|Youth Development, Transportation, Tops Pignatelli's Budget Priorities|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:51AM / Monday, April 23, 2018
|State Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli has filed several budget amendments for the district.|
This is the third in a series of interviews with the Berkshire representative delegation on local budget priorities for fiscal 2019. The interview with state Rep. Paul Mark can be found here and the interview with state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier can be found here.
LENOX, Mass. — State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli's top budget priority isn't a surprise: Berkshire youth development.
The Lenox Democrat has prioritized programs such as the Railroad Street Youth Project for a number of years. And now, he's requesting more state funding to expand that into a countywide effort.
"My No. 1 priority for the past 12 years now has been the Berkshire Youth Development. I really chartered my career in the legislature as a youth development empowerment person. What started at Railroad Street in Great Barrington was so successful, we have more work to do, but so successful we felt that we wanted to take it countywide," Pignatelli said, adding that if he ever has a "legacy piece" that program would be it.
The effort is to combine the work of the Railroad Street Youth Project in South County with the Berkshire United Way in the central Berkshires and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pignatelli is also seeking a new $50,000 earmark to help senior citizens. In the rural Berkshires, transportation is a constant issue and Pignatelli is now looking to help expand the Southern Berkshire Senior Transportation system to help connect the county's older population with the rest of the community.
"This would be a new earmark if we are successful. I'm looking for $50,000 to enhance that opportunity. That covers nine of the smaller and most rural communities in my district to try to get access to seniors," Pignatelli said.
The program is in existence, but is struggling to keep fares affordable. Pignatelli said the increase will help offset budget issues facing that program.
Meanwhile, he is also backing efforts to increase funding for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority. The regional transit authorities across the state are proposed to see a level-funded budget and locally that means the BRTA is considering raising fares and cutting services.
"One penny of our sales tax from the Berkshires goes directly to fund the MBTA in Boston. But yet we get our own regional transit authority cut in the governor's budget," Pignatelli said.
But Pignatelli is also posing a challenge to the leaders of the BRTA to get creative. He said he wants the authority to start considering helping with school transportation or see what it would take to go operate across state lines.
Pignatelli is also looking for $50,000 for a study of regionalization of ambulance services. He said that would bring an outside consultant in to analyze the number of calls, levels of volunteerism, geography, and ultimately come up with a cost of what it would take for a dozen towns to team up to pay for an ambulance service.
"Lenox is the only town in all of Berkshire County that has 24/7 paid police, fire, and ambulance. But as these towns grow older and get smaller population, can towns afford to have 24/7 professional emergency managers for a handful of calls a year?" Pignatelli said.
In his 16th year in the Legislature and after serving 12 years on the Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development Committee, Pignatelli is now seeing new growth in the visitor economy in eco-tourism and outdoor recreation. Now chairing the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, Pignatelli is looking to enhance both protecting environment while bolstering that economy.
"In the Berkshires, we have 100,000 acres of state-owned land. We probably have about 250,000 of protected land. But for just the state land we have two park rangers for 100,000 acres. The State House has park rangers for security, there's 35 that are allocated to the State House," Pignatelli said. "These guys and ladies do wonderful work for us at the State House. But the disparity and inability to reallocate our resources is foolish."
He said he's looking for $2 million to hire 30 new park rangers throughout the state.
"People are coming here for the recreation and yet our state parks are closed or not well maintained or we don't have professional staff to open the bathrooms," Pignatelli said.
The proposed budget the House of Representatives takes on Monday does include increases to unrestricted local aid and Chapter 70 school funding, both of which Pignatelli supports. He says the real work on the budget happens in the Legislature, not the governor's office.
"I don't pay much attention to the governor's budget. It is just his vision over the next 18 months where he thinks we should go. I think the Legislature is the one who really does a deeper dive into the budget," Pignatelli said.
The state's revenues have been above benchmarks but Pignatelli doesn't think that makes the budgeting process any easier.
"Sometimes the budget process is easy when there isn't money because the answer is no. When you have good revenues and good money, it is hard to say no. But you have to have that long-term vision. We are establishing a budget in April that is going to be in effect until 14 months from now. So we have to make sure our revenue trends are trends our economists think will continue for the next year," Pignatelli said.
He is particularly concerned with the costs of health care, which he said has eclipsed 40 percent of the state's $41 billion budget. While revenue may be up, he said fixed costs are rising alongside.