Article

PASSION PLAY BEGINS: ‘THE SCREWING OF THE TAXPAYER’ … THE MOUNT’S WISSEL WANTS LENOX TAXPAYERS TO ASSUME HER $3.9 MILLION DEBT … TOWN MANAGER FEDERSPIEL CALLS THIS COLOSSALLY BAD IDEA ‘AN OPPORTUNITY.’ … DON’T LOOK NOW, LENOXITES, BUT YOU’RE ABOUT TO BE CAST AS THAT CRIPPLE, ETHAN FROME

By DAN VALENTI

PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary

(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, WEDNESDAY, MAY 1, 2013) — Welcome, my dears, to May, month of the mayflower, the singing larks, and the faint breezes of west-arriving winds. On this day, communists the world over meet in a large phone booth and show off the sizes of their missile, and, locally, candidates’ nomination papers become defiantly available.

It is also on this day that the revival of the annual passion play, “The Screwing of the Taxpayer,” picks up steam. This drama has been a long-running hit, especially popular as politicians fashion budgets based upon the demands of their owners — the Special Interests, led by the annual exercise in fiscal solipsism practiced by all who feed, tick like and sucking, off of “public education.” This would include teachers’ unions, school administrators, and the scaly politicians who dare not defy them.

We shall have more on the dire situation in Pittsfield in posts upcoming, but today, THE PLANET wishes to focus on a subtle-yet-audacious play by The Mount in Lenox to transfer its millions in debt to Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski. No wonder town manager Greg Federspiel is hightailing it out of town.

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So check this out. The Mount, the snooty, debt-ridden manse where writer Edith Wharton used to crash after exchanging headaches with Henry James, has a balloon mortgage payment due of $3.9 million. Not even the fake stories of ghosts in the attic could lure enough gullible tourists there, apparently.

GREG FEDERSPIEL, Lenox Town Manager

Instead of paying its debt, the way Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski must do when they borrow money, The Mount wants to hang this obligation around the necks of bedraggled Lenox taxpayers, and all soon-to-be-leaving Federspiel could muster is this lame, tame response: “We certainly need to gather much more information before any steps can be taken, but this opportunity certainly warrants additional thought and conversation.”

Yes, he called it an “opportunity,” the same way Tom Sawyer lured dumb lads into white-washing his fence because, so he said, it was so much fun. If this is an opportunity, then a tax hike is a sure thing.

Beware when hacks such as town managers or mayors gargle with the unmannerly oatmeal of the public purse and sniff dust that accumulates atop fences. They invariably eject pabulum, as Pittsfield has seen with the mediocre performances of Mayor Dan Bianchi and its school committee.  Little good can happen for ordinary people.

Good Lord: Another Case of ‘Thinking Outside the Box.’

Federspiel issued his quote to reporter Kameron Z. Spaulding — no relation to Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding, the African explorer (the “T” stands for “Edgar” and a big, black mustache). Spaulding toils — oh, how we wanted to say “writes”  — for The Berkshire Beacon, a still-nascent free weekly that seems to be trying to wear long pants for the first time by getting into some meaty issues with some fat. It’s still a loose fit, but we credit the Beacon for pitching.

Spaulding writes in his lede: “With the fear of a looming $4 million balloon payment waiting over her organization, Susan Wissler, the executive director of The Mount, has begun to look outside the box.” Yes, he used the phrase, “… has begun to look outside the box.” We shall assume the best — that he snuck it past the editor, who was predisposed undangling unruly participles and hitting the hooch buried in the top right drawer of his desk.

For Wissler, apparently, thinking outside the box means trying to lure the Town of Lenox “into a partnership … to relieve that debt.” Instead of stuffing Wissler back into the box, which the town manager should have instantly done, Federspiel thinks he see an “opportunity.” My dear Lenox brothers and sisters: Hang on to your wallets.

Actually,  Federspiel knows as well as you do and as well as THE PLANET that Wissler’s idea is as dumb as a tire track left in the mud, only he doesn’t have the oomph to say it. The exiting town manager seems to epitomize the neither-this, neither-that philosophy of government, where taking a stance, even when the issue is black and white, means declaring in favor of 50 shades of gray.

‘First and Foremost …’

Edith Wharton’s manse, The Mount, “first and foremost …”

“First and foremost, my job is to protect the property of The Mount,” Wissler told the Lenox community preservation committee. Fair enough. That’s when Federspiel needs to provide leadership along with the committee and say, “And our job, first and foremost, is to protect taxpayers from such folly. The debt is your problem, lady. Thanks for the offer, but ‘No thanks.”

When will cities and towns ever learn about these so-called public-private monsters? Such projects are pitched as “investments” promising risk-free returns (“economic engines,” they call them in Pittsfield). In reality, they are albatrosses offering “return-free risk,” a neat turn of phrase that can be found in the current issue of The Economist, the article on the problems caused by cheap money (i.e., low interest rates).

Not to stop at her “first and foremost job” of trying to get The Mount out of deadbeat status, Wissler, a regular Renaissance woman made that way, perhaps, from costumes left in The Mount’s attic from Shakespeare & Co.,  thinks she must also do Federspiel’s job and serve also as the community preservation expert, telling the board, “It seems that this [proposal] would meet the open space needs of the town. This would make this great property open up to all residents.” Yes, madam, and “seems” is not “is.” Ask Wallace Stevens and “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

What They Mean When They Start Tossing Around the Word ‘Free’

Here’s what she means. Presently, Lenox residents must cough up $16 to the grounds. If the taxpayers take on $3.9 million in debt, though, town residents can walk the grounds for “free.” Yes, Wissler said “free,” as if the residents’ higher taxes will be plucked, like Pretty Polly, from the money tree out back.

Oh, by the way, if town officials stick Lenox residents with nearly $4 million in new debt, while residents can walk the grounds for “free,” they would still have to pay to get inside the old manse. Ditto if they want to attend one of the Mount’s cultural programs, such as touring the bathrooms where Edith Wharton took powders, as they used to say of one of the first flush toilets in town. To top it off, after paying The Mount’s $4 million obligation, town taxpayers would still be responsible for property maintenance of anywhere from 50 to 150 acres. Some “free.”

This debt swap is a colossally stupid idea, one that Federspiel and the preservation commission should have rejected out-of-hand. The best course of action here is for The Mount to play grownup. It has taken on balloon debt. It must pay or end up like that sled-sliding putz, Ethan Frome. Simple as that. And to call Ethan Frome a “putz” is to understand the novel with a prescience that borders on scary.

When will public officials learn that taxpayers’ backs can only be broken so many times? Such vertebraeic fractures are not sustainable in the long term, and yes, THE PLANET realizes, the question is rhetorical.

We want to know how you feel, member of the public, about taking on a debt such as this. The floor is yours.

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“All the words that I utter, / And all the words that I write, / Must spread out their wings untiring, / And never rest in their flight, / Till they come where your sad, sad heart is, / And sing to you in the night, / Beyond where the waters are moving,/ Storm-darkened or starry night.”William Butler Yeats, “Where My Words Go.”

OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.

LOVE TO ALL.

 

29 Responses to “PASSION PLAY BEGINS: ‘THE SCREWING OF THE TAXPAYER’ … THE MOUNT’S WISSEL WANTS LENOX TAXPAYERS TO ASSUME HER $3.9 MILLION DEBT … TOWN MANAGER FEDERSPIEL CALLS THIS COLOSSALLY BAD IDEA ‘AN OPPORTUNITY.’ … DON’T LOOK NOW, LENOXITES, BUT YOU’RE ABOUT TO BE CAST AS THAT CRIPPLE, ETHAN FROME”

  1. Relax
    April 30, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    Dan,

    This issue would likely be put to a vote at a special town meeting. So, it’s a little much to suggest that this plan would be forced on the voters. If the voters agree to it, isn’t that direct democracy in action?

    Finally, to call Ethan Frome a “putz,” is to fundamentally misunderstand that novel.

    • danvalenti
      April 30, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

      THE PLANET thanks RELAX for this comment and for proofing this column, which incorporates his findings.

  2. Rick
    April 30, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

    You left out the part about books and a few things inside the building, not included.The books, which are partly responsible for this mountain of debt.

    • GMHeller
      May 1, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

      Not partly, mostly!
      $2.6 million of The Mount’s fiscal misery can be directly attributed to the generous purchase price The Mount paid a few years back to buy Wharton’s Library from a British bookseller. (Has anyone ever found out just how much the bookseller paid to obtain the Wharton library in the first place?)

      In a series of articles beginning in early March 2008, the Berkshire Blog profiled The Mounts list of troubles. (Remember disgraced former Executive Director Stephanie Copeland for whom The Mount paid big bucks to maintain in an “office’ (read: cushy in-town pied-a-terre) on Manhattan’s West Side?
      Here are some Berkshire Blog headlines from the period:

      “Edith Wharton to IRS: ‘Mount This!’ — Failure to report ‘fringe benefits’ could leave CEO, Trustees at The Mount liable.”

      “Edith Wharton Restoration: Living the ‘Gilded’ Life While Wallowing in Massive Debt.”

      “Edith Wharton’s Library: A Benefactor’s Largess Misappropriated? — $744,000 Meant for Books Was Used To Cover ‘Operating Deficit’ — Private Lender Still Waiting to Be Paid.”

      Here is the link:
      http://www.berkshireeagle.blogspot.com/2008_03_01_archive.html

      • danvalenti
        May 1, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

        GMH
        THE PLANET is glad to recognize your fine work on The Mount’s mounting problems over the years, and we thank you for sharing your work with us. It helps us tell more of the story, which, as you and others have pointed out, stems in large part from the foolish purchase, at a ruinous price, of Wharton’s library.

  3. bobbyd
    May 1, 2013 at 5:05 am #

    Looks like a beautiful site for a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through.

    • danvalenti
      May 1, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

      Excellent idea, bobby!

  4. MrG1188
    May 1, 2013 at 5:59 am #

    I think putz is a reasonable characterization. And when I read this article in the Eagle last week I had PRECISELY the same reaction, “Look out Lenox taxpayers.” Why would anyone look at this as a good deal unless they had a financial interest in the debt-laden property? Does Lenox really need more public green space?!?

    • danvalenti
      May 1, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

      MR G1188
      Yes, and when the Boring Broadsheet ran this piece, it did not do the followup. It presented the story as it was hand-fed to them by The Mount.

      • MrG1188
        May 3, 2013 at 5:22 am #

        Just so you know Dan, my comment was not intended in any way as a shot at your coverage of the story…or even a comparison of yours vs. the Eagle’s. Merely the background for saying my reaction to the news was the same as yours, and for that matter probably most other reasonable human beings. I don’t care who gets a story first, what I want is to be well-informed. That’s why I come here. Thanks.

        • danvalenti
          May 3, 2013 at 8:00 am #

          Many thanks to you, MR G. You are a welcome addition to this site.

  5. Still wondering
    May 1, 2013 at 8:27 am #

    Speaking of screwing the taxpayers, how about the pricetag for “renovating” Monument Regional High School?

  6. GMHeller
    May 1, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Remember, too, that for Lenox taxpayers to take on legal responsibility for The Mount also means placing The Mount squarely within the jurisdiction of state and federal regulations that apply to government.
    Think paying prevailing wages to all those Mount gardeners and maintenance people; think putting out to public bid all Mount maintenance projects like roof repair, annual painting, etc..
    Hey, are The Mount’s facilities totally ADA-accessible; Is there an ADA-accessible elevator accessible to the top floor?

    Plus, think of all those cushy benefits that Town employees get that will now also apply to Mount employees.
    Mount employees will be eligible to join the Town of Lenox healthcare and dental plans, and will also be eligible to join the generous pension plan available to Town employees.

  7. GMHeller
    May 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    If you thought Lenox’ unfunded liabilities were high before, check out what would happen to those numbers should The Mount become Town owned.

  8. Sean
    May 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    This entire discussion opened up (to me) insights that I had overlooked when I first read of the possibility.

    My first thought was to preserve an historic local treasure whatever it took. But then more intelligent minds then my own showed me that this cost was to be carried on forever by a very few people.

    And the site itself while famously renowned and beloved by historians is only visited by a scattering of tourists with a romanticized love for The Dame Wharton’s memory.

    And she does has some serious history to consider.

    I am curious if those opposed to this abuse of the Lenox taxpayer’s dollar would feel the same way if we could turn back the clock and have the citizens of Pittsfield “buy” Union Station, at the bottom of West Street…. and would they (every taxpayer) be still happy paying for its existence to this very day…..and ad infinitum.

    I personally would!

    • danvalenti
      May 1, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

      SEAN
      These are the remarks of an intelligent man. An open mind is the greatest sign of intellectual maturity.

  9. blind Justice
    May 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    If Federspiel likes it , it is BAD for Lenox residents.

    BTW, glad to see him go. I don’t think the Town could do worse for a replacement even if it tried, and I am sure they GOBs will try their best.

  10. dusty
    May 1, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    I am not sure what level of comparison it is but Pittsfield has its Colonial theater, which I believe was originally sold to the taxpayers as a two million dollar investment. When the snowball eventually came to a stop some distance from the bottom of the hill I believe the costs was closer to 30 million singles. And it would not surprise me to find out that the taxpayers were still propping it up without their knowledge.

    And what is it that we humans seem to think we have to keep all our heroes memories alive forever. Turn this place into a research center and keep the name. Edith Wharton Bio-Medical Research Center.

    • Gene
      May 1, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

      One thing is for sure if Lenox citizens go along with this cockamamey plan, the cost will be much higher than The Mount is
      trying to “sell” to the town.

      The $4 million debt when you factor in all the upkeep etc mentioned by Mr Heller will be many times that. And I wonder (my sister lives in Lenox) what the heck has happened to that once lovely little town.

      • danvalenti
        May 1, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

        GENE
        You sister is not alone in trying to figure this out. It has to do, in large part, of course, with terrible political representation.

    • Wilson
      May 2, 2013 at 10:39 am #

      Pittsfield should buy it as a residence for the Chief Superintendent of Schools (salary range $2-3.5 million, plus full benefits). We need it to attract the best candidates! Anyone who disagrees is a child abusing miser!

  11. tito
    May 1, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    The Mount isn’t as classy as the Rice Silk Mill apartments, it’s close though.

  12. Giacometti
    May 1, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    I think the BB reaction to the demise of The Mount might have something to do with the fact that Michael Miller was once chairman of The Mounts Board of Directors

    • dusty
      May 2, 2013 at 1:07 am #

      If the BB gave a rats colon about Michael Miller they would not have disemboweled that newspaper.

  13. GMHeller
    May 2, 2013 at 3:04 am #

    God forbid that The Mount might someday end-up like Blantyre and turned into a for-profit business that is back on local tax rolls and pays the hefty real estate, sales, and personal property taxes that every other for-profit entity in Lenox and Berkshire County is forced to pay.
    Now, for Berkshire Liberals that’s a scary thought!
    And look what’s happening over yonder in Stockbridge where Elm Court, another Gilded Age white elephant, is seeking to adapt to survive in the big bad commercial world and where its latest Capitalist developer is seeking permission from Stockbridge voters to allow that venture to expand in order to make a profit.
    Funny, how the long Obama Depression is forcing Berkshire ex-hippies to comprehend that maybe, just maybe, allowing businesses to focus on making money isn’t such a bad thing.

    • blind Justice
      May 2, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

      ROFL- me and I think Dan are Ex- “hippies”

      Dan?

      Lenox has gone to hell literally and figuartivly (sp?) .

      Thank Mr Feederspiel and the recent Selectmen whom I DID NOT VOTE FOR.

      • danvalenti
        May 2, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

        BJ
        You lost me on the first part.

  14. GMHeller
    May 5, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    This from a report in Sunday’s BB on Monterey’s Annual Town Meeting in re The Wilson-McLaughlin House, which years ago Monterey voters agreed to take over as a town-owned property (similar to what The Mount is now asking Lenox voters to do): “……. a 2009 state-court ruling that the town-owned property be completed at prevailing wage increased costs 30 to 40 percent.”
    Imagine the cost of having to replace the roof of The Mount at prevailing wage rates (union scale).