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Faced with a staffing crunch and a lack of qualified job applicants in the region, Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge have created a regional building inspection department to serve the four towns.
The four towns began sharing building inspection services on Oct. 1, in a department based in Great Barrington. So far, the towns have a commissioner and one inspector who had worked in Lee and Lenox, with plans to hire two more inspectors.
The arrangement is one of numerous regional services in the western part of the state, as communities face a tight labor market and compete over the few applicants who do emerge, particularly in more technical fields.
Great Barrington Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said he started the discussion with the other towns earlier this year after the town’s inspector retired, and after spending 18 months advertising for a vacant assistant inspector position without luck.
“That kind of gives you an idea for the situation we’re in out here in western Mass.,” Pruhenski said. “There’s just a very limited pool of candidates, but in some cases there is no pool at all, of qualified candidates.”
The new department is built around a new commissioner, Matt Kollmer, who worked as Great Barrington’s assistant inspector for six years before becoming the building commissioner for Lee and Lenox. (It was Kollmer’s assistant position that Great Barrington couldn’t fill for 18 months.) On the side, he also served as Stockbridge’s building inspector.
“He’s had experience in all four towns, which made that nice,” said Lee Town Administrator R. Christopher Brittain. “So we kind of just made that official as an (intermunicipal agreement) with the four towns.”
Brittain said discussions about the new department took place over the summer, and the four select boards approved the intermunicipal agreement in September.
The arrangement grants communities some autonomy in enforcing zoning rules and issuing fines. While the towns share resources, Pruhenski said, the agreement states that any proceeds originating from enforcement actions, and any costs incurred by hearings and enforcement, belong to the town that initiated the action. And while the department operates from Great Barrington, each community will provide administrative staff and office space to serve the public.
The shared department is expected to provide several benefits, officials said, including that the four towns no longer have to compete over building inspector applicants. The towns can now create a succession plan and ensure continuity of services when an employee gets sick, takes a vacation or resigns.
“I hope to see it as a long-term solution,” Brittain said. “When you have these one-person departments and somebody leaves — particularly when they leave without a lot of notice — it becomes a crisis for a small town. So we’re hoping that this will work well and prevent that.”
Under the arrangement, the towns will divide costs based on the percentage of permits each town issued in the most recent fiscal year, which works out to Great Barrington paying 32%; Lee, 24%; Lenox, 26%; and Stockbridge, 18%.
Pruhenski said the four-person department is expected to cost $345,000 this fiscal year, including $120,000 for the commissioner and $75,000 for each inspector.
Berkshire County towns have many combinations of communities sharing services, including human resources, public health and transportation. Earlier this year, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and several other towns launched the TriTown Connector, an on-demand, public ride-share service for residents. And Lee, which already provides ambulance service to Stockbridge, is conducting a study with Stockbridge about the possibility of sharing both fire and emergency medical services, Brittain said.