WASHINGTON -- On Monday, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) led a virtual roundtable with local leaders in New Hampshire to discuss the importance of passing an additional, comprehensive COVID-19 relief package that includes robust funding to support public health -- including mental health -- and economic recovery for individuals, businesses, and communities. The Senator was joined by Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, Strafford County Sheriff David Dubois and Sheriff-elect Mark Brave, Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland, and Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates.
"I am talking to you all as we see a real spike in COVID-19 cases throughout our state," said Senator Hassan. "It really underscores the need for an additional, comprehensive relief package. We need a package that meets the needs of all Granite Staters and Americans right now."
Administrator Coates shared that collaboration with Senator Hassan's office from the start of the pandemic has helped his community. "I want to first start off by saying thank you. Early on we didn’t know what we were facing. We knew back in March and April that we needed to ramp up, [but] to what? And it was reassuring we could reach out to you directly - not just your staff, but you directly - to meet with us and to hear our concerns around [personal protective equipment] and other issues that were just so new to us so we were able to start planning thoughtfully and pragmatically," said Coates.
Coates continued, "We had a voice in Washington that allowed us to push when we didn't understand FEMA. You sitting on Homeland Security Committee helped us to know that we had an advocate that we could call and say and you could push for and say, we need this answer. That was critical, critical for us as we move forward."
Participants discussed the budgetary challenges facing local governments as a result of the pandemic. Senator Hassan said that the next COVID-19 package should include "more funding and flexibility for state and local governments...so we don't see any additional layoffs at the state or local level. That obviously would further hurt our economy but it also really undermines our capacity to respond to the pandemic."
Sheriff Dubois discussed cuts he has already had to make. "Big thing, in my opinion, would be the relief package that you've already talked on, I hope you stay on Senator McConnell," said Sheriff Dubois. "We felt that in Strafford County really personally...We've laid off ten law enforcement staff and we’re still struggling with revenues coming in to support what we have left."
Mayor Grenier stated, "Berlin's resources are stretched thin and we receive, as you know, significant state aid to education and if we lose that money, the city of Berlin will be forced to lay off fire people, police officers, all of the very personnel that are desperately needed right now."
City Manager Mulholland discussed upcoming budgetary concerns: "Going into January, that's a whole new situation, a brand new budget, and there's no relief on horizon as you know, because we haven't been able to get a bill passed for additional funding. So that's going to have a direct impact on budgets, we're looking at layoffs here – my proposed budget has three layoffs so far and depending upon what happens during the year, next year, we may have to have further budget rescissions and there could be additional positions, so that is of significant concern to us."
Participants also discussed mental health challenges that their communities are facing.
Sheriff-elect Brave stated, "At the county level, our towns we dispatch for do see an uptick in response for a mental health crisis. Just because, people are cooped up, they're dealing with situations where they may have gotten laid off from work, they can’t go and travel to see their loved ones, especially with holidays coming, so we have definitely seen an uptick in dispatch calls for service."
City Manager Mulholland shared, "There's an increase in mental health needs. Obviously this is a time that, for even the average person, a certain degree of depression is involved with the circumstances we've been in - we're almost coming up on a year here relatively soon, of living under the constrained circumstances we're all in - so that affects every one of us and we're seeing those in our 911 calls, in the activities that we have in the community."
Senator Hassan is working to bolster mental and behavioral health services, including for substance use disorder, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Senator Hassan has joined her colleagues in calling for increased investments for mental and behavioral health services in the next COVID-19 package.