NECC program for immigrant professionals gets $50,000

Immigrants with educational or work credentials they acquired in their native land are getting a helping hand in having their education and career skills recognized and understood in this country.

Since 2016, Northern Essex Community College's PIÉS (pronounced PS) Latinos de NECC program has helped 600 local immigrants to validate their academic credentials, including dozens with university degrees from foreign countries, helping them gain credits or enroll in coursework that moves them into and through higher education in Massachusetts, at NECC and other institutions.

Noemi Custodia-Lora, vice president of NECC's Lawrence campus, said the PIÉS program hosts several open house events each year for immigrant residents with professional credentials who are looking to take the next step.

"We set up one-on-one meetings and outline the steps needed to either continue their education or how they can validate their degree so they can get a professional job," she said.

As one example, she said a man in his early 40s who was attending a university in the Dominican Republic for engineering moved to Lawrence. With the help of the program, most of his college credits were accepted at NECC, where he took a few more classes and then transferred to UMass Lowell.

"He will now be able to finish his engineering degree," Custodia-Lora said. "It's really about empowering people and giving them the information they need."

In recognition of the successes of the PIÉS program, the Boston Foundation recently presented Northern Essex with the annual $50,000 Deval Patrick Prize for Community Colleges.

Custodia-Lora said the $50,000 will be used to develop ESL classes at NECC for immigrant professionals.

"We have a course now, but it's for people who already have some basic English language skills," she said. "What we hope to offer will be for professionals who have little or no English language abilities. As we work with a lot of immigrants, we've learned that a lot of these professionals, including lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers and others, do not speak English at all."

The award will also help support The Lawrence Promise, a scholarship program for graduates of Lawrence High School who can attend Northern Essex Community College at no cost to them, and includes a free laptop and textbooks.

College officials said the PIÉS program addresses the issue of "brain waste" among the Merrimack Valley immigrants, where those with strong education backgrounds or credentials from other countries are forced into low-wage, low-skill jobs because those credentials are not accepted or understood here.

“At a time when we know demand for skilled workers is high, this program opens doors for hundreds of talented students who can fill those roles, but deserve credit for the relevant work they have done,” said Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “We applaud NECC for its creative and effective approach – knowing that it is just one example of the remarkable work going on at the commonwealth’s community colleges.”

The PIÉS program works with students at a number of levels – from those who come in with robust credentials but may need volunteer work, academic ESL or other coursework at NECC to continue their studies at NECC or a four-year school, to those with high school diplomas or technical certificates who would benefit from work-based training.

“Community colleges are strengthened by the diversity and experience of our students, as we work to launch them on a road to future success,” said NECC President Lane Glenn. "Latinos de NECC ensures that immigrant students not only get the credit for academic and work experience that they deserve, the program helps them navigate the best possible path to their personal, professional and academic goals.”

Northern Essex was recognized at an event at the Boston Foundation on May 1.

To learn more about PIÉS Latinos de NECC, contact Analuz Garcia,, 978-738-7423 (office) or 978-971-1177 (cell).

— Mike LaBella


State trooper injured when car hits cruiser

A state trooper was injured when a car hit his cruiser at a highway construction site last week, state police said.

The cruiser was parked at Exit 50 of Interstate 495 on Tuesday when it was hit by a car just before 4:30 p.m., state police said. They said the cruiser was parked at a construction site to protect a road construction crew.

Police said the trooper received non-life threatening injuries and was complaining of pain to his back and knee. He was taken to Holy Family Hospital in Methuen. No other injuries were reported.

State police said a preliminary investigation indicates the vehicle that struck the cruiser was unable to move over due to another vehicle obstructing a merge.

The investigation is ongoing, police said.

— Bill Cantwell


Columbia Gas taxes in Lawrence will increase up to $1.4 million annually

Hours after announcing that Columbia Gas will pay the city $43.3 million to repave damaged roads and cover other loses it suffered following the Sept. 13 gas disaster, company president Mark Kempic told the Lawrence City Council that the utility will pay the city up to $1.4 million more in annual property taxes based on the added value of the 40 or so miles of piping it replaced.

The new payments will increase Columbia Gas's annual property taxes in the city to as much as $3.2 million, up from $1.8 million it paid before the disaster. The city this year expects to collect a total of just under $70 million in real estate and personal property taxes – which is a tax on machinery and infrastructure – so Columbia Gas's payment could amount to nearly 5 percent of the city's total tax levy.

In five minutes of what he called a “high-level overview,” Kempic told the Lawrence council last Tuesday night that Columbia crews have begun replacing the heating equipment that it tentatively repaired last fall in its “rapid relight” program that was intended to restore service to buildings that lost it in the gas disaster, before winter set in. The company repaired damaged gas furnaces rather than replace them because the repairs took less time, Kempic said.

Columbia crews have replaced 48 furnaces since the work began three weeks ago, Kempic told the council. He said about 550 more furnaces will be replaced in Lawrence and the Andovers, which also were struck by the gas disaster.

Other work also is happening in the three communities, Kempic said. He said crews are restoring lawns that were damaged when service lines from streets into buildings were dug up last fall, and also are replacing paving stones, sidewalks, trees and shrubs on the properties. He said that project is 92 percent done and will be fully completed within two weeks.

Kempic said Columbia also is replacing shut-off valves at what he called regulator stations, where large amounts of gas pass through before being distributed to homes and businesses. The valves automatically shut off gas when pressure gets too high or low.

Kempic said most of the claims that homeowners and businesses have filed against the company have been paid, but said 625 claims still remain to be resolved.

Several councilors pressed Kempic about the details of the work and about the company's future.

Councilor Marc Laplante, whose South Lawrence district includes neighborhoods that suffered the most in the gas disaster, pressed Kempic about whether Columbia Gas will remain viable in the face of the $1.6 billion the disaster is estimated to cost the company.

Kempic noted that Columbia gas is “part of a larger operation” — referring to NiSource, its parent company – that is able to absorb much of the cost, and he said the company's insurance companies will also be paying some of the bill.

The gas disaster occurred when high-pressure gas was routed into low-pressure lines, causing explosions and fires that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in the three communities and forced thousands of people to move to shelters, hotels or trailers for up to three months while the gas infrastructure was replaced. A Lawrence teenager was killed on Chickering Road when a chimney collapsed on his car.

Beyond the $43.3 million Columbia Gas has agreed to pay Lawrence to repave the streets the company dug up to replace pipes after the disaster, it also will pay $20.75 million to Andover and $15.86 million to North Andover, Kempic announced last Tuesday at a press conference in Andover attended by Lawrence Mayor Daniel River, interim North Andover Town Manager Lyne Savage and Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan.

— Keith Eddings


Tax on opioid makers wins support in Senate

Budget-writers in the Massachusetts Senate have given a green light to Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to tax opioid manufacturers to help pay for cover substance abuse treatment.

The Senate rolled out its version of the 2020 state budget last week. The more than $42.7 billion plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 increases aid for cities, towns and schools; boosts funds for regional transportation, mental health programs, education and charter school reimbursements to school districts; and doesn’t raise sales or income taxes.

The proposal also includes Baker’s plan to impose a 15% tax on overall sales of opioid makers, such as Purdue Pharma. The tax, which is expected to raise $14 million a year, would help pay for more beds in treatment centers, recovery and prevention programs.

It wouldn't apply to opioid distributors. Inpatient treatment and medication-assisted treatment would be exempt from the new levy.

The opioid epidemic has its roots in prescription drugs. Many people who became addicted to painkillers such as Oxycontin turned to heroin bought on the street once their prescriptions ran out. More recently, the emergence of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl added to heroin and other drugs fueled a spike in overdose deaths.

In 2018, an estimated 2,000 people died of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Substance abuse experts say taxing opioid makers will punish an industry that many blame for a wave of addiction, while raising money for treatment and prevention.

"The pharmaceutical industry lied about the opioid epidemic, contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and costing the country billions of dollars a year in long-term treatment," said John Rosenthal, co-chairman of the Newton-based Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, a nonprofit that helps people get into drug treatment.

"They should pay for it, and this tax is a start," he said.

States, counties and cities have filed more than 1,000 opioid-related lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies in state and federal courts in recent years.

There are active investigations into the crisis by attorneys general nationwide, including several initiated by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

Last week, a federal grand jury in Boston indicted Insys Therapeutics Inc. founder John N. Kapoor and several of the company's executives on racketeering and conspiracy charges, accusing them of bribing physicians to prescribe Subsys, a highly-addictive fentanyl spray, according to U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling's office.

"It is beyond time that big pharma contribute more financially to help communities harmed by opioid addiction," said state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, who supports the tax proposal.

Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee that produced the budget, also backs the tax on opioids.

"Somebody has to pay for the treatment of opioid addiction," he said. "It's a common-sense solution to make those who are producing these drugs pay for the costs to society."

Baker originally asked for the 15% tax as part of his state budget request in January, saying it would force opioid makers to "help pay for some of the carnage they have created."

House Minority Leader Brad Jones, D-North Reading, filed amendments to restore the opioid tax and a tax on electronic cigarettes and vaping products, which Baker also supported. But the proposals were not included in a spending plan approved last week by the Democratic-controlled House.

Overall, the Senate's budget proposal calls for $770 million in tax revenue in the coming fiscal year, including an estimated $42 million from lowering the threshold for out-of-state businesses to collect and pay the state’s 6.25% sales tax.

Sen. Michael J. Rodrigues, D-Westport, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said budget-writers didn't agree with all of Baker's proposed tax and fee increases, such as his plan to hike the real estate transfer tax to pay for climate change resiliency and adaptation programs.

"We think there are adequate revenues in the state's coffers, without raising new revenues, to fully fund the state's priorities," Rodrigues told reporters at a briefing last week.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, has said he doesn't want to consider taxes until later in the legislative session, when lawmakers could take up proposals to increase revenue for transportation, education and other needs.

Taxing opioid manufacturers isn’t a new idea. Bills have been introduced as far back as 2015 in at least 15 states to impose taxes or fees. None of them have passed.

Even if the proposal makes it into the final spending plan, it is likely to face a legal challenge from pharmaceutical firms who say the move would result in higher prices for consumers.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a 2-cents-per-milligram tax on opioids as part of a budget last January, arguing that it would offset the cost of dealing with a drug crisis that's widespread in his state. The tax sought to raise $600 million from opioid makers and distributors to help pay for drug treatment.

Drug companies sued to block the New York tax, and a federal judge in December struck it down, saying it violated interstate commerce protections in the U.S. Constitution.

— Christian M. Wade


Valley elder services agencies to merge

Two agencies responsible for helping thousands of older residents across the North Shore and the Merrimack Valley are planning to merge.

North Shore Elder Services and Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley said they will merge on July 1. The private, nonprofit organizations are among 26 agencies designated by the state to provide services to senior citizens and their caregivers.

The newly formed organization will be led by Joan Hatem-Roy, the current CEO of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, which is based in Lawrence. But North Shore Elder Services will retain its name and continue to provide services out of its Danvers location.

"For all intents and purposes, as far as the public is concerned, it's business as usual," said Paul Lanzikos, executive director of North Shore Elder Services. "Where it matters most to people is the connection between our staff and their services, and that's not going to change."

Lanzikos said North Shore Elder Services began considering a merger two years ago as a way of becoming more efficient and effective.

The two agencies employ social workers and nurses to evaluate what services people need, then contract out to other agencies to provide those services. One of their main goals is to enable people to stay in their homes rather than to have to move into a nursing home.

The merger will allow the combined organization to save money on operating costs and spend that money on services, he said. Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley serves 23 communities and is about three times larger than North Shore Elder Services, which covers Danvers, Marblehead, Middleton, Peabody and Salem.

The agencies provide such services as housekeeping, home-delivered meals, personal care, money management and behavioral health counseling, investigate reports of elder abuse and neglect, and run an ombudsman program in local nursing homes.

The two agencies combined will have about 500 employees and 350 volunteers, and serve about 12,000 clients per month, Lanzikos said. He said there would be no layoffs because the agencies are required to maintain certain staffing ratios. The agencies' primary contracts are with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs and MassHealth.

Hatem-Roy said the merger follows a trend of nonprofits combining forces to create economies of scale.

"It's making financial sense for sustainability reasons for some nonprofits to merge with similar organizations," she said. "We'll be able to expand our services and create new programming that meets the needs of both areas."

Hatem-Roy pointed out that Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley has added some services for people of all ages, such as helping people on the state's MassHealth insurance program.


— Paul Leighton


Groups seek harsher penalties for poachers

An unlikely alliance between animal protection groups and hunters is driving a proposal for stiffer penalties for those who poach deer, turkey and other wild game.

Under the proposal, which is being considered by the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, violators would face hefty new fines, license suspension and jail time for multiple offenses.

Massachusetts has become known as a poachers "paradise" because of its outdated game laws and paltry fines that do little to deter illegal hunting, trapping and fishing, according to one animal protection advocate.

"Illegal hunting and fishing damage conservation efforts, affect future generations of wildlife, create challenges for law enforcement and threaten our state economy," said state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, a primary sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives. "This is a proposal that will preserve the rights of law-abiding hunters while protecting our wildlife and natural resources."

Backed by 70 lawmakers, the bill has strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate. North of Boston co-sponsors include state Reps. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, Paul Tucker, D-Salem, Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, as well as Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem.

The proposal also would add the Bay State to the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, a national database that shares information about suspected poachers and the suspension of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses. Massachusetts is one of only two states, including Hawaii, that hasn't joined the pact.

Animal protection groups say joining the pact will help change the state's reputation as a safe haven for poachers.

"Right now, we're unfortunately known as a paradise for poachers," said Stephanie Harris, Massachusetts state director for the Humane Society of the United States. "They know they can come here and poach animals and not face consequences, even if they've been convicted of illegal hunting in their own state."

Under the pact, hunters who've been convicted of poaching or had their licenses revoked elsewhere would be prevented from getting one in Massachusetts.

Hunting groups, which seldom side with animal protection organizations on proposed legislation, are on board with the tougher fines and penalties.

Under current game laws, the vast majority of poaching offenses carry as much weight as a parking ticket. Some fines haven't been updated in more than a century.

"Many of the fines for poaching are too low, which isn't a deterrent," Ehrlich said. "They're basically letting willful offenders off with a slap on the wrist."

Under the proposed changes, fines for killing a deer or turkey out-of-season or without a hunting license would rise from a low of $300 to a high of $3,000 per offense. Violators could also face up to six months in prison.

Illegal killings of a bird of prey, which are protected species, will cost poachers up to $10,000 for multiple offenses, including up to a year in prison.

The proposal also adds smaller animals that currently have no fines for poaching. Poaching a raccoon, rabbit or gray squirrel could cost you $50 per animal.

Last year, lawmakers increased fines for commercial and recreational fish poaching as part of a $2 billion environmental bond bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

In the past three years, state environmental police have reported 2,242 wildlife and hunting violations, including hunting without a license and hunting on wildlife refuges or on other lands where it's off-limits, according to the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Police made 183 arrests for illegal hunting during that period and issued more $63,000 in fines, according to the state agency.

Supporters of the tougher sanctions say poaching is rampant in the state's forests and parkland and is mostly unpunished.

Wildlife officials estimate that for every animal harvested legally, at least one other is poached.

A similar plan was approved by the Senate last year but wasn't taken up by the House before the end of the legislative session.

— Christian M. Wade

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