North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS -- State Sen. Benjamin Downing believes the best ideas come from listening to his constituents.
The state senator did just that Tuesday night as he fielded questions from a group of about 30 people during a town hall-style forum at City Hall on Tuesday night -- an off-shoot of his monthly small-town "Coffee & Conversation" series.
The Pittsfield Democrat was peppered with questions and concerns from the galley on a variety of topics, including the distribution of veterans’ benefits and re-establishing a local outreach center, funding for public higher education, the fiscal 2013 state budget and legislation regarding cell phone use while driving.
Vietnam Veterans of Massachusetts Inc. President Michael Chalifoux stressed the need for the re-establishment of a regional veterans outreach center, which he believes would increase the level of service to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, whom he compared to veterans from his era.
"Forty-two years ago, I came home from Vietnam and within the first two to three years, guys started killing themselves," he said. "We’re coming to the conclusion of two wars. We have many veterans coming home with severe disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder Š We have about two to three years to take care of these veterans -- many of whom will not come into the Veterans Affairs office, to the City Hall or even to an American Legion for help."
Chalifoux said he wants a veterans outreach center put back in Berkshire County, with two agents who will go to the homes of veterans and help give them the services they need.
"Both the Vietnam Veterans Chapter 54, here, and Chapter 65 in Pittsfield, are willing to donate office space for two guys over the next three years, at a cost of about $300,000," he said. "We’re going to put in a bid for the Veterans Outreach Center that we had for 19 years and haven’t had for the last six."
Downing said that while the two disagree over how those services should be delivered, he never does anything to impede those services from being delivered.
Richard McCarthy, who served as the city’s veterans service agent from 2008 to 2010, questioned if the state Legislature was doing anything to correct a law, created to help "dotcom" businesses during the Dukakis administration, that allows veterans from outside of the state to move in and collect benefits.
"We’re one of the only states that does this," he said. "The Turner House in Williamstown has a lot of guys from New York living there who never paid into the state coffers. The Turner House receives a 75 percent reimbursement rate from the state, but the other 25 percent is paid by the town. It creates an unfair burden."
Downing said the issue was raised recently at a regional meeting of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and that the state is trying to come up with a solution.
"We don’t want to deny any veteran benefits, but we don’t want to be a magnet either," he said.
On the issue of funding for public higher education, Downing said the state has been negligent in providing adequate funds and needs to start investing in its state universities and community colleges.
"We need to invest in the workforce these colleges provide," he said. "Studies have shown that 80 percent of state college students remain in the state after graduation."
He also said that it’s his understanding that the House and the Senate see Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget lines for local aid, Chapter 70 school aid and regional school district transportation aid as "baselines" for the budget and hopes to see those numbers increased.