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Library hosts state officials' cabinet meeting

Date: 4/12/2013

By Carley Dangona

AGAWAM — The Agawam Public Library hosted Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and his municipal cabinet tour on April 4. Many topics were discussed, but the theme of collaboration among cities, towns and the state dominated.

The meeting attracted municipal leaders from Agawam, Easthampton, Longmeadow and Worcester. Agawam Mayor Richard Cohen said, "It's a great honor to have the lieutenant governor here. He's keeping the promise not to forget the western region — West of Worchester, we do exist, and they've [the state] has been good to us. We're glad to have them, but what we're hoping for is less meetings and more money."

Murray began the meeting by thanking attendees for their participation. "Some of the feedback and constructive criticism [from past cabinet meetings] has let to improvements [at the state level] on a whole range of fronts — a lot of good has come from this. There are 351 cities and towns that we need to be paying attention to — they are all important," he said.

He stressed the importance of meeting with individual municipalities.

"Local government is closest to the people, and we will continue to partner with communities to ensure cities and towns have the resources to grow as we invest in the state's long-term economic development plan, Murray said."

Robert Nunes, deputy commissoner of the Division of Local Services, echoed the sentiment, "We work very closely with cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth." He complimented Agawam for having $7 million in free cash.

Pam Kocher, director of Local Policy for Administration and Finance, spoke about the Community Innovation Challenge Grant Program. "In its first year, we were able to fund 27 projects from multiple communities in the amount of $2.2 million. For next year, we requested $7 million in Gov. Deval Patrick's budget. We usually receive $20 million in requests, but if [the available funds] are given to the right projects and the right communities, they can make a big difference. Ten or so of those programs were in Western Massachusetts," she said.

Kocher explained the savings gained from the health insurance reform process that was enacted in July 2011. "Overall, we've seen communities save $205 million or more because of the premium they were able to achieve based on adjustments to plans. That is a benefit to employers and employees. Seventy million dollars of that came from 81 cities and towns using this new expedited process, which is bargaining with the public employee committee, but it's done on an expedited track. The bulk of the savings resulted from 137 local government entities working on their own to review and streamline their own insurance packages."

Kathy Reilly, director of Strategic Sourcing for the Operational Services Division, discussed the use of local goods and services for state operations. "We are responsible for procurement of contracts for the state goods and services," she said, adding that of the 1,200 vendors the Commonwealth utilizes, 64 of them are from Hampden County that totals $14.5 million worth of purchase in the first half of this fiscal year alone.

Murray added, "It's a tremendous opportunity for communities. Any business should take the time to inquire if their goods and services can be utilized by the state."

Frank Pozniak, executive director of the 9-1-1 department for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, discussed efforts of some municipalities to regionalize and consolidate call centers. He explained that his department offers an incentive grant program to establish these collaborative centers, called Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), and it provides the necessary equipment for operation of them.

"Our program is funded through a surcharge as you may see on your phone bills. That 75 cents funds the entire program," he said. "Currently in the Commonwealth, we have 256 PSAPs." He added that the grant program began in fiscal year 2009. A local effort to create a regional PSAP with Palmer, Monson, Warren and Ware is ongoing.

Stephen Crane, town manager for Longmeadow and a former municipal administrator in Wisconsin, said, "There are many great partnerships that can be developed for all kinds of different projects. I appreciate these efforts towards regionalization much more now that I've been someplace else and seen how they can work when state and municipal leaders remain open-minded to change and are willing to have a conversation where the goal 'is to find reasons to do this' and not 'to find reasons why this isn't going to work.'"

He continued, "It sounds like the Commonwealth is ready to be supportive, but not everything's the right fit. We want to make sure communities are judged on the effort and ability to try to do these things and not on whether or not we decided if it's the right fit for us."

Murray named Franklin County as an "inspirational model" for regionalization.

Cohen said that the Western Massachusetts municipalities share resources all the time. "Most communities are very helpful in that way," he stated.