Answers to your pressing questions!
I don’t believe Holyoke has an energy reduction plan. If we don’t, we need to have one so that we are achieving strategic objectives throughout the years to lower our carbon footprint and not miss any opportunities as they may fit. Programs like Green Communities and the Massachusetts Vulnerability Program are excellent opportunities provided to cities and town by the Commonwealth that Holyoke can leverage and help meet our energy reduction and climate resiliency goals. Energy reduction and climate resiliency need to be on the forefront of all our plans – City Master Plan, Open Space & Recreation Plan, and Urban Renewal Plan. With new growth development pressures taking place, we have to be sure we are able to embrace it while also protecting our natural resources and local public health.
I need to assess the gaps in our building department and board of health department and see how I can better support these departments so they can effectively execute enforcement. I strongly believe enforcement in Holyoke is minimal largely because departments are overworked and understaffed and it’s impacting our residents. That is why the center focus of my campaign is improving the way we manage our finances and other municipal resource so that departments such as our Building Department and Board of Health are adequately supported to carry out services. Thereafter, I want to be sure enforcement is consistent and unambiguous.
Having grown up in South Holyoke on South Summer Street and also lived in the Flats on North East Street for several years, I am very aware of the lack of access and other inequities. I’m also aware of the lack of priority and disinvestment in the two neighborhoods. These two neighborhoods suffer because of the lack of adequate representation for the people that live in them and I am committed to dismantle issues of structural racism that contribute to this disinvestment. I want to see active neighborhood associations that I can partner with as the City Mayor so we can be sure investment and access is happening. The neighborhoods have flagship community development organizations (Nueva Esperanza, Inc. and OneHolyoke CDC) I look forward to partner with and streamline resources toward these organizations to help with civic engagement opportunities focused on empowering residents to have active roles and control to important quality of life decisions for what takes place in their neighborhoods.
This is a complex issue to this day I am still trying to wrap my head around. How do we embrace growth without pricing out our residents from their homes? For the most part, we are fortunate to have strong partnerships with non-profit landlords dedicated to providing subsidized and affordable housing as well as private landlords that openly accepts section 8 voucher holders. We need to take it a step further and help our low-income residents become owners in their neighborhoods and build wealth. Currently, there are programs designed to do this and I look forward to strengthen them while also facilitating the necessary steps to step up local and state involvement in providing decent housing for those with little or no income.
The short answer, gender and racial inequality – which to me is a major public health concern that coupled with inadequate political representation.
My campaign is focused on improving the way we manage our finances so that departments are adequately supported to carry out services. Therefore my first and immediate priority is to kickoff our FY23 budget setting process. In the municipal world, local governments start planning their budgets as early as November which is fitting since Election Day is November 2nd and it’s expected for the newly elected mayor to hit the ground running on November 3rd. My process will include meeting with the City Council to identify budget priorities, goals, and objectives. Simultaneously, I will work with our City Auditor to prepare an initial review and expenditure projections and work with our assessors to review revenue projections and be sure we are communicating this information to the Finance Committee of the City Council. Finally, each of the departments will receive instructions from my office for submitting their proposed budgets. From here moving forward, I will be meeting with each of the departments to get a strong feel of what is it they do well and where the gaps are to further prioritize our spending in preparation for the upcoming fiscal year.
Holyoke is my heart and soul. I grew up in a ‘low income’ neighborhood – South Holyoke – in a single mother household. I am of Puerto descent. In many ways, I am a product of the system. My family took full advantage of every social service resource available. I was a youth member of the Arco Iris program at Nueva Esperanza back in the day and later served on the organization’s Board of Directors for five years — four as Chair. I was also a longtime participant of the Holyoke Boys and Girls Club. I served as one of the Club’s first Peer Leaders and worked at the Boys and Girls Club for 10 years throughout High School and College. I went through the Holyoke Public Schools and attended Westfield State University, majoring in Psychology with a minor in Regional Planning, and earned a master’s degree in Public Administration in 2012.
I then served as Resident Services Coordinator and later as Property Manager for the Holyoke Housing Authority, Municipal Services Manager for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and now I am the Town Administrator for the Town of Blandford. My combined experiences coupled with my education has equipped me with the diverse and broad skills necessary to advance in the complex field of Public Administration and serve strongly as Mayor.
My goal is to cultivate and establish an environment at City Hall and in our neighborhoods in which we can connect, build and grow together. There are challenges ahead but nothing we can’t solve if we work together and support initiatives that advance our neighborhoods. To do this, I look forward to working in collaboration with the City Council and department heads to make necessary changes to safeguard public funds, protect local assets, and meet the best standards of efficiency and service. Once we have our house in order, we will be able to properly support the departments that do the important work; We will have a much stronger economic development experience, vastly improved public schools, public safety departments that become best practices for other communities, and municipal services we can all be proud of. The end goal is to improve the quality of life so that Holyoke is destination for new families, visitors, and businesses.
It’s a great question. I have been committed to building that bridge for as long as I have been involved in my community, and there has been some disappointments in what I have witnessed, nevertheless I still remain very hopeful. My heart breaks that we have this feeling of an old and a new Holyoke when it’s just Holyoke. No matter what decisions and policies are made, they affect everyone. And because they affect everyone, inclusion in our decision-making process is extremely important. We need a government that reflects our population — people from every corner of our city, of every economic status and cultural background. A broad representation of the folks who live here is critical if we are to build bridges and grow together.
Being in receivership is terrible, I have children that attend our public schools and many friends that work for the district. I wish we weren’t in receivership. But we are. Receivership is always an unfortunate position to be in, especially living in a state that reveres local control and self-governance. Nevertheless, receivership is part of the process to regain local control of our schools and for the most part, since we have been in receivership, there has been a lot of new gains we can celebrate. Holyoke’s future is in our schools and the solid education our students receive. I look forward to working toward regaining local control. I plan to work with the receiver to understand the benchmarks we need to reach for local control.
I strongly believe the tension and distrust we see today is the result of a lack of communication and transparency among departments and between City Hall and the public. What worked for me at Blandford was establishing a clear communication pipeline from my office as Town Administrator using various methods to communicate information both internally and externally. It was because of our transparency that trust in local government was re-established as the town pressed forward with enhancing the quality of life for residents.
The most immediate issues are the unique economic challenges and COVID-19-related impacts on Holyoke businesses. We need to be sure that as we transition into post-pandemic, that we have a clear plan to streamline resources and improve our local government practices so that businesses are supported and government does not become a barrier to their success.
The other pressing issue that impacts businesses as well as affecting everyone in our city is our current state of our financial affairs. We have a disjointed municipal financial management system that is hurting everyone. This is a critical issue we need to resolve so that we can safeguard public funds, protect our assets, and adequately support departments that are doing the important quality of life work people expect. Year after year of negative free cash balances and untimely reporting to the state Department of Revenue is unacceptable. Accounts are not being reconciled regularly — if at all — and we have multiple deficit accounts that have not been addressed. We need to strengthen internal controls and accountability to establish an improved budget-setting process, timely closing of books of previous fiscal years, strong free cash certification balances, and timely completion of annual audits. By doing so, we can best serve the interests of businesses and all taxpayers.
There is not a step by step ‘how-to’ guide which frustrates any new comer into local government management. Municipal finance is complex and it’s always a big surprise for anyone that has never dealt with it before. To chip away at the question, there is a combination of strategies and best practices that need to take place between now and the next 4 to 6 years recognizing some of the indicators that tell me we are on a path to receivership.
First, we start with declaring the goal. My goal and the expectation I look forward to layout is to have an effective and efficient systems management and operation for safeguarding public funds, protecting local assets, and comply with financial standards and regulations. In the first year, we have to restructure our internal finance management procedures and reinforce our fiscal management policies. There is an inefficient practice in Holyoke that is currently causing the existing deficit, negative free cash balance, reconciliation variances, capital project deficits, grant deficits, and other deficits which are all structural in nature. I need to get in there and hit the ground running by first assessing this practice and identifying where the gaps are that need to be restructured. From the outside looking in, I can say we have to improve our budget setting process with clear instructions to departments that recognize our revenue parameters; we need to close books timely of previous fiscal years and timely reporting to the DOR; re-establish a strong free cash certification balance; ensure an efficient warrant processing and payroll system; and timely completion of annual audits.
Simultaneously, we need to strengthen our revenue position. This includes reviewing our permit fees, different PILOT payments, host community agreements, and other revenue sources outside of residential and commercial taxation to ensure we are getting the adequate dollar amount the city deserves. We also have to research older tax levies to determine if identified accounts should be abated, take in tax title, or make an effort to collect. Same with our enterprise accounts, specifically the sewer rate, which is another issue we can’t ignore.
The collaboration between the departments of the Treasurer and Tax Collector, Assessors, and Auditors have to be strengthened and that there is a clear communication pipeline between financial departments as well as the Finance Committee of the Council. What helped me do this at Blandford was leading monthly meetings which helped with promoting optimal coordination of interdepartmental activities and long-term planning to achieve our financial management objectives as well as our town strategic priorities. Communication and transparency is key!
There are a lot of other things we need to work on as well that can help right size the ship which include creating a capital improvement program to better maintain and replace large capital assets, re-evaluate debts, strengthening our HR practices, continuing to grow our stabilization account and also creating a new stabilization account specifically for capital related investments, and reorganizing key financial positions which is a bit harder because that will require stakeholder consensus and a charter change which has its own set of steps.
Once we close our deficit, maintain a system that doesn’t bring us back, have a healthy level of free cash, and make sound decisions on how to use free cash for those one-time expenses and NOT day to day operations, that’s when you know we reached fiscal stability and off that path to receivership.
In that end, there is more to this than what I can explain but I hope this gives folks a pretty decent idea of what needs to happen to reach fiscal stability.
I do. We have abundant space in our empty mill buildings to accommodate both cultivation and sales of marijuana products. The state’s legalization of recreational marijuana created a modern-day “Gold Rush” for low-cost space and low-cost electricity. The marijuana industry plays to Holyoke’s strengths. We would be missing a major opportunity for employment and tax revenue if we failed to get on board.
First, we need to implement the plan outlined in Question 5 which has been identified throughout my campaign as the top priority. Improving internal controls will allow us to better plan for and execute the necessary infrastructure investments the public expects. A key part of our strategy is to draft a capital improvement plan to better maintain and replace large capital assets and public infrastructure in a way that is affordable and timely. Having available such a dynamic community planning and fiscal management tool will help the city identify capital projects, equipment purchase and infrastructure needs, provide a schedule, and identify options for financing capital needs.
I question whether sewer fees are “driving residents to leave the city.” What would drive people to leave would be a substandard sewer system. Holyoke has benefits other communities’ lack: no-fee trash, brush and recycling pickup and low electric rates. Our average tax bill for a median home is lower than surrounding communities. Investing in our infrastructure ensures Holyoke is a place where people want to live and do business. The deficit is a result inadequate revenue and uncollected delinquent debt. Even if we collected 100% of user fees, the current sewer rate is not enough to cover expenses. The sewer rate needs to go up to balance the budget and pay for operations and upgrades. Or combine the water and sewer departments and establish efficiencies. Our existing operation is not sustainable. Holyoke has been able to cover the revenue gap by transferring funds from free cash — an unhealthy practice. Now that we have no free cash, the city must find other means to cover the deficit and do infrastructure upgrades. Transparency and communication are critical to get the community to understand that doing nothing will be more costly than raising the rate.
Holyoke’s enormous Connecticut River energy resources — the cheapest and greenest in the state — already produce low-cost electricity that is always appealing to businesses. Manufacturing enterprises, in particular, will benefit from the power sources that put Holyoke on the map in the first place. It’s important to note, however, the feeling that while business owners have taken a risk to invest in our city they do not always feel the city is investing in them. That perception is a disincentive to staying and growing in Holyoke, let alone convincing new businesses to move into the city to take advantage of our green infrastructure. Among the many challenges I have heard are concerns of deteriorating capital infrastructure, public safety, trash everywhere, questionable enforcement from city departments, and excessive panhandling, all while the tax rate continues to climb. The lack of coordination of public resources and inefficient support for business owners are barriers for any enterprise looking to invest in our city. We need to first work on our management gap to better serve and attract new growth.
Municipal finance is complex. There are strategies and best practices that need to be adopted between now and over the next 4 to 6 years if we are to avoid receivership. First, set goals. My goal is efficient systems management and operation to safeguard public funds, protect assets, and comply with financial standards. We have to restructure management policies and procedures. The existing, inefficient practices in Holyoke have caused deficits, a negative free cash balance, reconciliation variances and capital project shortfalls. We have to improve our departmental budget-setting process, close books timely, ensure an efficient warrant processing and payroll system and require timely completion of annual audits. We can enhance our revenue by reviewing permit fees, host community agreements, and revenue sources beyond residential and commercial taxation. Collaboration among the Treasurer and Tax Collector, Assessors, and Auditors has to be strengthened to foster clear communication among financial departments and the Finance Committee of the Council. When we close our deficit, maintain a forward-looking system, have a healthy level of free cash, and make sound decisions on using free cash for one-time expenses and NOT day-to-day operations, we will attain fiscal stability and get off the path to receivership.