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Take My Council, Please: Another Road to Recovery…


One day at a time. (WMP&I and Google images)

SPRINGFIELD—On Monday, the City Council received a briefing on plans for Springfield’s share of the opioid settlement. Health & Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris explained how her department will build out a response to opiate addiction within the city. Her presentation came with a startling statistic: a four-fold increase in opiate deaths from 2014 to 2020. 

Broadly speaking, different communities have experienced the opioid crisis differently. As an urban center facing challenges from poverty to health disparities, the toll of drug addiction is not alien to Springfield. However, the opioid crisis rocketed to public consciousness, in part, because of its impact outside the inner city. Still, Caulton-Harris’ data underscores how Springfield has not escaped the scourge. 

Councilors Sean Curran, Jose Delgado, Zaida Govan, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield participated remotely. 

The meeting opened with reports from committees. This largely consisted of Finance Committee Chair Timothy Allen’s outlines of his panel’s review, including on the opioid funds. 

Nonetheless, the body received reports from the General Government, Maintenance & Development and Health & Human Services committees, too. 

The body received the March revenue & expenditure report from Comptroller Pat Burns. According to Burns, with three-fourths of fiscal year 2023 down, the city was largely on track. The city has received 75% of anticipated revenue and spent 74% of budgeted expenditures. 

The Council unanimously confirmed Vana Nespor to the Springfield Historical Commission. Mayor Domenic Sarno appointed her as the Springfield Preservation Trust’s representative on the Commission. The SPT has nominated a historical commissioner since 1983. 

Nespor outlined her background in academia, including running programs to help women graduate. Her career has taken her across the world, but she had served as a vice-president of Bay Path.  

Vanessa Ford, best known for singing the national anthem at city events, presented her appointment to the Springfield Redevelopment Authority. Although formally the city’s independent urban renewal organ, the SRA has faded in prominence as attitudes about redevelopment have shifted. 

Vanessa Ford

Star-spangled Springfield Redevelopment Authority (via Springfield Union Station)

Nevertheless, Ford said she wanted to apply her interest in the arts to the SRA’s work. After lavishing praise on her, the Council then confirmed her nomination. 

Councilors greenlit utility requests for work on John and Hamilton streets and Berkshire Avenue. 

Housing Director Gerry McCafferty presented a $7.5 million continuum of care grant. Technically however, the city is the lead for the grant’s use across Hampden County. McCafferty said the grant funds 18 programs across 10 agencies and provides housing to the homeless. The Council accepted this without dissent, although Ward 1 Councilor Maria Perez abstained. 

The body also accepted a small donation and an increase in state aid to the Library Department. 

Confusingly, the Council approved a repeal of term limits to the Community Preservation Committee once again. The changes have appeared several times now and seemingly went through all steps. The text attached to the agenda, while effecting a repeal of the term limits, seemingly repeals all details of CPC terms. 

Councilors also unanimously approved a five-year contract for emergency response equipment. Any contract over three years requires approval or authorization before bidding from the Council. 

Comptroller Burns presented a $40,000 transfer from contingencies to his department. The city contracts with UMass Medical Center to provide third-party billing for medical services the city provides to certain students. Burns said that reimbursements had exceeded expectations, effectively more than cancelling out the increased fees to UMass. The Council approved the transfer without dissent. 

Public Works czar Chris Cignoli presented a $184,000 grant under the state’s rural road program. The funds were part of a bill Governor Maura Healey signed Friday for the state’s annual Chapter 90 road funds dispersal. Despite the name, the rural road program mirrors Chapter 90, but favors rural communities with low populations but miles of roads. However, Cignoli said the funds would simply bolster the regular Chapter 90 allocation. 

Councilors accepted the grant without dissent. 

Helen Caulton-Harris

Commissioner Caulton-Harris discussing the process of getting the response right. (via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

In her presentation, Commissioner Caulton-Harris outlined both spending of the opioid settlement thus far and plans to identify how to use the money moving forward. The city has already purchased some response vehicles and is looking into how they can be used broadly. However, a longer-term plan will require community input. 

“We have a real opportunity here in the city to put together a response plan that everyone sees themselves in,” she told the Council. 

Caulton-Harris noted that the settlement limits the money’s uses. Therefore, spending can only go to opioid-related efforts. The city must follow these rules as the state provides the city its share.  To build out the longer-term plan, she said her department would be hosting a forum at the Carriage House in Forest Park on July 25. A comprehensive outreach effort does appear to be somewhat of a departure from plans the city previously announced.

Indeed, the commissioner said her department had received input on multiple issues. Among them are addressing the stigma of drug abuse, miscommunication among agencies, inconsistent programs, long waits, and safe injection sites. 

On Monday, the main goal was transferring the money. Bureaucratic issues had bottled up the funds in free cash, but no planning work could advance without the funds. 

Caulton-Harris said the four-fold increase in opioid deaths came between 2014 and 2020, the last year for which data was available. She said the city experienced 31 opioid-related deaths in 2014. In 2020, the figure was 119. 

Ward 8 Councilor Zaida Govan, addressing the issue of stigma, noted that she had lost her own son to a fentanyl overdose. He had been working with Tapestry Health, helping others deal with addiction. 

Zaida Govan

Councilor Govan earlier this year. (still via Facebook/Govan Committee)

“As hard as it is for me to talk about it, we need to talk about it,” Govan said. 

Caulton-Harris indicated that she knew Govan’s late son. Furthermore, she welcomed the councilor’s candor about her son’s struggles. 

“I had an opportunity to work with your amazing son and I know his heart was in helping people recover and doing prevention and intervention,” the commissioner replied. 

At one point, at-large councilor Brian Santaniello queried Caulton-Harris about alleged fentanyl-lacing of other substances like marijuana. At-large Councilor Whitfield questioned the claim—or at least the risk of such incidents. Indeed, she warned that emphasizing that allegation without sufficient evidence could just prompt more targeting of cannabis with implications for marginalized communities. 

The transfer received unanimous approval. 

Rounding out the agenda was first step on an ordinance to create a revolving fund for the new tree ordinance. Burns, the Comptroller, presented the item, joking that the Forestry Division had been complaining he had not set up their fund yet. Only the Council could create it, but this was not part of the tree legislation. 

Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown suggested that the fine in the tree ordinance—up to $500—should change. The Council passed the tree ordinance earlier this year, Brown asked a series of technical questions, but Burns said he would have to refer those to the Forestry Division.  

After Monday’s passage of first step, the revolving fund ordinance will require another vote before it goes to the mayor for his signature.  

The Council’s only other action was approval of a Massachusetts Senate bill to expand investment in primary care workers. 



For various reasons, some unfortunate and others sinister, 36 Court Street has struggled with public engagement even when it wants to. Many programs with mandatory outreach nevertheless connect with all the usual suspects, whether by accident or design. 

However, the annual death statistic in Caulton-Harris’ presentation underscores the urgency in getting this right. The breadth of input her department has received suggests ears are open, though. Still, past is often prologue in Springfield. Such efforts must redouble to fully understand the toll of the opioid crisis and to consider all reasonable solutions to address it.