Berkshire Planning Commission Examines Municipal Staffing Issues

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It's no secret that local municipalities have been struggling to fill critical positions in the town and city halls, sometimes taking months to find the right candidates.
The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is looking at how it can help.
"It was brought to our attention that communities are having an extremely difficult time hiring staff to fill various positions, whether it be town manager, administrator, treasurer, accountant, or a whole range of positions," Executive Director Tom Matuszko told the Regional Issues Committee last week.
"And so we've been trying to address this, or trying to figure out an approach on how to address it more correctly."
The committee has been discussing community sustainability for some time and its last meeting developed a strategy to determine how hard it was for towns to fill positions.
A survey was sent out to Berkshire County's 30 towns, as its two cities operate differently, and received responses from 21 of them. BRPC is still figuring out how to examine the cities.
Most of the responding communities have at least some vacant positions and more than 62 percent have had vacancies for 60 days or more.
Over the past three years, most communities have had one, if not several positions that took more than 60 days to fill and a majority had at least one position that took more than 120 days to fill.
More than half of the respondents have had five or more turnover positions.
And its not just paid appointed positions that are running short -- elected and volunteer boards are also wanting. 
Sixteen of the 21 communities have vacancies on volunteer bodies and 25 percent reported difficulty filling seats on their select board.
Over the past three years, only four communities had board vacancies that took less than 60 days to fill but many towns have had long-term vacancies.
"Most of what we're hearing I think is what we can guess, is that they're just having difficulty with the volunteer pool," Community Planning Program Manager CJ Hoss said.
"There just aren't enough people interested, not enough people want to commit their lives to volunteer work, those volunteer positions that are elected, people don't want to run campaigns even if it's simply a yard sign campaign."
On the paid side, he saw similar issues when reviewing the data.
"Municipal positions used to be highly sought after and there's a lack of understanding of why people aren't interested in getting into municipal work," he explained, adding that people are less interested in positions that require after-hours commitments such as police officers.
Kent Lew, Select Board chair in the small town of Washington, pointed out that the state now requires people running for elected positions to open a campaign and file the closing, even if they don't spend any money.
"In our town, as in many small hill towns, we're lucky if even one person takes out nomination papers and it was on the ballot," he said.
Matuszko pointed out that there is a fair amount of accessible training offered by entities such as the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the state Division of Local Services.
He wondered if BRPC could track down the trainings and put them in one reference point so that people can find them.
"Maybe that's a role that we could play," he said. "Centralize those and maybe somewhere as a calendar of sorts that would have all different items, not just DLS but all different kinds of boards."
Eleanor Tillinghast of Mount Washington highlighted the delegation's push for Berkshire County representation on Beacon Hill.
"It seems like small towns are also not well represented and one of the things that might come out of this process that we've been engaged in, which is really looking at how we can help the towns, is to also say we should think about ways that we can go back to Beacon Hill," she said.
"Particularly in the Legislature and say the needs of the small town, such as what we have in the west, are going to be very different from those in the more metropolitan areas."
Matuszko said she is "entirely spot on."
"That's one of the reasons a few years ago that the Rural Policy Advisory Commission was established, to try to be a voice for small towns," he explained.
"And we have been trying to advocate that there be a statewide office of rural policy that would really be in the governor's ear and try to relate all of the different impacts that small towns would feel among the different secretariats."
Housing was also brought up as an issue.
Mary McGurn, who lives in Egremont, feels that housing needs to be addressed so that recruited candidates have a place to live.
"We are working on the problem but this is not immediate," she said. "This is long term and until that is solved, all of the training, everything that we do is going to work against us because we cannot provide affordable housing or the talent we want to place in municipal positions."
This has been a common topic of conversation and effort at the BRPC and across the county.
Matuszko reported that he submitted a Community One Stop for Growth application for a Berkshire County municipal employee pipeline that would develop advancement and apprentice programs and an educational campaign on the value of municipal service.
The One Stop application reports a budget of $100,000 and aims to establish a municipal training program in fall 2023 with training in early 2024 and possible recruitment or placement soon after.
Outcomes include a greater public awareness of the value of municipal public service, an increased likelihood that those ending the workforce would choose municipal service, and an increased value of municipal employees already working by investing in their skill set and future opportunities.
BRPC is currently using District Local Technical Assistance funds to advance this effort and followup activities would be supported by DLTA as well.

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Shoplifters Pinch $37K in Merchandise from Ulta Beauty

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Four people have been charged for lifting thousands of dollars in merchandise from the Ulta Beauty store in Berkshire Crossing. 
Police were called to the store on Monday night by employees of the beauty products salon and arrested four people — two adults and two juveniles — who had more than $5,000 worth of products on them. 
Raquan Cartre, 22, and Jonneasia Welcome, 19, both of Albany, N.Y., are now wanted after failing to appear in Cental Berkshire District Court on Tuesday
District Attorney Timothy Shugrue says more than $37,000 in total has been stolen in four separate incidents from Ulta Beauty just in the last month. Employees have reported that in these incidents the suspects have driven away in a car with New York plates.
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