Comerford, Mark announce earmarks for local programs in $55.9B state budget

By JAMES PENTLAND and BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writers

Published: 06-01-2023 7:10 PM

With the passage of the state Senate’s $55.9 billion budget for fiscal year 2024 last week, numerous area organizations can look forward to a financial boost.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, secured earmarks for projects that would benefit communities across Hampshire, Franklin, Berkshire and Hampden counties. All proposed funding has to survive the reconciliation process between the House and Senate budgets and be approved by Gov. Maura Healey before becoming final.

Topping the list of government aid recipients is the University of Massachusetts Water and Energy Technology Center, known as the WET Lab, which is in line for $500,000. The center, which researches technology for removing contaminants in drinking water and wastewater, has shifted much of its focus in recent years to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), chemicals used to make products waterproof, stick-proof and stain-proof that have become recognized as a widespread health problem. The Teflon-type compounds can cause kidney and prostate cancers and elevated cholesterol levels, and can have negative effects on reproductive and immune systems.

The state money will go toward a new building for the lab, which has been operating out of a 60-by-20-foot prefabricated structure, according to David Reckhow, a research professor who is the center’s faculty manager.

“We’re working toward cobbling together a total package for the buildout,” Reckhow explained, noting that the project received $1.5 million last year and has a pledge of another $1 million from the UMass chancellor. “Everyone has been tremendously giving and supportive.”

Comerford said Tuesday that the lab is on the cutting edge of research in its field, having an impact far beyond the confines of UMass.

“They’re doing some of the most important public health work in the nation,” she said.

Until last year, Reckhow said, the lab was working with the Department of Environmental Protection to manage the statewide testing program for PFAS in public and private sources of drinking water. It is now writing up a study on the performance of various devices for removing PFAS from water, he said.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Charlemont planners approve special permit for Hinata Mountainside Resort
Fire at Rainbow Motel in Whately leaves 17 without a home
$338K fraud drains town coffers in Orange
Hotfire Bar and Grill to open Memorial Day weekend in Shelburne Falls
Greenfield residents allege sound and odor issues from candle, cannabis businesses
Inaugural book festival looks to unite Stoneleigh-Burnham School with broader community

As things stand, Reckhow said, the lab, with about a dozen people, is bursting at the seams, with team members using outdoor bays for some of their work. The new building, which he estimated would cost $6 million, is set to be built on the same 1-acre site as the existing lab and will be several times the size.

“It would allow us to do so much more,” he said.

There are a number of approaches to removing PFAS from drinking water, Reckhow said, including absorptive technology, but the “holy grail” is to destroy the chemicals. To that end, researchers are working on electrochemical processes and radio frequencies, among other options.

“The key is how to do it fast and cheap without using a lot of electricity,” he said.

Doula training gets boost

The Senate budget also includes $150,000 for a doula training program run by Seven Sisters Midwifery in Florence. Doulas serve as coaches and advocates for expecting mothers through the birth process.

Owner Kirsten Kowalski, a certified nurse midwife, said the plan is to offer two six-month mentorship programs for doulas, whose training often lacks opportunities to gain experience in their work.

Seven Sisters does about 200 births a year, Kowalski said, and many doulas are looking to be involved in births at a midwifery practice.

Basic training for doulas frequently consists of a long weekend, after which they need to gain experience to become certified or just be paid. With Seven Sisters’ proposed training program, four to six doulas will be able to take the next step, gain the experience they need working under experienced doulas and receive a stipend while doing so.

“I was a doula myself,” Kowalski said. “We are thrilled every time a doula comes and works with us.”

Comerford said the Senate was putting an emphasis on health equity and racial equity in health care, and Seven Sisters had reached out to her to talk about the training program for doulas, who play an important role in maternal health care, she said.

“Doulas are part of a birthing team,” Comerford said. “We need a workforce training program.”

Colrain Sewer District

Mark secured $50,000 for the Colrain Sewer District to help fund a short-term solution to its sewage needs.

Sewage from the district’s 21 homes is currently processed by Barnhardt Manufacturing Co. However, the company announced its pending closure in December 2022. Barnhardt is running a skeleton crew in the space and is set to stop processing the sewage on Sept. 1.

Residents of the Sewer District planned to ask the town of Colrain for money to help with a short-term solution, but now expect to receive funding through the state budget. They are working with RCAP Solutions (Resources for Communities and People) to develop a plan.

“Getting an earmark through Paul Mark in the state budget will help us with the short-term options,” Patrick Geary, commissioner and moderator of the Sewer District, said during a Colrain Selectboard meeting in May. “A long-term solution is yet to be determined.”

Other programs

Smaller but notable earmarks to Franklin County entities include money allocated for the Mary Lyon Foundation and a new communication system for first responders in Monroe.

During a visit to Monroe with state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, it was learned that first responders were having trouble with their communications equipment. Mark secured $12,000 to purchase a new repeater system for the Fire Department.

“In a small town like Monroe, even reasonable amounts of money for life-saving emergency equipment can be hard to come by and every penny that we can direct their way goes so far,” Mark wrote in an email.

For the Buckland-based Mary Lyon Foundation, Mark secured $25,000 to continue the work the foundation has accomplished since the COVID-19 pandemic. They use the money to provide for families in need in the Mohawk Trail Regional School District, including gas and grocery money, child care and other support.

“All the problems a family has, we are able to provide for them with this earmark,” said Kristen Tillona-Baker, executive director of the Mary Lyon Foundation.

“As the budget moves into conference committee, I will work closely with Rep. Blais to make sure items we got in the House and Senate budgets will make it through to the governor’s desk, including the money for the Colrain Sewer District,” Mark wrote.

Other awards announced by Comerford’s office include:

■$100,000 for the Western Massachusetts Veterans Outreach Project’s Just Ask Campaign, which seeks to ensure that health care providers are responsive to the care that veterans need. The project is using the money to launch a yearlong pilot program in coordination with Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

■$30,000 for the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding’s Paula Green Legacy Fund to support local peace-building partner organizations.

■$45,000 for the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District to support its regional mosquito control work. The money will allow the district to hire a full-time staff person and defray costs for member communities.

■$35,000 for Trauma-Informed Hampshire County to promote the initiative’s work of healing trauma.

■$43,750 for the Education Commonwealth Project to pilot alternative performance assessments in lieu of high-stakes standardized testing.

■$50,000 for Quabbin Mediation, providing free legal mediation services for 140,000 area residents.

“It’s nothing to take for granted,” Comerford said of the funding. “We’re gearing up to ask the conference committee to meet soon and to keep the earmarks.”

Reach Bella Levavi at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com. Reach James Pentland at jpentland@gazettenet.com.

]]>