One final push? With courthouse transferred to state, work remains to dissolve HCG

  • The Main Street entrance to the Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton, home to the Hampshire Council of Governments. Photographed April 17, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2019 3:19:36 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When ownership of the historic Hampshire County Courthouse was recently transferred to the state Trial Court, it marked another step in the long process to dissolve the Hampshire Council of Governments.

However, there are still several outstanding issues for state lawmakers to resolve before HCG, the successor to county government, can cease operations. The remaining hurdles include transferring $5.9 million in pension liabilities to the state, as well as figuring out what to do with other HCG assets, such as some old county roads and a cell tower in Goshen.

“Our hope is that there is just one final push,” said state Sen. Jo Comerford, who together with the rest of the region’s delegation has led efforts to shepherd through legislation to dissolve HCG.

The first piece of business that Comerford and others were able to get passed on Beacon Hill was the transfer of health care contracts for 52 retirees to the state’s Group Insurance Commission. That piece of legislation was tackled early in the process to avoid any lapse in health care coverage for those retirees.

The transfer of the historic courthouse was next, Comerford said, so that a new owner could be in place before winter. Comerford said she was worried that if the transfer were delayed, there wouldn’t have been anyone to clear snow from the courthouse sidewalks or make sure the building’s pipes didn’t freeze. The transfer also had to take place during a formal session of the Legislature.

“Thank goodness the Legislature was willing to be worried about that, too,” Comerford said in a phone interview Monday morning, after the region saw its first major snowstorm of the season. 

Comerford said the state’s takeover of the building, as much as it made sense, wasn’t a guarantee.  

“The state wasn’t sure that it wanted to assume responsibility for the building,” Comerford said. 

Comerford’s office and Russell Peotter, chairman of the HCG board, gave a tour of the courthouse to Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey as well as officials from the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance. And the group made sure they were available if the state had any more questions about the property, Comerford said.

With those big priorities out of the way, the region’s legislative delegation is turning its attention to the remaining issues, including the transfer of pension liabilities from the Hampshire County Retirement System to the state. 

“Our hope is that we are able to move those from the local pension system to the state pension system — and that work is underway,” Comerford said. She added that she doesn’t see the issue as a sticking point but rather as a complicated puzzle that requires considerable thought: “We have to think through all of the ramifications of what is a pretty sizable move.”

Comerford said she is not predicting a timetable, but she hopes that work can be accomplished by next month.

Comerford praised her chief of staff, Jared Freedman, as well as Peotter and HCG executive assistant Lydia King for their work to dissolve the organization.

Overall, Comerford said the difficulty of untangling and dissolving HCG has been an example of the heavy legislative lifting the region’s delegation to Beacon Hill can accomplish when they work as one.

“Leadership in the Legislature expects and deserves painstaking work, like what went into the preparation for these conversations,” she said. “If we can work unified on behalf of the region, we are able to move big pieces of work like HCG with the same kind of muscle as our eastern counterparts.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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