Greenfield City Council establishes opioid settlement fund, vows public engagement before disbursement

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 08-18-2023 1:04 PM

GREENFIELD — After vowing a public engagement process will be involved ahead of funding disbursement, City Council voted Wednesday to establish an opioid settlement stabilization fund, designating a specific account for money the city receives from a nationwide opioid settlement.

The vote followed a discussion about an amendment proposed by Precinct 5 Councilor Marianne Bullock, which sought to add language that would assure funds aren’t disbursed prior to the completion of a public engagement process. Aside from 7 Councilor Jasper Lapienski who abstained, all councilors voted in favor of the amendment. 

“It’s very clear to me that there needs to be a public engagement process for these funds and not just a seat at the table for a person who has been affected,” Bullock said. “It adds a layer of accountability for us as a council and the mayor’s office as well.”

The nationwide opioid settlement, announced in July 2021, set Massachusetts up to receive more than $500 million of the $26 billion settlement, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The agreement, according to then-Attorney General Maura Healey, resolved investigations and litigation over pharmaceutical companies’ roles in fueling the opioid epidemic.

To begin receiving payments, municipalities were required to sign and return a participation form. As a participating municipality, Greenfield will receive $1.7 million over the span of about 15 years, in multiple payments each year. To date, approximately $200,000 has been received, according to Mayor Roxann Wedegartner. Another payment of $34,000 is on its way.

Wedegartner said because money was coming to the city in relatively small amounts, she wanted to wait until there was “enough of a financial bank” to begin spending it.

Prior to Wednesday’s vote, the money was directed to the general fund, with an earmark for its intended use, she explained. The financial order to establish an opioid settlement stabilization fund, submitted by Wedegartner, was presented to City Council last month along with a resolution crafted by resident Stephanie Duclos, who advocated for establishing an oversight committee that includes “residents most affected by this.”

According to the state website, settlement funds will be allocated to municipalities “to expend on abatement strategies developed with input from public health experts, municipal leaders and families affected by the crisis.”

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Wedegartner shared that she’d called two meetings recently to meet with social service agencies, during which she “learned a great deal.”

Finance Director Diana Schindler, who is also serving as the mayor’s interim chief of staff, cautioned that the opioid settlement funds cannot be used for a public engagement process. She also noted that the city will continue to receive money for close to a decade and placing a condition on the process for spending it may pose problems for future city councils and mayors.

“There is a prescribed process by the state … and we intend to follow that,” Schindler explained. “There’s reporting required.”

Still, Bullock said she wanted to ensure that the money doesn’t become the discussion of the same handful of organizations, but rather, includes the voices of those in the community who have been personally affected by the opioid epidemic. She acknowledged that her amendment may seem redundant, given that getting “input from public health experts, municipal leaders and families affected by the crisis” is stipulated in the state’s guidelines for how the funds can be used.

“It is necessarily redundant,” said Precinct 1 Councilor Katherine Golub. “I don’t think there’s a risk in it being redundant. … Yeah, it does add another layer of complexity in how these funds are allocated, but I believe that layer of complexity is necessary.”

Precinct 9 Councilor Derek Helie also said he supported the amendment.

“You don’t understand addiction unless you’ve witnessed it,” he said. “[Families and those personally affected] need to be involved, for sure.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the vote on the proposed amendment. Precinct 7 Councilor Jasper Lapienski abstained from voting.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.