Taking the broad(er) view

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

There’s an emerging theme we’re seeing as we cover our local news, and it has to do with the definition of “local,” which for many organizations continues to take on a new meaning.

Take two stories that appeared the same day in last week’s Greenfield Recorder. On the front page for Feb. 20: “Job-seekers need to be even more mobile.” A Labor Market Blueprint drafted by the Franklin-Hampshire Regional Employment Board now includes Hampden County, the story reported.

“We’re doing this with a broader lens,” said Patricia Crosby, the executive director of the Franklin-Hampshire employment board, “because people need to be even more mobile, and to know what’s happening outside Franklin and Hampshire counties.”

Inside the paper that day was another story headlined “Anti-poverty agency rebrands to honor mission.” Rebranding is a fancy way of saying, we’re moving with the times. In this case, what was previously known as Community Action of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin regions will now be known simply as Community Action Pioneer Valley. The name change, explains Executive Director Clare Higgins, recognizes the work the agency also does in Hampden County. “We wanted the name to be more inclusive, to reflect the fact we really do work up and down the valley,” Higgins said.

There is hardly an arena of life in our coverage area that does not reflect this trend. In education, the term “regional” is being stretched by the commonwealth to encompass a larger number of students, regardless of how many towns they represent. That means regional school districts might end up becoming “regionalized” themselves in order to achieve newer, bigger economies of scale.

What’s next? Take emergency dispatch: Greenfield is exploring whether all public safety communications in Franklin County could be performed by one regional 911 dispatch center, based in Greenfield.

Shared volunteer fire departments: The buildings and equipment are so expensive that small towns are having a hard time getting voter approval to update their facilities.

Shared police departments: Small towns, again, keep eyeing their neighboring towns as candidates for shared chiefs and shared coverage.

The driving force has always been, and continues to be, money, especially state and federal funding, which no town can afford to ignore. As our state government is pressed to spend finite dollars in more ways, it looks for new ways to stretch what money it has. The day, if there ever was one, of unlimited increases in state aid, are gone. And so there is pressure within communities and from without to economize by banding together into ever larger regional entities. The drawback is loss of local autonomy: No one likes to be told what to do — especially by outsiders who hold the purse strings.

The term “outsider” grows as we grow, both personally and as citizens. The alternative is provincialism, a state of stuckness that jeopardizes us in our careers and in our government.

As both the regional employment board and Community Action Pioneer Valley demonstrate, taking a broader view enlarges our sense of neighborhood and that’s a trend we can expect to see more of.