Combined health, human services heads to Town Meeting

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Combined health, human services heads to Town Meeting
Northborough Town Meeting will be weighing in on a combined health and human services department. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

NORTHBOROUGH – Two articles on the Town Meeting warrant would establish a combined health and human services department.

“There’s a significant need for community health services,” said Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC) Regional Projects Manager Connor Robichaud during a combined meeting of the Select Board and Board of Health March 18.

He referenced Northborough’s recent results in the MetroWest Community Health Needs Assessment, which indicated that one in three people can’t access mental health services due to a lack of providers, long wait times and insurance barriers. Further, 20% of adults were dealing with depression, and 13% of adults reported that their mental health was not good for half or more of the past month.

Assessment

When Town Administrator Tim McInerney arrived in Northborough, former Health Director Kristin Black and interim Town Administrator Mike Gallagher requested that the town move forward with a study to examine a model that would merge the Health Department and Northborough Family and Youth Services (NFYS).

The town issued a request for proposals seeking assistance, and the assessment was ultimately conducted by CMRPC.

Based on input, CMRPC developed a recommended structure for a combined department. Robichaud stressed that there wouldn’t be any changes to the authority or responsibility of any town boards.

“This unified structure would allow for a more streamlined and coordinated utilization of resources,” he said.

The structure calls for a director of health and human services along with nine supporting roles.

According to interim Health Director Isabella Caruso, the director would be funded by the town. The shared services coordinator is currently part time and funded through the Public Health Excellence Shared Service Grant. That grant also funds the epidemiologist, public health nurse and health inspector.

The drug free communities coordinator is also grant funded.

The part-time sanitarian would be a town-funded position, as would be the community outreach worker and a clerical position.

A portion of the social worker position would be funded through the Opioid Abatement Settlement Fund.

In fiscal year 2024, the combined NFYS and health budgets amounted to $399,663. The proposed combined budget for fiscal 2025 is estimated at $402,735. That proposed budget would be further bolstered by $755,646 in grant funds for a total of $1.2 million.

During the meeting, some members of the Select Board voiced concerns about reliance on grant funding.

Robichaud said while the town gives up some level of autonomy when it goes for grant funding, “The pros far outweigh the cons.”

“The amount of grant funding that’s available that can support the town in various ways as well as the programs that we’re talking about are not traditional grant programs where you get funding for a year or two and then have to figure out something else,” he said.

The grants are long term, he continued, and Northborough has been strategic to keep new staff positions tied to the longterm grants.

Select Board member Julianne Hirsh said she looked at the request for proposals for the assessment.

“It seems to me there was a little bit of a bias from the get-go — how do we get these two services integrated,” she said. “I just have some nagging doubts about some of the information.”

Hirsh said the people interviewed for the assessment were “overwhelmingly” staff. She said she would feel better if more residents were interviewed.

She also voiced concerns about the models used — like Needham and Nantucket — and that the assessment reported that a lot would depend on the individual hired as the department head.

Black, who called into the meeting, said she believed in this model.

“This is what the people have been asking for, and I think it’s an incredible opportunity,” she said.

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