Gov. slashes Opioid Task Force funding

  • Franklin County Sheriff Chris Donelan in his office at the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction. Recorder STAFF/Paul Franz


  • MARK


Recorder Staff
Published: 7/11/2016 11:12:13 PM

GREENFIELD — Gov. Charlie Baker has vetoed funding in next year’s budget for the regional Opioid Task Force, which has worked locally to address the growing opioid and heroin addiction epidemic since 2013.

The governor’s veto, which falls under the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office line item, cuts at least $200,000 in spending on the Franklin County Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force, another $130,000 for a pilot program for training active bystanders, and $100,000 for the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, according to the Governor’s veto report.

The Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force later changed its name to the regional Opioid Task Force; both entities are the same organization, according to co-founder John Merrigan, the Franklin County Register of Probate.

Much of the money the Task Force has received from the state has gone toward developing new substance abuse education curriculums in local schools, youth work programs, community policing programs, grant writing assistance for other local groups, expanding Narcan availability and training, and local substance abuse conferences among other initiatives according to a budget report from last year provided by the Task Force.

“It’s every damn penny,” said Sheriff Christopher Donelan, who helped found the task force, of the cut.

The reductions came as part of a series of cuts to earmarks across the budget, reducing it by $256 million through spending vetoes to $38.92 billion. The governor vetoed $60 million in earmarked spending and cut money from 303 line items, for a total state spending increase of 1.3 percent.

They come amid an unexpected reduction in state tax revenues, according to Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, the vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Representatives from the Governor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment before press time Monday, but the note attached to the veto noted the funding was cut because it was “for programs not recommended.”

Kulik said the committee is currently reviewing the vetoes and developing a strategy to respond.

“It’s more than I expected, and some are truly puzzling,” Kulik said. “There are lots that are surprising to me that would have negative impacts across the state, but in the case of the Opioid Task Force, right here in Franklin County.”

Kulik said exactly which earmarks will get an override vote has not been determined, but he expects the Task Force will be among them.

“My priority very much includes the Task Force. I realize we’ve been putting many more resources into the opioid crisis over last few years, but I think Franklin County has led the state in establishing locally-based programs in education and treatment, and it’s a real shining example for whole commonwealth for how communities can really tackle this problem in a comprehensive way,” he said. “To reduce now is penny wise and pound foolish.”

Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said Monday that he expects the entire local delegation will push for an override vote to reverse the cuts.

“I cant imagine this isn’t one of the big things we’re gonna get overridden,” he said.

That vote, which would require a two-thirds majority the House of Representatives and then the state Senate, could come as early as next week, he said. It must be taken by July 31.

“If (the House) sends it over, we’ll take a close look at it,” said Pete Wilson, a spokesperson for Senate President Stanley Rosenberg’s office. “The Task Force does very good work for something that’s a significant problem in the county, so we’ll wait and see. It’s something he’ll look forward to discussing with his colleagues in the House.”

Mark said he was both surprised by and disappointed in the veto.

“I know he’s been talking a lot about opioid abuse, and the Opioid Task Force has been one of most widely recognized and renowned programs. It’s been on CNN, it’s attracted national attention, so I don’t understand where this is coming from.”

Launched as a collaborative effort between the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office and the local courts to address addiction and overdose deaths regionally, the Task Force includes members of law enforcement, health care, local legislators, social service agencies, educational institutions and members of the recovery community.

The group has worked to expand access to the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, disseminate educational materials, launch the state’s first Family Drug Court, and coordinate the development of various other substance abuse services and events.

Veto is “disconcerting,” local leaders say

Merrigan also expressed surprise at the veto in light of Baker’s strong support for efforts to fight the opioid epidemic.

“This kind of just slash-and-burn approach to earmarks, given the crisis we’re facing in the Commonwealth, probably isn’t a good idea,” Merrigan said. “I’m surprised, because generally he’s been supportive. I think we’ve been kind of a model for other agencies in this part of the state, in terms of how we mobilize and do outreach to the families and schools, and recovery community to see what we could do.”

Donelan echoed Merrigan, calling the cuts “disconcerting.”

“Some people view earmark as a dirty word, but in this instance it’s a very direct assault on a very difficult issue,” he said. “It’s a good use of government resources, and it shouldn’t be tainted just because it’s called an earmark.”

Merrigan said if state support for the Task Force is not forthcoming or a veto override is unsuccessful, the group would likely be forced to continue on a volunteer basis, the way it originally started.

“When this first started, we were hustling and bustling to get it off the ground, and we were fortunate when our legislators stepped in,” he said. “Our delegation helped initially and we’re confident they’ll help support us.”

Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan, the third founder, also decried the vetoes.

“It really doesn’t make any sense, it’s a short-sighted approach,” he said. “It’s critical for the people in our region that they have a coordinated effort toward getting treatment and recovery and making smart decisions when it comes to opioid abuse.”

Material from the State House News Service was used in this

You can reach Tom Relihan at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.
On Twitter: @RecorderTom


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