Bill filed to dissolve Hampshire Council of Governments, shift $5.9M pension liability to state

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

Staff Writer
Published: 7/20/2019 2:15:10 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Legislation filed by area lawmakers this week aims to dissolve the Hampshire Council of Governments and cover its financial obligations, including $5.9 million owed to the Hampshire Regional Retirement System.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and the other senators and representatives whose communities include the member towns in Hampshire County filed the bill to make sure these towns would not be subject to any liability from the organization’s closure — and to set in motion a plan to turn over its headquarters in the historic Hampshire County Courthouse in downtown Northampton to the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance.

Comerford said Friday that should the legislation pass, HCG would be effectively dissolved Aug. 31, though she said the bill might change as it works its way through the Legislature.

“There is a high chance that the legislation will be amended or tweaked as it moves through the legislative process,” Comerford said.

Rus Peotter, chairman of the HCG board, said Friday his organization has been working for months with the legislators and gave them a “punch list” of issues that needed to be addressed through legislation.

“It addresses everything we’ve thought of so far,” Peotter said.

HCG members are grateful that the issues will be dealt with, Peotter said, in both ways the board suggested and in ways it didn’t, as well as for the hard work Comerford and other legislators have put into solving them.

Officials at HCG have worked to sell or transfer its programs, with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments already picking up a portion of the procurement program, but the legislative delegation has been concerned only with how HCG’s assets and liabilities are resolved and its health care and pension contributions are handled — and that employees are taken care of, Comerford said.

“This legislation is designed to account for all of the other pieces of work included in dissolving HCG, resolving its assets and liabilities, a disposition for the Hampshire County Courthouse, and dissolving the Council of Governments,” Comerford said.

The $5.9 million appropriation for the Hampshire County Retirement System is based on an estimate of the unfunded liability for pension payments to HCG retirees. Just 10 of them worked for HCG, while 55 previously worked for the former Hampshire County nursing home Hampshire Care.

Another aspect of the dissolution includes moving the health care contracts for 52 of these retirees to the state’s Group Insurance Commission. The language for the appropriation in the legislation also gives the state the ability to make monthly payments to the Hampshire Group Insurance Trust for the cost of these health care contracts until these retirees have chosen new health care plans with the Group Insurance Commission.

Concerning the courthouse, the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance could sell or rent the building, but would need to offer the property to Northampton for nominal consideration before this happened. The legislation also specifies that if the state agency were to sell or rent the building, the courthouse grounds and any historic items within it would remain available to the public.

Other aspects of the legislation include conveying a cell tower in Goshen to the state capital asset agency for continued use by state police and the Hampshire County mutual aid system; conveying rights and titles for county roads to the Department of Transportation, which is already managing and maintaining these roads; and conveying HCG’s authority to appoint members to the board of the Hampshire Regional Housing Authority to town select boards.

The legislation was filed this week as HCG revealed some of the challenges it faces in the wind-down period, including its pension liabilities and insurance payments.

Peotter confirmed that the organization is only able to commit to paying insurance premiums to the Hampshire County Group Insurance Trust through the end of August. In lieu of making these payments, employees and retirees would lose their health care through the trust.

The idea for legislation is modeled after legislation to dissolve county governments in 1999.

With HCG going away, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments is stepping in to assume some of the workload, taking on Ellen Batchelder as the assistant procurement officer after she transferred from HCG. Eventually these services across both counties will be blended, with FRCOG acting as one entity for Franklin and Hampshire counties as of fiscal year 2021, which begins on July 1, 2020.

Peotter said other HCG services have migrated to other agencies, such as the Retired Senior Volunteer Program being taken over by Community Action, and the Tobacco Free Hampshire County Coalition going to the Collaborative for Educational Services.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

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

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy