RESIDENTS OF WEST MASSACHUSETTS have long deplored their position in “a history of two Commonwealths”. The urban portion of eastern state, they say, absorbs most of the attention – and funding – on Beacon Hill, while large swathes of western Massachusetts, which deal with many different concerns are often overlooked. The economic boom that has benefited the Boston area over the past few decades has largely bypassed the state’s four westernmost counties, where property values remain low and the population ages as young people seek employment. employment elsewhere.
A new report from Auditor Suzanne Bump, released Tuesday, argues the state needs to pay more attention to ailing infrastructure in western Massachusetts.
“Aging and declining populations, stagnant or declining property values, increased education costs, and statewide policies that benefit urban areas disadvantage all largely rural areas of Berkshire counties. , Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire, ”the report says. “Small municipal staff without professional engineers, grant writers or planners are challenged to seek funding for infrastructure, and state requirements or eligibility formulas make them totally ineligible for certain funds.”
The report is released as state budget writers decide how to distribute a huge influx of federal COVID-19 relief money. If Congress passes a federal infrastructure bill, it could create another new jackpot, as could the success of a 2022 poll question that would raise the income tax rate by over $ 1 million. dollars.. Bump argues that some of that money should be spent in a targeted fashion to make major infrastructure investments in western Massachusetts. She plans to testify Tuesday at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees, which will determine how to spend federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“There has never been, and probably never will be again, such a tremendous opportunity to reverse decades of divestment in our rural communities, especially in the four counties of western Massachusetts,” Bump said in a virtual briefing with reporters on Monday.
Bump, a longtime resident of Great Barrington, said she saw the “east-west divide.” “Now we have this golden opportunity that we will never again finally invest in these communities,” she said.
Bump’s report didn’t say how much money she wants lawmakers to spend on infrastructure in western Massachusetts.
But she could be a powerful advocate for a region that often lacks political clout – and is now on the verge of losing even more representation due to the redistribution, as the region’s population has not grown as fast as it does. eastern Massachusetts over the past decade.
The report examines the region’s challenges related to broadband, roads and municipal buildings.
For years, state officials have tried to bring high-speed Internet to every city in western Massachusetts. But the report says internet speeds remain much slower in parts of western Massachusetts than in eastern Massachusetts. In rural communities, private companies have less financial incentive to offer robust Internet services because they have fewer customers over a larger area. The lack of fast internet hampers the region’s ability to attract business.
Transport is also in difficulty. According to the report, the lack of professional engineers and planners in small towns often leads to the postponement of large projects in favor of small repairs, resulting in maintenance delays. Of more than 1,400 bridges in western Massachusetts, 62% are classified in “fair” condition and 9% in “poor” condition, compared to the state average of 7.5% of bridges classified. “Mediocre”. The auditor’s office interviewed city officials in 101 communities in western Massachusetts. Of the 45 who responded, eight rated their routes as “B”, 27 as “C” and nine as “D”.
Public buildings are also problematic. Pittsfield Police work at a 1939 station that has no space for meetings or parking for police cars, and no visual separation between male and female holding cells. The police chief fears that he will no longer be able to house prisoners there without an upgrade of the heating. In inquiries, many city administrators said their public security buildings were too small. A fire station lacked bathrooms.
In 28 communities, administrators rated their public works building a “C” or less, citing problems with roofs, HVAC systems and storage. In the seven communities that mentioned the need to replace their public works building, the combined cost would be approximately $ 56 million. Other public buildings, such as libraries, are equally inadequate.
Bump said the reason for these struggles often boils down to a mismatch between income and the needs of the region. Western Massachusetts has a large geographic area, so there are more miles of road to maintain. One road in particular in Berkshire County has 200 culverts. But the region has fewer people, fewer businesses, and lower property values, which translates into less tax money. Bump says state funding formulas and allocation processes tend to favor urban and suburban areas.
For example, the Chapter 90 formula for funding road improvements takes into account not only kilometers of road, but also population and employment – factors that put small towns at a disadvantage. The auditor’s office estimates that to properly maintain their roads, cities in the four western counties would need an additional $ 75 million per year. Representative Smitty Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, has proposed changing the formula to give more value to road mileage and less to other factors, a proposition the Bump report endorses. She also wants to increase Chapter 90 funding from $ 200 million to $ 300 million per year.
Some programs require communities to pay for professional planning and engineering before applying for a grant, so communities without professional planning staff must decide whether it’s worth spending the money on a grant writer or a grant writer. engineer – money that could otherwise be spent on repairs – in the hopes of winning a competitive grant.
Other programs are too small to meet demand. A municipal small bridge program, which funds repairs to small bridges and culverts, offers a maximum grant of $ 500,000, but the median cost of replacing a small bridge is $ 680,000. In fiscal year 2021, the program received claims of $ 6.8 million and disbursed only $ 806,000.
Bump’s report says some communities are letting bridges break down so they become eligible for emergency replacement, rather than having to go through a more expensive process that requires them to upgrade to standards. modern technical and environmental standards.
Bump recommends revamping state grant and assistance programs to better serve small communities and creating a new agency with a dedicated revenue stream dedicated to improving infrastructure in underserved areas.
Without a larger investment, she said, the future of western Massachusetts is “not a very rosy picture.”