WESTFIELD – Members of the western Mass. State House delegation met with Gov. Charlie Baker last week on the need to increase funding for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and veterans services in general. The delegation included State Rep. John Velis (D-Westfield) and State Sen. Donald Humason (R-Westfield.)
The delegation was pleased the Baker administration proposed boosting funding for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, which has undergone a series of high-profile resignations in the past month. The delegation wants to see Holyoke Soldiers’ Home funding on par with its Chelsea counterpart.
The governor submitted a $39.6 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2017. House and Senate leaders were expected to begin work on their respected budgets. The current fiscal year ends on June 30.
This week, Velis said the House and Senate are in the process of constructing state budgets, which also call for increases to the soldiers’ home.
In December, Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Paul Barabani, Deputy Superintendent John Paradis and Board of Trustees Chairman Steven Como submitted their resignations.
The state appointed former Chelsea Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Cheryl L. Poppe as acting superintendent in Holyoke.
A search is underway to appoint a permanent superintendent in Holyoke. After years without a chief financial officer, Velis said an announcement is forthcoming about a new financial officer for the home.
Velis, who serves on the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, said the Holyoke Soldiers’ Homes serves the region’s veterans.
The home falls within Humason’s senate district. The Senator also serves on the committee.
“All of us have constituents who are residents and patients there. We also have constituents who work there, and not to mention how sacred the place is in general,” he said. “It’s something that’s very near and dear to all of our hearts.
Velis said veterans’ causes remain a top priority for him as he continues to serve in the Army National Guard, holding the rank of captain. His service included deployments to war zones.
While the Baker administration put forth a budget, the House and Senate versions must be hashed out and reconciled, followed by budget negotiations.
Velis said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop) has a long supported increases to funding veterans.
In meetings with House Ways and Means Chairman Brian S. Dempsey, Velis said he frequently mentions needed increases for the Holoke Soldiers’ Home.
The delegation pointed out to the Governor the disparities in how the Holyoke and Chelsea homes are funded, with a major portion going to Chelsea.
He believes the funding shortages in Holyoke, including the lack of a chief financial officer, acted as a catalyst for Paradis’ resignation. Paradis also took on the duties of executive officer and communications director.
“All of us were ecstatic when the Governor let us know a hire has been made,” he said.
Velis said veterans consistently tell him how the Governor has not paid a visit to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, an almost routine stop for state and federal officials and politicians who visit the area.
After bringing up the lack of visits, Baker and state Veterans Affairs officials said they will visit the home later this month.
Velis added that members on his committee universally agree there is no difference between a veteran who lives in western or eastern Mass. He does recognize the shortcomings in state funding for the region.
A majority of House and Senate members live east of Worcester, said Velis, which causes a limited view of the Commonwealth.
“They have more authority and more say when it comes to the allocation of funds,” he said. “But if there was ever an issue where that should not matter, it’s looking out and advocating for our veterans.”
While the Chelsea facility differs in some ways from Holyoke, Velis called for an “equivalent dollar amount” in caring for all veterans.
“That, quite frankly, has not been the case,” he said.
He thanked the Baker for including the increases in his budget.
He hopes the resignation controversy will spark positive outcomes for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
The meeting also included discussions on more open communication between the Governor and the Legislature.
Last Sunday, Velis received a follow-up call from Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Affairs Francisco Urena, which the representative saw as a positive sign.
“There was a problem at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. All parties can readily agree to that, but at the end of the day, what’s most important is the veterans there,” said Velis.”
“If this controversy can solve that problem, we can get adequate funding for our veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, then it’s a win-win,” he said.