A key cog: Franklin Regional Council of Governments turns 20

  • Executive Director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments Linda Dunlavy and Phoebe Walker, Director of Community Services, at the FCOG Offices on Monday looking at their web page. October 2, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Executive Director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments Linda Dunlavy and Phoebe Walker, Director of Community Services, at the FCOG Offices on Monday looking at their past and present signage. October 2, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, October 03, 2017

If the 26 mostly small towns that make up Franklin County work so well together that you hardly notice the well-oiled machine there, it’s likely the COG that helps keeps those municipal gears running.

That’s “COG” as in Franklin Regional Council of Governments, which turned 20 years old this summer.

Tiny Monroe, for example, faced the challenge last year of a sagging wooden section of an abandoned 1877 paper mill that seemed ready to collapse into the Deerfield River.

The former Ramage Paper Mill was on the list for the COG planning department’s 18-year-old regional Brownfields program — which has done environmental assessments and hazardous waste cleanups on more than 50 sites in 17 county towns. But first, the regional health agent helped the town go through housing court to help take ownership of the property for nonpayment of taxes and get a demolition order.

The COG’s cooperative purchasing office helped the town, with just 120 residents and part-time government, procure engineering and demolition contracts. Then, last November, the regional planning department helped Monroe get $520,000 from the state to do the demolition, remove hazardous waste from the building and replace the structure with a park.

“I am in awe of the amount of support and resources that have come to the table to help turn our old dilapidated mill into something beautiful,” said Monroe Selectboard member Carla Davis-Little at the time.

That project, said COG Executive Director Linda Dunlavy, is a great example of how many programs of the vestige of county government came together to help the region’s smallest town on a complex project that threatened the river’s environmental quality and the recreational rafting industry.

But as the COG’s 50-member staff assembles a multimedia presentation on the organization’s wide-reaching projects over the years — from safety improvements along Route 2 in Erving and Orange to teen pregnancy and substance-abuse prevention programs and economic development and emergency preparedness planning — it’s clear there’s been an outsized impact to the region that’s worthy of celebration.

That celebration is planned for Oct. 13, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at the COG’s home, the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield. An open house at the COG offices upstairs from 3 to 4:30 will give people a chance to talk with staff and learn about projects and programs, followed from 4:30 to 5:30 by a reception with COG board members and legislators.

The creation of a council of governments to replace county government was an experiment of sorts. State government, which created counties for running jails, registries and courts, decided this layer of government was archaic and inefficient. Legislation called for Franklin County government to cease to operate, with the state assuming operation of the jail, courts and registry of deeds. A charter commission created a regional council of governments to carry on with regional services needed by the rural towns.

“We’ve been extraordinarily successful,” said Dunlavy, pointing back to the original charter commission’s attempt to retain the best of county government as a voluntary membership organization “to provide vital and necessary services to the towns. Every year, we’re monitoring what we do for the region and each community,” with membership assessment only 7 percent of the COG’s roughly $7 million budget. The rest comes from state, federal and other grants to run programs like the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Program and public health coordination.

Instead of a county government that gave towns little control over what they were assessed, the COG provides towns with a menu of add-on services, like building inspection and health inspection, for which they pay separate service fees.

“Every three or four years, said Dunlavy, “We have a town that says, ‘Prove to us that you’re valuable,’ and we’ve passed each test over the years. Every year, we have to prove ourselves in 26 towns. And we haven’t lost any.”

(The Hampshire Council of Governments, one of the few COGS created to fill the role of county governments in the 1990s, has lost some of its original Hampshire County towns as members.)

Bill Perlman of the COG Executive Committee was a member of the charter commission that established the council.

“I’ve done many different things in my life, but one of the things I’m proudest of is the COG, its formation and growth,” he said. “I think it’s more relevant than ever because it has over the years grown to meet more and more needs of the towns.”

A former Ashfield selectman, he points to everything from helping towns with bookkeeping and fire department planning to overseeing the communications network that emergency departments use to work over a challanging landscape for radio contact.

Jay DiPucchio, who oversaw the transition from county government to the COG and only this year returned to the COG Executive Committee, said the towns 20 years ago wanted a flexible, responsive regional mechanism that could meet their future needs — including advocacy and planning – in a largely urban state.

“I was there at its creation, and yet I’m still surprised at some of the things it’s getting involved with,” DiPucchio said. “It’s truly a dynamic organization, with an ability to respond to so many things. The scope is enormous, and what it brings back to this community in terms of physical resources is just astounding to me.”

One enormous boost for the COG came five years ago, when it moved from offices scattered on three floors of the old Franklin County Courthouse as well as rented space on multiple floors at 278 Main St.

“We knew that we were going to get more efficient when we moved into this building,” with various departments able to collaborate, Dunlavy said. “We didn’t have any idea how much better it was going to be.”

Still, she adds, “I think very few people understand who we are and what we do. I think a lot of people know of one or a couple or a few things, but I think there are very few Franklin County citizens who know everything that we do.”

On the Web: www.frcog.org