Lawmakers stress need to protect services
Matthew Lee accepts an award at the Community Action lunch at Deerfield Academy on Friday.
Monte Belmonte accepts an award at the Community Action lunch at Deerfield Academy on Friday.
DEERFIELD — At an anti-poverty agency’s annual gratitude luncheon Friday, federal and state lawmakers were told that more tax dollars are needed to support poverty programs in the Pioneer Valley.
Community Action — whose reach stretches to nearly 360,000 people across Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties and the North Quabbin region — received 82 percent of its $31 million revenue last year from federal or state funding.
But human services budgets have seen cuts in recent years, and more may come soon if automatic federal “sequestration” cuts occur, said Jo Comerford, executive director of the National Priorities Project — a Northampton-based non-profit research organization that analyzes, summarizes and publishes budget and tax information for the public.
“The next two months are critical if we want to change our nation’s budget course,” said Comerford during a keynote speech at the luncheon at Deerfield Academy. “Think about the programs that you’ve heard about today. Think about sequestration, which would hit these programs harder than they’ve already been hit.”
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, the new congressman for Greenfield and eastern Franklin County, told attendees that Community Action provides the services he routinely fights for in Washington.
And Franklin County’s three state representatives — Denise Andrews, Stephen Kulik and Paul Mark — said they plan to use what they learned about Community Action’s programs during future discussions on Beacon Hill.
Andrews, D-Orange, feels it necessary to back Community Action, because she said it is the region’s “top provider” in services for families in need and youth.
“In our society, we have the haves and have-nots, and that split is becoming too much,” she said after the event. “That’s not OK for our country and it’s not OK for our communities.”
Kulik, D-Worthington, said he has trouble imagining what this region would be like without Community Action. On the House Committee on Ways and Means, he plans to look out for the agency’s interests during the upcoming budget discussions.
“I’m a little disappointed in the governor’s budget proposal,” said Kulik, after the lunch. “While he is proposing significant spending increases, not a lot of that is directed toward human services. ... I’m hoping that as we go through the legislative process, we can address a lot of these needs.”
During the event, Executive Director Clare Higgins ran through some numbers from Community Action’s 2012 annual report: 16,400 people given fuel assistance, 3,100 that now live in more energy-efficient homes, 850 children prepared for early education programs and 150 young people who learned how to become better parents.
The numbers on the agency’s budget chart “represent change in a person’s life, they represent a world of possibilities,” said Higgins.
After Higgins briefly highlighted each of the agency’s programs, three awards were given to local volunteers and philanthropists.
Christopher “Monte” Belmonte — a radio personality for WRSI, who most famously pushes a shopping cart from Northampton to Greenfield as a fundraiser and awareness event for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts — earned the Jane Sanders Achievement Award.
Higgins said that Belmonte has “taken his job as a radio talk show host and turned it into an ambassador for the community.”
“I am extremely humbled to be receiving this award,” said Belmonte, a Turners Falls resident. “I’m an entertainer who gets basically paid to be a professional idiot and … two times a year, I do a wacky publicity stunt to raise money for your great organizations.”
Matthew Lee, a 22-year-old Greenfield resident and Greenfield Community College student, earned the Youth Award for his work with the Community Action Youth Programs.
And Shirley Ely, affectionately called “Grandma Shirley” by those she comes into contact with, received the Volunteer Award, although she was not at Friday’s event. Ely has volunteered in Parent-Child Development Center classrooms for the past two decades.