A reconvening of the Almoners and the 140-year-old will

On March 31, the Northampton board of Almoners met to re-read a will written over a century ago.

In 1875, Whiting Street - a successful capitalist who lived in Northampton and surrounding towns for most of his life - left a combined total of $112,500 to twenty-two Western Massachusetts towns, cities, churches, colleges and businesses - including the city of Northampton.

These funds were distributed by Street in varying amounts; Northampton and Holyoke received the largest single sums of $25,000 each, while other towns received similar sums under Street's will, albeit in smaller amounts: Amherst and Chicopee, the next highest two, each received $6,000, while Goshen and Plainfield only received $750 each. Each trust came with the stipulation that the interest earned on this principle be given "for the relief and comfort of the worthy poor... who shall not be in the Almshouse, nor be town or city paupers."

It was this wording - the "relief and comfort" of the "worthy poor" - that elicited the most confusion from members of Northampton's Board of Almoners, the official overseers of the trust, and ultimately drove the conversation of the meeting almost entirely toward a re-assessment of the board's screening and granting process. Along with Mayor David Narkewicz and city Treasurer Kristine Bissell, the board sat down on Tuesday to consider guidelines for determining who is "worthy", and what constitutes "relief and comfort."

The account in Northampton holds $327,073.18 as of early March, according to Treasurer Bissell. Over $46,000 of this is non-expendable under the terms of the will, but the city distributes around 2.5% of the earned interest each year. In 2015, the amount for distribution is projected at $8,194.

Board members expressed particular concern at the method in place for determining who receives grants under the stipulations of the will, and to what ends those funds should be used. In the past, grant applications were assessed by the board on a case-by-case basis, and determined according to the applicant's need by a vote of the board members.

"It might be appropriate, rather than [the board] trying to suss out who should get what resources and funds, to instead give that money to certain organizations already dedicated to helping the poor," said Mayor Narkewicz. "These organizations already have a process, guidelines, and professionals for distributing these kinds of funds."

Several board members, including Northampton resident and ServiceNet CEO Susan Stubbs, expressed concern that simply allocating funds to other charitable organizations would not allow for review by the board to ensure the funds' proper usage, and that  funding would not become less individually-concentrated.

"These should be individual grants for individual residents of Northampton," said Stubbs. "This should be for 'Joe Smith,' who's gotten into some kind of jam and this will help him out."

The Almoners specifically aim to distribute small-scale grants - between $100 and $1,000 - to Northampton residents who apply to the board for financial aid. Proper use for the funds, as determined by the board, include rent payments, food money, and even utility payments for individuals or families in need of a small financial boost. Applications for larger amounts or for less dire expenditures, like a past request for over $2,000 to refurbish a house, have been denied for not fitting into the original intent of Street's will

Before their first meeting on March 18 of this year, the Northampton Board of Almoners had not met since being eliminated from the town charter in 2012. At that time, state House of Representatives bill H.4102 - an act to amend the charter of Northampton, bringing many organizational changes to the city's administration - included the removal of boards like the Almoners from being legally forced to meet under charter guidelines.

The Almoners, along with other boards, were only re-instituted with an administrative order by Mayor Narkewicz in November of 2014. Many of the applications the board currently have on hand come from this period during which the Almoners did not meet, and will most likely be the first priority of this year's meetings.

By the end of its second meeting of 2015, the board made little headway in terms of actually improving the screening process for grant applicants.

Generally, however, the board agreed on basic principles around how the process would be changed, including selecting charitable organizations to whom funds could be distributed. These organizations would have to present the board with a basic list of which individuals were given aid, and for what purpose, in an effort to help the Almoners keep funds within the stipulations of Street's will.

Members of the Board of Almoners are selected through an application process, by which residents send in applications and are approved by the City Council. Of the five member board, only four were present for this meeting: Susan Stubbs, Pat Ahearn, Andrea Murray, and Joe Misterka. The fifth, Michael Shaughnessy, was absent for both meetings so far this year.

All five of these board members served on the previous Board of Almoners prior to its dissolution in 2012, and were the only applicants to refill the board after its re-institution in 2014. All of the board members present for the meeting are white, and all are over 60 years old.

In the past, the mayor served as a board member under the previous city charter; Narkewicz removed the mayor's position on the board in his 2014 administrative order re-establishing the Almoners, and now sits on as an adviser. As Treasurer, Bissell administers the meeting, which is held in her office in City Hall.

Members of the board agreed to meet again sometime in the next month to continue the discussion, although no date has been set yet for this meeting. In the interim, board members will research organizations to whom they believe funds should be appropriated.