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Mayor Linda Tyer, state Sen. Adam Hinds, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier join U.S. Rep. Richard Neal in City Council Chambers to discuss the American Rescue Plan. The presser had been planned for outside until rain changed plans. The event was streamed.

Neal Touts County's $41M Portion of American Rescue Plan

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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Congressman Neal speaks about the American Rescue Plan during Friday's press conference.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal stood in Council Chambers on Friday morning to tout the American Rescue Plan that will allocate $34 million to the city of Pittsfield and $41 million to Berkshire County.
Neal was joined by Mayor Linda Tyer, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, and state Sen. Adam Hinds.
"Boy, it is so refreshing to have the federal government on our side, I must say that for the entire year of 2020 It felt like communities were on their own in this fight against COVID-19," Tyer said as she opened the press conference.  
"There was no national strategy in place that all Americans could embrace, and I know that situation was extremely frustrating to you, Chairman Neal, and how much you care about Massachusetts and the United States, I'm sure you felt hamstrung by a president that was incapable of national leadership but those days are behind us, and only three months into the Democratic presidency and the Democratic-led Congress, you have delivered for struggling communities all across this great nation."
As chairman of the powerful Joint Committee on Ways and Means that wrote Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and a majority of the new rescue plan, Neal has been in charge of around $1 trillion dollars in spending during these unprecedented times.
"The Ways and Means Committee wrote the CARES Act on a Friday night in the speaker's office myself, Speaker Pelosi and [former Treasury] Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin on the phone," Neal said. "We debated the contours of the CARES Act with the Ways and Means tax staff and health care people in the office with us. We went back and forth until about one o'clock in the morning we met the media outside of the speaker's office. The CARES Act saved the American economy, period."
The committee has pushed for more assistance throughout the pandemic by expanding the $1,400 stimulus package on top of the $600 allocation that passed in December, increasing unemployment benefits with a $300 supplement through September 2021, making child dependent credit refundable so that families have cash flow on a monthly basis, increasing the retention tax credit to encourage employers to keep people working, and expanding the earned income tax credit for single filers.
"In the First Congressional District, 10,400 businesses took advantage of the paycheck loan program to keep the lights on," Neal added. "So I'm hoping that the beauty of the Berkshires, the beauty of Pittsfield, that it'll be renewed very quickly because a lot of this help with $28 billion is going to go to the reopening of our restaurants."
As a person who utilized Social Security benefits as a child, Neal said he is proud of how the legislation came to the aid of the multi-employer pension plans across the United States.
"I've been a big supporter of Social Security, defended it, used the benefit as a child, and in addition, I've looked out for Social Security increasing retirement benefits, security through the tax incentives," he said. "Three million people had their pensions saved, so these are the sorts of conversations that this legislation called forth."
Neal explained that this legislation demonstrates what government does, which is to come to the aid of people who need it. Nine and a half million jobs have not been reclaimed, he added, and ARA bill is about the "trampoline effect" and bouncing back.
"This was a seismic moment and when I cast this vote on the floor, and I don't think I've cast the more consequential vote in my career than the one we did and everybody felt good about it," he said. "I understand creating narratives, but it's legislation that changes lives."  
Nationally, there are currently 30 million cases of COVID-19 that have been reported and 545,000 casualties. On a more positive note, the number of Americans now fully vaccinated is heading toward 50 million, which is about 14 percent of the population.
Almost 620,000 cases of COVID-19 cases have been reported in the state and almost 17,000 people died. There have been 3,131,419 doses of vaccine administered, and the number of people who have been fully vaccinated stands at 1,110,000, or 16.1 percent of the population.
Neal reported that President Biden has a "vigorous" goal of administering 100 million vaccinations by May and has recently increased that goal to 200 million.  He said that he suspects this goal will be accomplished.
"The infrastructure is the next legislation up," Neal said, citing a phone call he received from President Biden who he said was over the moon about his ideas on the subject. "My attitude is to go big again. And I've been doing calls with the Democratic caucus, getting a lot of advice, incidentally, on how we should do it, the Ways and Means Committee."
Tyer and her team have reportedly already formed a small group of senior leaders to undertake a deeper review of the plan in order to develop policies and create programs and investments in the city.
She assured Neal that this investment in Pittsfield will be "worth their while," explaining a Pittsfield Economic Relief and Recovery Program was established in 2020 with Community Development Block Grant funding that awarded a total of $682,000 to small businesses.
The city also partnered with the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority to provide funds for rental assistance to struggling residents and supported several nonprofits who provide vital services during the devastating pandemic, she said.
"Pittsfield lost 74 beloved citizens to COVID-19," Tyer said. "Our families and our friends in our city, we are all grieving that loss, and later today we will participate in a communitywide moment of silence for those. Pittsfield is like so many cities and towns across the United States. Pittsfield has been deeply impacted by the pandemic, our city, our businesses, our citizens have and continue to experience tremendous health, economic and community hardship."
Farley-Bouvier was struck by Tyer's comments in saying that Americans felt "on their own" once the pandemic hit. She spoke about "yo-yo dinners" in her own household, which meant that each person had to figure out what they were going to eat themselves, comparing this to what local governments, organizations, school districts, and individuals felt.
"You've got to figure it out yourself because the cavalry isn't coming," she said. "And things have changed over the last several weeks, we don't feel like we're on our own anymore."
Farley-Bouvier also pointed out the importance of representation. Having a congressman who grew up using Social Security reflects that he knows the importance of public assistance to many family's survival, she said.
"He knows what our issues are in Massachusetts and the Northeast," she added. "What it means to represent a rural community, why broadband matters so much, why the west-east train matters so much to this to this region, why the cultural economy is so important for Berkshire County."
Hinds said he couldn't even tell Neal how good it feels to know that the region's needs are understood and to have him making big decisions and writing legislation in Washington.
"The importance of the federal government cannot be overstated and we're seeing direct evidence of that right now," Hinds said. "And I also want to just thank you for making sure this is an anti-poverty bill. This is a working families bill, this is a stronger education bill, it's really amazing, this is a generational shift in the approach on how the federal government is stepping in. And that's because of you."

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Veteran Spotlight: Sgt. Maj. Michael King

By Wayne SoaresSpecial to iBerkshires
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — This week's Veteran Spotlight subject is retired Army Sgt. Maj. Michael King, who now leads the Berkshire Veteran Outreach Center.
King grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and served his country from 1993 to 2015. He enlisted at the age of 18 and was sent to basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala. 
"It was definitely a culture shock," he recalled. "I learned about biscuits and gravy from the mess hall, which I found delicious ... remember an obscene amount of heat and humidity."
King's first assignment was at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where he served in law enforcement as an military police officer. From there, King was assigned to the former Johnston Island Air Force Base — 800 miles southwest of Hawaii — that is now a wildlife preserve.
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