact of that is that U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, represents a district that spans 87 municipalities.
"We're talking about those districts possibly growing more," Mark said. "And when you're talking about not just our voice in Washington … but the accessibility of these members of Congress. Through no fault of their own -- getting around to 87 communities … or for [state] Sen. Adam Hinds, 52 communities, it takes a lot of work. That's a lot of effort. It's 87 boards of selectmen and mayors and city councils you're dealing with."
Filling out your U.S. Census form will not reverse declining population trends. But not filling out the form will make that decline appear worse than it is.
Mark was joined in Wednesday's virtual town hall by: Berkshire Immigrant Center Executive Director Michelle Lopez; Berkshire Regional Planning Commission data manager Mark Maloy; Adams Council on Aging Director Erica Girgenti; and Mark Sebastino, a partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau.
All emphasized the importance of getting an accurate count of the county's population.
So far, the evidence is less than encouraging.
"Right now, we're a little bit behind," Maloy said. "Right now, for Berkshire County, we're at 58 percent response rate. In 2010, that was a 63.7 rate, so we're about 5 percent behind. Some of our communities -- for example, Dalton is up at 74 percent response. Other communities are down in the 20 percent response rate.
"There's definitely been a lower response than normal. We see that in almost all of our communities."
Maloy did not identify a single root of the problem but pointed to a number of possible factors, including apathy, the COVID-19 pandemic (and the reduction of in-person contact with people promoting Census participation), an increase in the number of second homes and distrust of the government.
On the last point, 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler asked Sebastino to address the fear that some may have about giving personal information to the federal government.
"Title 13 of the U.S. Code mandates the safety of the personal information that's collected," Sebastino said. "Every Census Bureau employee has to raise their right arm and do a lifetime oath that they'll protect the data that they come in contact with. Any violation of that is a serious federal crime which could include a 5-year prison sentence, a $250,000 fine or a combination of both.
"That data cannot be shared with any other federal agency or court. That includes ICE, DHS, FBI, CIA. No one can have access to the personal information. They can have access to the statistics the Census Bureau creates, but none of the personal information."
Lopez said that while the county's immigrant population is undercounted by as much as 40 percent, immigrants she talks to are more comfortable with the idea of the U.S. Census than one might think.
"What I was surprised at is that our Census is much less invasive and scary in the majority of immigrants' eyes than what their census is back home," she said. "Censuses back home in a lot of Latin American countries, people are coming into their homes. They're not only counting the number of people, they're counting their appliances, they're checking how much water they're using, they're checking their living situations, etc.
"I think there's kind of a misconception that the immigrant population is scared to fill out the Census. I think that may be a perception we're placing on immigrants because we are worried about their immigrant status and the release of that information. But sharing that education and reassuring everyone involved that their information is completely safe has been a number one priority."
Adams' Girgenti said her agency runs into town residents who think they've already been counted because they completed the annual town census, and she has to explain the federal count is a different program.
U.S. Census Bureau partnership specialist Mark Sebastino talks about the way the Census Bureau protects personal information.
And the U.S. Census is particularly important for the older residents served by the Council on Aging, she said.
"Doing the Census really helps us better understand the trends that we have," Girgenti said. "For example, when we look at caregivers, we already know that there are millennials who will be the full caregivers for our Baby Boom generation as they age in our country. We already know millennials are less likely to share their caregiver burden with their employers, regarding their needs and demands.
"So the way in which we provide services, the support we provide to caregivers … the way we fund and pay our caregivers is going to have to change. We're going to have to change the way we fund our long-term care facilities. Because we know that the population of people who are the oldest group in our country don't have the people underneath them to care for them.
"The Census numbers will help us show that and help us better understand how we can shape our … caregiver services in the future."
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Census Bureau to move back the timetable for this year's count. The deadline for self-responses was shifted from the end of July from the end of October, and the non-response follow-up will begin on Aug. 11, Sebastino said.
Mark encouraged anyone who has not completed the survey to take a few minutes and do so.
"I can't emphasize enough how important this is," said Mark, who chairs the House Committee on Redistricting. "There are so many different methods to do it. And tell your friends, tell your family. Everyone on this call is, I'm sure, a member of some kind of community group. Get that word out.
"If we don't get it right this time, we're stuck with it until 2030."
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Berkshires Beat: Girl Scouts Present StoryWalk® as Part of Silver Award Project
Two local Girl Scouts have launched a literacy and diversity project as they work to earn their Silver Award. Noelle Dravis of Williamstown and Emily Johnson of Lanesborough, both of whom will be ninth-graders at Mount Greylock Regional School this fall, created Project W.I.L.D. (Williamstown Inclusivity, Literacy and Diversity) to earn their Silver Award. The Girl Scout Silver Award is a project that Girl Scout Cadettes undertake to benefit their communities.
The project consists of three parts. The main part of the project is a StoryWalk® along Spring Street featuring the book "Just Ask: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You" by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. A StoryWalk® is a series of book pages along a specific route. The StoryWalk® Project was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vt., and developed in collaboration with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. Storywalk® is a registered service mark owned by Ferguson. From Friday, Aug. 7, through Monday, Sept. 7, the pages will be on display in windows of 15 Spring Street businesses; a map of all of the locations is available on Project W.I.L.D.'s Facebook and Instagram pages, @Girl Scout Project WILD. A limited number of printed maps will be available at each participating business.
The second part of the project is the Little Free Library the Scouts are helping install at Wild Oats Co-op in Williamstown. Nearly four years ago, their troop donated the current library at the store, and now they are helping replace it with a new structure. To help stock the library, they are accepting donations of new and gently used books to put into the library, especially books about diversity and social justice. Donations can be dropped off at Wild Oats; the new Little Free Library will be unveiled in August. The third part of the project is that the Scouts will be reading books about diversity and inclusion on WilliNet television for people to watch from their homes.
The bridge located on Lakeway Drive over Onota Lake in Pittsfield will be temporarily closed to traffic on Monday, Aug. 17, to allow for the total bridge replacement which includes new precast abutments, precast beams, and railing and approach work. It is anticipated that the newly replaced bridge will be open for travel in October 2020. A temporary signed detour will be in place during the bridge closure to re-route traffic to Lakeway Drive north, to Pecks Road, to Valentine Road, and then to Lakeway Drive south.
The cost of the bridge rehabilitation project is $2,688,888 and is anticipated to be completed in June 2021. The contractor for the project is New England Infrastructure of Hudson, Massachusetts. MassDOT appreciates the patience of the traveling public during this necessary repair and maintenance work. Drivers who are traveling through the area should reduce speed and use caution. All scheduled work is weather dependent and may be impacted due to an emergency.
Putnam said that, depending in part on the levels of COVID-19 infection in the area, the district will, at some point, offer families the option of keeping their child or children home for remote learning or sending the children to school for part of the week in a hybrid model.
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The college's vice president for finance and administration told the board in a virtual meeting that the impact on the community is something that is discussed every day by the school as it prepares for the beginning of students' arrival on Aug. 24.
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The committee did not disclose a starting date for McCandless, who currently is the superintendent of the Pittsfield Public Schools. Pittsfield has voted to hold McCandless to the 90-day notice in his contract.
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