2021 State of the City Address

State of the City Address

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle
March 10, 2021

The ravages of COVID-19 have shone a bright spotlight on issues that existed long before the pandemic. With new urgency, we are having long-overdue conversations about food and housing security, education, the fragility of child and health care systems, harm reduction strategies, internet access, and government efficiency. Tonight, I'd like to focus on where those conversations have led us so far in Easthampton.

First and foremost, I want to stress that COVID-19 is a public health crisis that is not over. We have lost so much and so many in the last year. And while relief is coming, we are not yet at the finish line. I implore you: Do not let your weariness of this global pandemic lower your guard. Keep wearing masks and social distance.

Throughout this pandemic with the ensuing closures and quarantines, the City of Easthampton has successfully preserved the continuity of core city services. Aided by federal funding, we secured PPE and testing for city staff as well as virtual platforms for public access to meetings. We shifted key public services online, built a bigger drop box at City Hall, utilized electronic billboards and CodeRED to get urgent information out to residents.

Even with federal dollars, the delay of the FY2021 state budget and expected drops in local revenue are looming factors. This year, we must tighten our belts out of an abundance of caution while supporting long-term city projects. In December, I sent my annual budget letter to city departments and instructed them to cut 2.5% from last year's budget, without cutting or laying off staff.

COVID also exposed troubling vulnerabilities in housing security, prompting us to study housing needs, affordability, and supply. In response to this crisis with the help of CPA monies, we created a new Emergency Rental Assistance program. Renters who are at least one month late on their rent, or who are at immediate risk of falling behind, may be eligible for $3,000 in aid from this new fund. In addition, Easthampton's senior tax write-off program starts July 1, 2021.

I am thankful that our smart fiscal planning has paid off and is helping Easthampton to ride out the storm of COVID. Even with uncertainties, we continue to see growth.

I am proud to have secured millions in grant money for Easthampton these last three and half years, and we're seeing those investments come to life now. This growth has also proven a prescient buffer against external factors that might have otherwise tanked our local economy.

We have used cannabis impact fees to offset the effects of this new industry on the City, while making strategic investments to bolster education, public safety and government efficiency.

  • We gifted $10,000 to the Emily Williston Memorial Library to further support community literacy efforts focused on youth wellness.
  • We replenished and repaired outdated equipment for the Easthampton Fire Department.
  • And we are digitizing our city records - both operational and historical - for remote access.

Meanwhile, other major development projects are moving ahead on schedule:

  • The first building in the One Ferry Street development is already open and occupied.
  • The public benefits around the project - like traffic improvements and outdoor promenade space - are near completion.
  • River Valley Co-op is on schedule to open this summer, bringing union jobs to the City.
  • Construction on our new PreK-8 School is currently running on time and budget.

An equitable, locally-driven economy was always our path forward, and that will sustain us in a post-COVID world. To that end, we created two local small business grants with public and private funds. I am working hard to leverage new state and federal recovery dollars for bread and butter programs. Specifically, I'm aiming to use stimulus funding to unlock affordable housing opportunities, small business support, better roads, and more jobs to improve the quality of life in Easthampton as we emerge from the pandemic.

Hand in hand with smart development, we must address the tangible impacts of climate change and the health of our buildings. To that end, we've contracted with an energy performance service company to perform an industry-grade audit to evaluate our current buildings and to make targeted upgrades to address air quality and circulation. The contract includes a solar survey to identify potential locations where we can put solar to the City's best advantage. These investments also make long-term fiscal sense, particularly during a time of economic uncertainty, as we seek to hedge against increasing energy costs.

Our best plans and developments continue to be those shaped by input from our residents. This input directs spending to sustainable reflections of community values. Our Arts Visioning, Open Space Plan, award-winning Downtown Strategic Plan, Housing Needs, and Production Plan were all developed with resident participation to align our community values with municipal operations and investment. Going forward, more public input is needed for our Local Recovery Plan to bolster our hospitality, makers and creative economies.

In a time with high unemployment, as side ventures are becoming primary income sources, I am particularly excited about the work we're doing here through Blueprint Easthampton. The program supports and fosters side hustles and kitchen businesses - also known as microenterprises. We're currently using grants from the National League of Cities to secure resource partners, guidance, and funding for informal entrepreneurs. By actively supporting businesses to join the formal economy, we are opening wider avenues for our local commerce scene to attract customers across the region.

Blueprint Easthampton has already led to partnerships with state and national organizations to equip talented but under-resourced individuals in Easthampton with tools and capital to change the arc of their lives. To best recruit innovators, the City is working with national non-profits and the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce to run a Community Business Academy with Rising Tide Capital.

Check out BlueprintEasthampton.com to use our business resource guide, interactive online Resource Navigator, and an entrepreneurship evaluation and findings report on our local innovation landscape.

From my very first State of the City address, you have heard my commitment to transparency and accessibility. To me, that is about tearing through the red tape we're so used to in government that often builds barriers and perpetuates bias. But making government more accessible is just one element of countering historic discrimination, and bias against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

After engaging the Department of Justice in a city-wide intervention in 2018, Easthampton's Community Relations Committee was formed, focused on bringing folks together to counter systemic bias and find spots of common ground.

On June 3, 2020, I kneeled in acknowledgment of the grief of longstanding racial inequity, violence and trauma. That same day, I signed the Mayor's Pledge, created by My Brother's Keeper under the Obama Foundation. As directed by that pledge, we are reviewing Use of Force Policies, and, with public input, we are re-envisioning police work to build upon authentic public trust. I fully know that this process has been fraught with high emotion and sharp words.

Given the need and rightful calls for change, I have invited the Department of Justice's Community Relations Service back to Easthampton to help us navigate an effective route forward. They serve as an independent party for communities in conflict, by mediating disputes and enhancing community capacity to prevent and resolve future conflicts on their own. If we want to address the bedrock of racism, it will take consistent, facilitated trust-building work to reimagine the future. The Community Relations Service will help us in this pursuit.

I want to stress that the fight for equity is not an isolated priority; but rather, it is a central guiding principle in all that I do - from rooting out bias in our departments, increasing fiscal transparency, to supporting youth wellness, to creating financial assistance for those so often excluded from traditional seed capital.

I am working to counter systematic discrimination not just through symbolic gestures, but by securing real funding and crafting successful initiatives to build wealth and opportunity in Easthampton. This work will remain ongoing as long as I am serving as your Mayor. It is and will be, based in good-faith partnerships and a humble willingness to learn and grow, both personally and as an accountable leader.

To that end, I will bring forth a series of funding requests to the City Council to invest in what is clearly urgent, such as intensive anti-racism training for all department heads, members of the City Council, and School Committee.

I will request funding to complete a long-overdue update of our ADA Plan, and to hire a licensed social worker to coordinate and augment harm reduction and social services out of the Health Department.

In the spirit of transparency, I am seeking funding for software more conducive to multilingual translation and closed captioning for emails, text services, and public meetings. And related to that, funding for a public process consultant to review internal processes and public meetings for efficiency and inclusiveness.

I will also ask the City Council to fund a feasibility study examining ways to make a permanent Affordable Housing Trust, inclusive of rentals and robust first-time home buyer options. Additionally, I am seeking funding for a holistic review of recreational cannabis on the City to best address all impacts.

And I will ask the City Council to join me in prioritizing infrastructure needs specifically to create multiple shovel ready projects so that we can access and leverage federal funding.

We can look forward to these exciting developments while acknowledging that the trauma and anxiety of last year remains an enormous weight. As we prepare for the coming year, more changes in our everyday life are all but certain. But what matters most is that we follow the example of our incredible first responders and frontline workers and, even when dogged by exhaustion and uncertainty, we remain committed to helping each other.

So many times in the past year, I've thought of this quote from Mr. Rogers. He said, When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

In Easthampton today, not only are we helping each other survive, we are helping each other plan and prepare for the known and unknown challenges ahead. We are helping each other learn, helping each other examine and challenge bigotry and hate, helping each other to hang on, helping each other to prosper and helping each other reimagine and reinvent what is possible in the years ahead. Regardless of agreeing or disagreeing, the last year has shown us, we are clearly stronger together.

Thank you for the honor of being your Mayor.

Stay safe.