Sen.-elect Comerford talks health care, transportation before South Hadley Select Board

  • Jo Comerford running for Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester District Senate Seat.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/29/2018 9:10:42 AM

SOUTH HADLEY — Education, public transportation and health care took center stage at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting with state Sen.-elect Jo Comerford.

Comerford, who will represent the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester district, spent just over an hour speaking and taking questions about issues pertinent to South Hadley at the meeting.

In response to concerns about health care costs, which Select Board member Bruce Forcier called “staggering” to South Hadley, Comerford pointed to single-payer health care, a tenet of her campaign, as an important step for the state to take.

Comerford said that “the numbers are there” to support the implementation of a single -payer health care system, but that the House and Senate need to gain a better understanding of the issue.

“We just have to get inside the numbers to understand the efficacy of them,” Comerford said. “It also turns out to be the right thing to do, to actually value health care for all as a concept and not burden cities and towns with the cost, not force our seniors and other people living on fixed income to make these unspeakably awful decisions about food or medicine, heating.”

Both physical and mental health were addressed in the discussion, with attendee Allison Schlachter, who is also a member of the town’s School Committee, pointing to shortages in funding for supporting students with mental illnesses.

Comerford said that the state is experiencing “a mental health crisis,” and also pointed to the opioid crisis as another concern.

Comerford said that she has asked to lead the state’s Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, where she hopes to put her background in social work to use. Comerford also asked to chair the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, although she noted that first-year senators typically do not receive this appointment.

The Select Board voiced concerns about transportation, with Town Administrator Mike Sullivan adding that South Hadley has had its routes reduced by Pioneer Valley Transit Authority for two consecutive years, which he said can hinder job growth.

“To have routes cut in South Hadley as we try and reach out to parts of the community to access jobs and have people access jobs in South Hadley, it’s just somewhat defeating,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan added that in addition to economic improvements, increased public transportation would also have a positive environmental impact on the community.

“If we’re going to build communities that aren’t as dependent on fossil fuel and dependent on cars, public transportation, we just have to get better at it,” he added. “South Hadley is trying, but we certainly need the assistance to make sure we stay in the mix.”

Comerford agreed that transportation is a “critical” issue, noting that Gov. Charlie Baker “is very interested in transportation this year.”

Comerford also addressed education concerns, noting that western Massachusetts “struggles in three areas disproportionately”: High costs associated with rural transportation, charter school mitigation and school construction, which she said come in a “bundle” with funding issues in 1993’s Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.

Ira Brezinsky, chairman of the Select Board, said that the town has long grappled with these unresolved flaws.

“Over the years we’ve been probably in the 25 percent range underfunded,” Brezinsky said. “At the same time, South Hadley has always been over foundation budget in funding more than what’s required by law.”

Comerford said that she hopes to work with the various committees at the community level, and that she plans to hire one-and-a-half people for the district. This addition of one half is an unusual, small change, Comerford said, which she hopes will be meaningful in light of former Sen. Stanley Rosenberg’s departure, which she said left some “backlog” to deal with.

Comerford concluded the visit by affirming that she will be working “with” town officials, rather than anyone working for her.

“This is a definite partnership,” she said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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