Chamber promotes city through video series

Haverhill's business community is working with local leaders to lure families to Haverhill by producing videos that tout the community's strengths, with the first film highlighting Haverhill schools.

The Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce's Arts and Education Foundation is heading up the effort.

"The goal is a series of videos and we found a great filmmaker who understands how to tell a story," said Dougan Sherwood, chamber president and CEO. "We have a lot of great ideas about what we’d like to highlight about Haverhill."

He said the chamber will focus on other aspects of the city, too, including quality of life, healthy living, outdoor recreation, biking, hiking, skiing, golfing, paddling, disc golf and other activities residents can enjoy. Local farms, the walkable downtown, the city's status as a gateway to New Hampshire, and its proximity to the ocean also are on the list.

'We have an incredible, diverse community with tremendous cross cultural benefits, including art and food," Sherwood said.

The less than four-minute-long video highlights what Sherwood said are the positive changes that are taking place in Haverhill schools under the leadership of Superintendent Margaret Marotta.

"The work of city growth is collaborative and I’ve found a partner in Superintendent Marotta. Her vision for an inclusive school community is very much in line with how the chamber sees its role in the city. Our schools' commitment to bringing meaningful change is vitally important to our economy. High performing schools are the greatest magnet for attracting new families to this area. If we can do that, businesses and jobs will follow," Sherwood said.

"And if we really do this right, we’ll be supporting the bridgework from the public schools to our colleges in town, namely Northern Essex and UMass Lowell," Sherwood continued. "It’s no coincidence that the chamber is led by Board Chair Lane Glenn, president of NECC, and includes Board of Director Tom O’Donnell, senior. director of innovation initiatives at UMass Lowell. Education is key to everything we’re working to do."

Investments in new initiatives are already making a difference, Sherwood said.

The chamber’s video highlights a several new programs in Haverhill public schools, including free breakfast and lunch for children who lack basic sustenance, and the Backpack 68 program, through which children get food for the weekend. The number 68 refers the hours between Friday school dismissal and the start of school Monday morning. Sherwood said Marotta has also lifted sports fees for high school and middle school athletes.

These themes are touched upon in the video, which features Sherwood, Marotta, Haverhill School Committee member Rich Rosa, and state Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill.

"One of the best things about Haverhill public schools are our teachers,'' Vargas said. "We have some marvelous teachers that wake up every day going the extra mile — staying after school, getting there earlier to ensure that every student is prepared to learn. Haverhill public school students are being well-prepared to thrive in the America of today and tomorrow."

There are many people in the community supporting the work to make the schools stronger and showing their support for the superintendent and her partnership with the community, Sherwood said.

“Supporting children and families in Haverhill takes teamwork," said school physician Dr. John Maddox. "When school leaders partner with health care providers and community agencies, we work together to help all kids be healthy and ready to learn and prepared to succeed. I see a lot of progress under Dr. Marotta and with continued support from the School Committee and others in the community, I hope we continue moving forward."

School Committee member Paul Magliocchetti, a chamber board member and president of the chamber's Arts and Education Foundation, said, "The arts community and educational opportunities in Haverhill are integral to the future prosperity of our city. The GHC Arts and Education Foundation was established to promote the arts and education in Haverhill. Its purpose is being fulfilled with this promotion that highlights the great progress being made in the Haverhill public schools by Superintendent Margaret Marotta."

The video will be used to showcase what's happening in the school system through Facebook and other social media channels. The video can be viewed at Haverhillchamber.com.

— Mike LaBella

 

Alcohol sales fight heads to high court

Liquor store owners are turning to the high court in Massachusetts to derail a possible ballot question reshaping the state's liquor license landscape and allowing Cumberland Farms and other food stores to sell beer and wine, a practice that's common in other states.

Represented by former Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy, the Westborough-based Massachusetts Package Stores Association says Attorney General Maura Healey improperly certified the proposed initiative petition. They have appealed her decision to the SJC in an attempt to keep the question off the 2020 ballot.

The plaintiffs, including Sav-Mor Spirits, Julio's Liquors, and Greenwood Wine & Spirits, say the "Frankenstein-like ballot initiative" backed by the Westborough-based Cumberland Farms convenience store chain is impermissible because it contains four independent and unrelated questions, similar to the argument that last year sunk the attempt to put a surtax on income greater than $1 million.

"Voters are immediately misled because the question addresses four independent questions of long-standing public policy, each unrelated to the other, except that they all reference alcoholic beverages," the association wrote in a press release.

The release continues, "This 'logrolling,' including unrelated provisions in a single ballot question, appears to be an intentional effort by Cumberland Farms, owned by England based E.G. Group who controls over 7,000 convenience and gas stores worldwide."

The association's lawsuit hinges on the argument that the initiative petition combines "four distinct and unrelated questions" — whether beer and wine should be sold at an unlimited number of establishments that sell food, whether any single company should be allowed to control an unlimited number of liquor licenses, whether all people buying beer or wine should be made to present identification, and whether some alcohol excise taxes should be diverted to fund the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

Matt Durand, the lead petitioner for the question and the head of public policy for Cumberland Farms, said Healey's office "squarely addressed the issues raised in the recent Package Store Association lawsuit" when it certified that the initiative met constitutional muster and could continue advancing towards the ballot.

"While the opponents' continued objections lack merit in our view, they are hardly a surprise. We fully anticipated that entrenched special interests would challenge this proposal at every step of the process, and that's exactly what they're doing with their lawsuit challenging the Attorney General's certification," Durand said. "We are in the process of reviewing the specifics of the complaint, and will determine the appropriate response. For now, while the Package Store Association argues about process, we remain focused on the merits of our proposal as we complete the signature certification process."

To stay on track for the ballot, supporters of the proposed law must submit signatures from 80,239 registered voters by Dec. 4. Durand said the effort has gathered 130,000 signatures since August and has "already comfortably exceeded the constitutional threshold for certification by local election officials — with many more certifications still to go."

Under current law, Cumberland Farms and similar retailers can hold up to seven alcohol retail licenses this year and up to nine beginning next year.

The initiative, as described in the attorney general's summary, "would create a license allowing food stores to sell wine and beer for off-premises consumption, progressively increase and then eliminate the limit on the number of licenses for the sale of alcoholic beverages consumed off-premises that any one retailer could own or control."

The package stores said the ballot question is an attempt to go around the legislative process "by confusing voters into giving this single company unprecedented control of the retail alcohol marketplace with a potential 200-store network."

"Establishing a virtual monopoly for Cumberland Farms is clearly the intended outcome," the association said.

The proposal would also "require food stores and other retailers selling alcohol for consumption off-premises to implement certain age-verification policies to prevent the sale of alcohol to customers under age 21," according to the attorney general's summary.

The package stores, whose owners said they account for more than 19,000 jobs and $90 million in state excise taxes, said the industry is banding together to fight the Cumberland Farms initiative because it "never should have gotten this far."

"The entire retail alcohol beverages industry in Massachusetts has been turned upside down by the Cumberland Farms Initiative," Benjamin Weiner of Sav-Mor Spirits said in a prepared statement. "This appeal is a Strength in Unity moment for all locally owned retailers of beer, wine and spirits against a retail Goliath from the UK that is trying to dupe voters into giving them unparalleled control of the Massachusetts marketplace.''

— State House News Service

 

State legislators push for breakfast in classrooms

Breakfast is fuel for learning, according to nutrition advocates who say that Massachusetts should be doing a better job of delivering the first meal of the day to school children, particularly those from low-income families, who may otherwise skip it.

A proposal unanimously approved by the state House of Representatives last week would require high-poverty schools — where 60% or more of the students receive free or reduced lunch — to also provide kids with breakfast in the classroom when the school day begins. The plan now goes to the Senate for approval.

Several north-of-Boston communities -- including Salem, Haverhill and Lawrence -- now offer breakfast after the bell. Some get financial assistance from nonprofit anti-hunger groups for their programs.

Massachusetts already requires schools in high-poverty areas to offer breakfast. This plan would move the meal from the cafeteria before the bell to the classroom.

Supporters say serving breakfast "after the bell" helps to boost attendance, close achievement gaps and will allow the state to rope in more federal nutrition money.

"We cannot expect students to succeed if we don't meet one of the most basic needs," state Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a speech on the House floor last Wednesday. "The research shows that school breakfast increases academic scores, decreases absenteeism and improves behavior. Simply put, a hungry student cannot learn."

Vargas said the legislation will allow the state to tap into grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for states that mandate breakfast.

Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, said the requirements will ensure that students "never go to school hungry."

"The fact that many of these children are coming to school and haven't had breakfast is deplorable in today's day and age," he told fellow lawmakers. "This is a problem that affects all school districts. I've seen firsthand the food banks coming to our schools to ensure that our children are fed and that they are getting the nutrition they need."

The new program would affect some 260,000 students in 600 schools, supporters say.

Students in high-poverty districts who don't qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast under federal income guidelines would still be able to buy breakfast, under the proposal. The state would be required to cover additional costs for school districts.

Roughly 1 in 10 households in Massachusetts is food insecure, meaning they don't have consistent, reliable access to nutritious and affordable food, according to the group Feeding America. Data from the USDA show Massachusetts is among the top 25 states with the highest rates of food insecurity.

Food pantry operators say despite the state's robust economy many low-income families struggle to make ends meet and often don't have enough to feed their children.

"They're paying rent, utilities, child care expenses, and in the case of grandparents, buying medicine. And there's not a lot left over to buy food for all members in the household," said Amy Pessia, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, which also provides food to local schools. "Often times parents will make food the last priority."

Pessia said food insecurity can affect a child’s physical and mental health, academic achievement and future economic prosperity, all of which have broader societal effects.

"The reality is that children can't take care of themselves," she said. "So for the public health and well-being of everyone, we need to support them as much as possible."

— Christian M. Wade

 

Year-to-date opioid deaths down 6%

The rate of deaths due to opioid overdoses is slowing in Massachusetts, but still nearly 1,500 people died of an overdose in the Bay State through the first nine months of this year, officials announced.

The 1,460 confirmed or suspected opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts between January and September represent a decrease of about 6% from the first three quarters of 2018, the equivalent of 99 fewer people dying, the Department of Public Health said.

DPH has confirmed 1,091 of the deaths were caused by an overdose of heroin, fentanyl, prescription painkillers or other opioids and estimated that another 332 to 407 deaths will eventually be confirmed as opioid overdoses.

For the second time in two quarterly opioid data releases, DPH officials said that the prevalence of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has risen to "an all-time high" and is now present in almost every overdose death that's screened for drugs.

"Today's report affirms that our multi-pronged approach to the opioid epidemic is making a difference," Gov. Charlie Baker said in a prepared statement. "Although we've made progress, we must continue to focus our law enforcement efforts on getting fentanyl off of our streets and out of our neighborhoods."

Of the 903 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2019 for which a toxicology screen was present, 838 of them -- or 93 percent -- tested positive for the presence of fentanyl, which is deadly in small doses. Last year, fentanyl was found in 89 percent of opioid overdose deaths and was present in just 18 percent of opioid overdose deaths in the third quarter of 2014, DPH said.

Over the last five years, while fentanyl has been on the rise in Massachusetts, the rate of heroin or likely heroin found present in opioid-related overdoses has declined steadily, according to the findings. It was found in 24 percent of overdose deaths that had a toxicology screen in the second quarter of this year.

Men aged 25 through 34 continued to make up the greatest demographic share (24 percent) of all opioid-related incidents treated by emergency medical services in the first half of 2019, DPH said. Men account for 74 percent of all fatal opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts.

"Behind these quarterly data are real people and families in communities across the state whose lives are impacted by addiction," Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said. "We remain invested in proven strategies across the spectrum of prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery to help individuals struggling with addiction and support local community efforts."

The current state budget directs $246 million — or roughly 0.6 percent of the total state appropriation — toward addressing substance misuse prevention and treatment.

Despite the surge in the presence of fentanyl, public health officials have touted declines in the number of overdose deaths. Between 2016 and 2018, total overdose deaths dropped by an estimated 3% and the rate of deaths per 100,000 people fell by 4% in that same time period, DPH has said.

"The release of this latest data indicates that our public health-centered approach to the opioid epidemic is working," Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said. "As we move forward, we will build on this success by continuing to focus on the widespread availability of naloxone, behavioral and medication treatments, and sustained recovery services."

— State House News Service

 

Columbia Gas finishes inspecting thousands of abandoned lines

An announcement that Columbia Gas has finished inspecting the last of nearly 5,000 abandoned gas service lines throughout the Merrimack Valley has been greeted with a mix of relief and trepidation by local officials.

The announcement came last week. Inspections were required after Columbia Gas finished replacing the destroyed gas system following the Sept. 13, 2018, gas disaster, which led to one death, mass evacuations, and millions of dollars in losses for hundreds of small- and medium-sized businesses.

The gas company installed 43.5 miles of new gas main lines and replaced 5,086 service lines -- which are gas pipes that run from the street to homes and businesses, providing fuel for cooking, heating or hot water heaters.

The work went on for four months.

Once the work was finished and street repaving began, however, more problems cropped up.

In September, Columbia Gas was ordered by the Department of Public Utilities to inspect 700 abandoned gas lines in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. The DPU ordered the company to cap the abandoned lines or face $1 million in penalties for each line left uncapped. Columbia Gas representatives said 188 "required some form of remediation."

A gas explosion in late September of this year triggered another round of inspections and orders from the DPU to inspect and cap another 2,200 lines, of which 688 required some form of remediation, the gas company said Tuesday.

Finally, Columbia Gas began the voluntary verification of a final set of approximately 2,000 former service lines, not required by the DPU, "out of an abundance of caution," the company said.

"The final set was completed this month and 53 required some form of remediation," according to a Columbia Gas release.

Columbia Gas president and COO Mark Kempic took responsibility for the shoddy work that led to the problems this fall.

“We acknowledge that some of last fall’s work was not completed in accordance with federal and state regulations and CMA protocols and we take full responsibility,” Kempic said in a press release. “Since last September’s gas event, we have been working to identify ways to enhance our operational and safety procedures across our Massachusetts footprint to proactively identify and mitigate issues as we work to rebuild customer and public confidence in our company.”

Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan said he was looking forward to getting the town's roads paved.

"We can move on with what we need to do to make neighborhoods whole again," he said. "We should have a clear path to completing our paving and road restoration work over the course of the next three years and finally put September 13th behind us."

He added, however, that the town and its residents have "no toleration for any additional delays or inconveniences."

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said he was happy that this phase of the work has been finished.

"I'm glad this is over and thank them for doing it," he said. But, he added, now that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has weighed in, "I'm looking forward to the work of the DPU in reviewing this whole disaster."

When the NTSB investigation was completed, it opened the door for the state to launch its own investigation of the gas company's work before, during and after the September 2018 disaster.

That investigation is ongoing.

According to a statement from the DPU, the agency "can confirm that Columbia Gas has completed, as ordered by DPU, the verification of approximately 700 former service lines that involved sleeved mains, as well as approximately 2,200 former service lines that involved non-sleeved mains."

"Sleeved mains" refers to new, plastic lines that were inserted into old, cast iron lines.

"DPU will continue to closely monitor all of Columbia Gas’ work to ensure that they follow all state and federal requirements as well as their own company policies," the statement said.

After the late September gas leak that led to another round of evacuations and business closures, the DPU placed a moratorium on all work being done by Columbia Gas.

That moratorium, according to the DPU, is "ongoing. While this moratorium is for all of Columbia Gas’ service territory, a few exceptions apply: Emergency work on its gas distribution system; ongoing work to address the previously identified issues with abandoned services and gate boxes in Merrimack Valley, including the repairs of Grade 1, 2, or 3 gas leaks in that area; and, work requested by Columbia and approved by the DPU. For example, the DPU anticipates approving work involving new customer service connections of heating supply for new and existing customers."

According to the DPU, Columbia Gas has at least one more deadline to meet.

By Dec. 2, Columbia Gas was "required to report to the DPU data on all noncompliant work and any patterns, correlations, and trends identified through the service line abandonment verification."

In a release, Kempic thanked the communities for their patience.

“We have appreciated the patience and cooperation of our customers and the communities over the last two months, which allowed us to complete this project ahead of schedule and in a safe manner,” he said.

Company spokesman Scott Ferson added: "Columbia Gas remains committed to the long-term recovery of the Merrim

— Bill Kirk

 

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