South Hadley town administrator proposes merging three departments

Audience members applaud as the Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging.

Audience members applaud as the Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging.

The Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Carolyn Gammons, left, and Sandy Calkins listen along as the Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging. The council, along with veterans services and recreation, would be merged into a new department under South Hadley’s 2025 budget.

Carolyn Gammons, left, and Sandy Calkins listen along as the Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging. The council, along with veterans services and recreation, would be merged into a new department under South Hadley’s 2025 budget. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging.

The Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging. STAFF PHOTOs/DAN LITTLE

Audience members applaud as the Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging.

Audience members applaud as the Jazzers from Berkshire Hills Music Academy perform Thursday afternoon at the South Hadley Council on Aging. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The South Hadley Senior Center on Thursday afternoon. The town has a plan to merge the Council for Aging along with recreation and veterans services into a new human services department in 2025.

The South Hadley Senior Center on Thursday afternoon. The town has a plan to merge the Council for Aging along with recreation and veterans services into a new human services department in 2025.

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 02-22-2024 5:42 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — The town’s recreation and veterans services departments and the Council on Aging will merge under a new human services department in fiscal year 2025 to maximize impact of social and mental health services within new budget constraints.

The proposal for the new department comes as town and school officials grapple with how to close a $2.3 million budget deficit projected next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Town Administrator Lisa Wong said the new structure will allow the three departments to share management, grant-writing and fundraising services while also creating a collaborative environment to plan programs and outreach.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to collaborate, consolidate and create impact,” Wong said during a Tri-Board Meeting this week of the Select Board, School Committee and Board of Appropriations. “We’ve got incredible staff. We have fantastic facilities. We have wonderful boards, volunteers. So there’s a lot of experience that exists here.

“There’s so many different initiatives that are happening again, often in silos. I want to try to bring those all together, elevate and support that energy.”

Despite the increased human services work in the town, like pickleball tournaments, dementia-friendly communities and veterans services, Wong said data from a Community Health Needs Assessment from the Holyoke Medical Center identified various disparities within South Hadley that current services fail address or consider in decisions.

These include an increasing number of residents living below poverty — Asian, Hispanic or Latino and mixed-race residents in town are disproportionately effected by poverty and make half the median income of white and Black residents — as well as higher excessive drinking and infant mortality compared to the state average. The Human Services Department will use this data to refocus resources on underserved communities as part of its duties.

“You can see that these three departments can often overlap, but there’s a lot of people that fall outside of these circles, and these are not the people that we’re necessarily capturing, and they might be in that data that we just saw,” Wong said. “And that’s where we might be wanting to target some of our resources or energy.”

According to the working draft of the department’s mission statement presented at the meeting, residents of all ages will benefit from the department in its mission of “promoting independence, personal enrichment, community connectedness and enhance quality of life for residents of all ages though a variety of programs, advocacy, collaboration, education, inclusivity and service.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Next 5-story building cleared to rise in downtown Amherst
‘Our hearts were shattered’: Moved by their work in Mexico soup kitchen, Northampton couple takes action
Hampshire County youth tapped to advise governor’s team
Amherst-Pelham schools look to address school absences with new plan
Northampton School Committee takes stand for budget increase during emotional meeting
Amherst regional superintendent candidate stresses inclusion, broad expertise

Over the next month, a working group consisting of members from town boards and committees will research other towns’ human service departments and refine the mission statement and decide on goals and strategies for the department.

At the same time, town officials will work to consolidate staff and resources in time for a budget hearing on March 26. The goal is to keep the department’s budget between $800,000 and $900,000 for the coming fiscal year, or about $100,000, to $200,000 less than the current year.

Appropriations Committee member Jessica DeFlumer asked how the new department would integrate into existing social programs and systems without duplicating services. Wong said governments can tackle health issues from a different angle than mental health professionals or existing nonprofits.

She used an example from Fitchburg, which once had the second-highest rate of child obesity in the state.

While Wong was mayor, she worked with departments to brainstorm fun activities for children that gave them access to healthy food and exercise, such as rearranging the cafeteria to look like a farmers market and organizing neighborhood walks.

“After a few years, we had one of the largest drops in childhood obesity rates in the country. And we did not spend a dime on programming,” Wong said. “It was just about harnessing the power within a community.”

A human services council made up of stakeholders and residents impacted by social issues will steer the new department. It will not supersede the Recreation Committee or Council on Aging but rather collaborate with the other boards to ensure the department’s goals are met and strategies are effective.

Wong plans to present the proposed department for approval at Town Meeting in May. She invites the public to submit input and feedback at lwong@southhadleyma.gov.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.