Towns weigh withdrawing from Hampshire COG

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

HADLEY — Amid all the back and forth over the direction of the Hampshire Council of Governments, there’s one point everyone seems to agree on: the structure of the agency is flawed, and it needs another legislative look.

“It’s not designed properly,” said Todd Ford, executive director of the Hampshire COG, in an interview last month.

The point comes increasingly into focus as major member towns reconsider services the organization provides. Hadley Department of Public Works Director Marlo Warner last week decided to buy the town’s highway materials through the Franklin Regional Council of Governments instead of the Hampshire COG. And the town’s Select Board voted unanimously on Wednesday to place an article on the Town Meeting warrant asking voters if they’d like to withdraw from the council.

Select Board Chairwoman Molly Keegan said April 6 that the board placed the article on the warrant as “just a placeholder.” She said that as things unfold with the Hampshire Council the board wanted to ensure Hadley voters would have the option to withdraw from the agency if they see fit on May 4.

“No one’s anywhere near making a recommendation along that line right now,” she said, explaining the board has not taken a position on the article.

Meanwhile, Belchertown’s Select Board is also discussing a Town Meeting article to withdraw from the council.

Warner said his decision to redirect purchasing northward came simply because he thinks it’s a better deal.

“I think we’re going to save more money through the FRCOG,” Warner said. “The board is going through their thing with the COG, which is separate from me.”

Warner said though the pricing may not be dramatically different, FRCOG offers services that he says hold more value. As an example, he said FRCOG offers rental equipment so the department won’t have to procure in an emergency.

Town Administrator David Nixon said a precise figure on the amount of highway materials the town typically bought through the Hampshire COG — and is now redirecting — was unavailable before deadline, but he and Warner said it was at least $300,000 annually.

“Franklin Regional Council of Governments has a larger purchasing pool, so we’re taking a guess that the prices are going to be better,” Nixon said. “It’s an educated assumption about how the principles of aggregation work — certainly the larger the pool, the better the price.”

Keegan said the board asked Warner to look into savings earned through the Hampshire COG and to take an honest look at what’s best for the town.

“After looking into it further he felt it was a better deal with the FRCOG,” she said.

Ford disputed the assertion that the town could save more through the Franklin County-based organization.

“The claims of savings and significant size difference between the bids are largely inaccurate,” he said.

Andrea Woods, purchasing officer for FRCOG, said the agency did not go looking for Hadley’s business.

“I want it to be really clear that I’m in no way trying to compete with Hampshire COG for their towns,” she said.

The Hadley Select Board also voted unanimously to support councilor Donald Pipczynski in his efforts to bring a re-vote on Ford’s agreed-upon $15,000 annual bonus, which the HCOG board approved in January. The bonus comes atop an annual salary of $123,625.

“I don’t think the bonus was appropriate at all — I think bonuses of that nature are unheard of in the public sector,” Keegan said.

Keegan called the issue of Ford’s bonus a separate one from the more important one at hand: the question of whether or not the Hampshire COG can financially survive as it stands.

“Maybe the council of governments as it was originally formed doesn’t work,” she said. “And maybe we need to come together to figure out how to fix it.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.