Bill lets Hampshire County towns off the hook for $5.8M in pension liabilities 

  • The Main Street entrance to the Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton that was home to the Hampshire Council of Governments. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/6/2021 2:55:37 PM

NORTHAMPTON — An estimated $5.8 million in pension liabilities has been transferred from Hampshire County’s communities to the state retirement system.

The transfer is the result of legislation passed late Tuesday by the state House and Senate that paves the way for the final dissolution of the Hampshire Council of Governments. The bill goes next to the governor.

“I feel quite happy that the delegation was able to join together in the service of our cities and towns and ask the state to do the right thing,” said Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.

The Hampshire Council of Governments, also known as HCG, is the successor to Hampshire County Government. In 2019 HCG announced its intention to dissolve, citing financial issues related to the pension and health care liabilities of county retirees it was responsible for as well as a downturn in its energy business.

Since then, HCG has been divesting itself of assets and programming. The bill passed Tuesday should allow this process to be completed.

“I think it’s a really good end,” said Rus Peotter, HCG’s chair, speaking of the legislation prior to its passage.

A key portion of the legislation transfers the pension liabilities of HCG’s retirees to the state. For all of 2020, the cost for these pensions was born by the Hampshire County Retirement System and its 37 units. These units include towns like Amherst that haven’t been members of HCG for years. In 2018, HCG warned county communities could become liable for millions in long-term liability if the organization ceased to exist.

“This is very important legislation for all the communities in Hampshire County to have pass,” said Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Amherst would have been the largest contributor to funding the liability. Bockelman said that while the cost to Amherst is not gigantic on a yearly basis, it would have proved quite significant over time.

“It’s an important action for protecting the towns of Hampshire County,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, of the bill.

Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said all 12 members of the Hampshire County legislative delegation worked together to pass the bill. She noted that pension payments for HCG retirees will not be cut because of the transfer.

Other elements of the bill include transferring an HCG-owned cell tower in Goshen to the town and removing HCG from the governance structure of the Hampshire County Regional Housing Authority.

“Goshen and our neighboring towns can breathe a sigh of relief knowing we are protected by this legislation - no small feat,” said Angela Otis, chair of the Goshen Select Board, in a written statement.

She also praised the work of the Hampshire County delegation in facilitating HCG’s dissolution.

Two previous bills, passed in 2019, transferred the health liabilities of HCG retirees to the state and its old headquarters — the historic Hampshire County Courthouse — to the Trial Court.

Blais said the changes have occurred without harming communities or individuals.

“We protected the people who would be impacted,” she said.

Peotter said that the plan following the bill’s passage is to hold a final Zoom meeting, at which HCG would vote to accept the bill and then dissolve. Even then, he said there will still be some work left to do in completing the dissolution.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy