Resolutions on the Holyoke Soldiers Home and systemic racism, update on FY2020 finances, Council approves new Hazard Mitigation plan
By Brian Z. Zayatz
On Thursday, August 20th, City Council held its 15th regularly scheduled meeting of the year via Zoom. All Councilors were present.
Three members of the public spoke during public comment. Steve Jones, a public health physician formerly of the CDC, spoke in favor of the Council’s resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, and reported that earlier that evening the Board of Health had passed a similar resolution. John Parody spoke on behalf of the Holyoke Soldiers Home Coalition, a group of veterans and their families working to improve conditions for residents of the home seeking resources for improvements to veteran care in Western Mass after the deaths of 76 residents during a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. Parody spoke in favor of the resolution regarding the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, noting that a number of other local municipalities have passed similar resolutions and saying that after years of neglect by the state, “now it’s our time to get it right.” Jose Adastra expressed appreciation for the resolution on racism, but said he wished there was some way to get direct aid to houseless residents who know what they need.
Following public comment, Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) gave a quick update about the Policing Review Commission. She announced that Councilors Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) and Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) will represent the Council on the commission, and that she will announce the remaining City Council appointees at the September 3rd meeting. Councilor Sciarra is choosing seven out of fifty applicants to serve on the commission; between City Council and the Mayor’s office, 63 total applications were received.
The Council considered a resolution that directs Governor Baker and high ranking state legislators to approve funding for proper staffing at the Holyoke Soldiers Home and expedite the design of a new Soldiers Home with facilities in full compliance with VA guidelines. The resolution, introduced by Councilors Quinlan and Marianne Labarge (Ward 6), with the recommendation of Mayor Narkewicz and the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services, describes the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility as “one of the country’s worst veteran tragedies.” After a number of councilors spoke in favor of the resolution over the course of half an hour, Councilors passed the resolution in two readings in order to get it to the Governor as soon as possible.
Next, the Council considered a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis outlining a number of recommendations for the federal, state, and municipal levels, which is a heavily revised version of a controversial resolution introduced more immediately in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Many of these recommendations, including increasing funding for training and misconduct investigations and the formation of a state commission to investigate structural racism, were specifically decried by activists over the course of several City Council meetings in the late spring and early summer.
Councilor John Thorpe (Ward 4), the Council’s only African-American member and co-author of this and the original resolution, introduced it in his typical spare fashion, calling it a “small step but a step in the right direction.” Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large), who also co-authored the resolution, recycled some of his talking points from recent discussions of racism, including a meditation of what the phrase “public safety” means and to whom it applies.
During discussion, Councilor Jarrett suggested including in the resolution a clause on regular reviews of the impact of the city’s ordinances to see if any, in practice, disproportionately negatively affected residents of color, and Councilor Quinlan suggested including a clause on creating a municipal, in addition to a statewide, office of diversity and equal opportunity. Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) expressed appreciation at the public health framing, as it brought attention to the fact that racism is a “sickness that we all have… something we can all take on that we all need to work on.” Councilor Labarge asked if the sponsors would like to have two consecutive readings, but Councilor Dwight said he would like to take Councilors Jarratt and Quinlan’s suggestions into account. The resolution passed first reading unanimously after 40 minutes of discussion.
During the recess for the Financial Committee, Finance Director Susan Wright gave an update on how the city’s revenues and expenditures compared to the budget for FY2020. According to Wright, the city’s fourth quarter hotel/motel and meal tax revenues were down collectively over $150,000, though earlier in the year they had been up over $100,000 from the year before. The city made $1.64 million in marijuana tax revenue, in FY20, the first full year that revenues were collected. Marijuana revenue dropped every quarter, which Wright attributed in part to this past fall’s vape ban and later the pandemic. Parking revenues, which usually run around $2 million and were budgeted for $1.8 million, came in at $1.2 million due to several months of no enforcement.
However, due to the pandemic, ambulance revenue was slightly higher than last year’s, totaling $2.2 million. Wright reported that while there were slightly fewer calls in FY20 compared to FY19, the calls received were often more intensive, resulting in higher revenue. The city’s investments also performed well as the stock market rebounded. Ultimately, Wright concluded, the city fared well considering the circumstances. Several departments including Police and Fire, came in under budget, due to personnel turnover and low utility costs (the Police Dept. only spent about $6 million, resulting in $626,000 being returned to the general fund). The enterprise funds ended the year mostly as expected, except for water, which did not bring in as much revenue due to Smith College’s sending students home and businesses closing.
Hazard Mitigation plan
The Council closed the meeting with a vote on adopting a new Hazard Mitigation plan created by an ad-hoc committee. The plan is updated every five years. The city’s Director of Sustainability and Planning, Wayne Feiden, tuned in to give some background. The most important part of the plan, it seemed, was testing the levee along the Connecticut River to see if it needs maintenance. The strength of the levee has serious implications for new constructions and insurance in the city, including parts of the downtown area, as a bad rating from FEMA could result in a freeze on construction and extremely high insurance rates, or an assessment of some buildings as uninsurable. The plan also includes some expanded details on the city’s forthcoming Resiliency Hub, which was a recommendation of the Mayor’s secretive Panhandling Work Group. Feiden noted in response to a question from Councilor Foster that the department is currently applying for grants for the Hub (and has received some small ones), considering partner organizations, and looking for spaces that could serve similar purposes in the shorter term. The Council voted unanimously in favor on first reading, and concluded the meeting in about three hours.
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring.