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Grants, jobless aid help Brattleboro musicians survive a tough year

BRATTLEBORO — Samirah Evans was busy in early 2020. The Brattleboro-based jazz and blues vocalist, who moved to the area from New Orleans after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina, said she performed a number of times that February.

Evans’ show on March 1 of the same year wound up being her last for a while, as music venues locally and nationwide canceled live performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We managed to get through all of those gigs before everything closed down,” she said last week. “That was fortunate.”

Although Evans has performed at some virtual concerts since then — including Arts Unite Windham, a show organized by the Putney, Vt. nonprofit Next Stage Arts last August — the past year has largely been filled with financial challenges, she said.

But she and another Brattleboro musician, John Hughes, recently got a boost, each receiving $1,000 grants from the New England Musicians Relief Fund, an initiative created during the pandemic to support musical artists in the region.

A group of Boston-area musicians, union leaders and music supporters launched the program last year to help musicians “weather financial difficulties” with direct cash aid, according to a Feb. 3 press release from the organization.

More than 2,000 freelance musicians in New England make a living playing live music, many of whom lost income and, as gig workers, do not have stable benefits, the release stated. NEMRF President Gabriel Rice, who is also a board member at the Boston Musicians’ Association labor union, said in the release that the relief is intended to help recipients afford everyday expenses, like rent and food, while most live shows remain on pause.

“We want to help bridge the gap until musicians can get back to work,” he said.

Evans said she still had an income last spring, thanks to her job teaching voice students at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. With summer and fall music gigs canceled, however, she filed for unemployment benefits.

“I knew that I wasn’t going to have anything after that because of the way the virus was escalating,” she said. “… The rest of my year was going to look pretty grim.”

The NEMRF assistance, which Evans received in January, is one of several grants that she said have helped support local artists. (She also pointed to funding from the nonprofit Vermont Arts Council and outreach by the Clemmons Family Farm, a Charlotte, Vt. organization that Evans said helped identify available relief, as particularly impactful.)

“If it wasn’t for these various grants and unemployment, it would’ve been really difficult for me to maintain my bills,” she said.

Evans said she was more fortunate than some musicians because her husband, Chris Lenois, kept his position as a college administrator. Her peers without steady income may be “struggling to even eat, let alone take care of all their bills,” she explained.

Hughes, who plays percussion and a West African stringed instrument called the kora, said he used the NEMRF grant to help cover basic household essentials, like toilet paper and food.

A resident of the Brattleboro area for about 30 years, Hughes said his gigs completely dried up last spring due to the pandemic. The dance classes he was instructing at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt., and drumming lessons he was teaching in several locations stopped as well.

Hughes filed for unemployment benefits, which he continues to receive because performances have not yet resumed.

“I would have been on the street” without that aid, he said recently. “I would have lost my home, my studio, everything.”

A fellow Brattleboro artist told Hughes about NEMRF, he said. He applied and got the $1,000 grant in late December.

“It’s amazing that things like that are available,” he said. “… When people, like me, are entirely dependent on unemployment — which is just barely, or not, enough to pay monthly bills — something like that can totally mean the difference between keeping your head above water or going under.”

NEMRF data indicate that Evans and Hughes are not alone.

The organization had distributed nearly $500,000 to 380 local musicians as of late last week, according to spokesman Joe Chambers. He said NEMRF planned to send aid to at least 20 more people this week and continues to accept applications on its website, www.NEMRF.org.

“When things shut down last March, we never imagined that one year later, venues would still be closed, musicians would still be out of work and that we’d have no idea when live music might return,” Rice, NEMRF’s president, said in the Feb. 3 release.

But there may be light at the end of the tunnel, according to Evans and Hughes.

Websites that Hughes uses to connect with event hosts searching for musical guests sent him multiple automated leads last week after showing very few, if any, opportunities since last spring. (Hughes said he received at least a couple leads from the sites each day before the pandemic.) He didn’t expect to get hired from the new leads but sees them as a sign that live performances may be coming back.

Evans said she hopes rising vaccination rates and warmer weather, when people can gather outdoors at lower risk of spreading COVID-19, will encourage that trend. She expressed gratitude for initiatives like NEMRF that, until live shows resume fully, are “working hard to make sure that musicians are taken care of.”

“We’re such a fabric of life,” she said. “Music moves people in all sorts of ways, and the world needs music.”

IRS pushes filing deadline to May 17 as agency grapples with backlog of returns

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service announced on Wednesday it is postponing the country’s tax-filing deadline until May 17, as the agency grapples with a mounting backlog of 24 million returns awaiting processing since the 2019 tax year.

The workload has put the agency underwater — and under political siege — as lawmakers fret that long-unresolved troubles at the IRS could undercut the Biden administration’s economic recovery efforts. Millions of Americans have not received some stimulus checks under prior coronavirus aid packages, even as the tax agency continued distributing payments Wednesday under the $1.9 trillion stimulus signed into law this month.

The IRS shared the full scope of its backlog with the House Ways and Means Committee and the agency’s own watchdogs in recent days. The numbers, obtained by The Washington Post, dwarf the data the IRS has shared with the public. Explaining the postponement, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement the government is doing “everything possible to help taxpayers navigate the unusual circumstances related to the pandemic, while also working on important tax administration responsibilities.”

The effects of the IRS backlog already have been substantial: The delays have kept some Americans from receiving their tax refunds for months while preventing some cash-strapped workers and companies nationwide from taking advantage of some of the stimulus benefits that Congress authorized to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic.

For Patrick O’ Conor, the IRS backlog has been costly: He estimates that the government owes him about $16,000 in tax refunds and stimulus payments as a result of significant lags in processing his 2019 and 2020 taxes. The Frederick, Md.-area resident said it has been particularly rough because he and his wife recently had a baby and bought a home in the past year, and they need the money to cover their new expenses.

“We haven’t missed any payments yet on anything,” he said, “but it’s come really, really close.”

The delays threaten the IRS’s ability to deliver an array of new relief under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and could result in uncomfortable questions for Rettig, who was to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee today. In recent weeks, some congressional Democrats and Republicans had urged the IRS to push the tax-filing deadline from April to later this year, similar to the filing deadline for 2019 returns. Some lawmakers celebrated the decision Wednesday.

“This extension is absolutely necessary to give Americans some needed flexibility in a time of unprecedented crisis,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the panel’s chairman, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J. “Under titanic stress and strain, American taxpayers and tax preparers must have more time to file tax returns. And the IRS itself started the filing season late, continues to be behind schedule, and now must implement changes from the American Rescue Plan.”

For some lawmakers, the IRS’s troubles come as no surprise. Congress had in recent years slashed the agency’s budget by billions of dollars, contributing to the loss of tens of thousands of critical IRS jobs, while leaving long-known deficiencies in its computer systems unaddressed.

The pandemic has brought additional challenges, forcing much of the IRS workforce to complete its tasks from home and saddling the agency with new responsibilities, including three rounds of stimulus payments. Most of these payments have reached hundreds of millions of Americans without too much difficulty, making them one of the government’s most popular relief programs.

But the agency has struggled in other respects, including in its work over the past few years to process tax returns from individuals and businesses alike. The details are laid bare in information the IRS provided to the House Ways and Means Committee as well as the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. A spokesman for the inspector general this week confirmed the figures but said they had not independently audited information it obtained from the IRS for accuracy.

The total backlog appears to stand at more than 24 million filings, the data show. That includes more than 12.3 million paper-based tax returns the IRS has received, but hasn’t started processing over the past two tax years.

Most of these filings are from businesses, but the tranche also includes 2.4 million returns from individuals reflecting their 2019 earnings. As a result, these Americans may not have received stimulus payments under the relief bill Congress adopted in December, since the stimulus law tied their eligibility for checks to their 2019 taxes.

The IRS cautioned that not every individual in this group may have been eligible to receive the aid, adding that it did not have data on the numbers of Americans still waiting for the earlier stimulus payments. But Ken Corbin, the commissioner of the wage and investment division at the IRS, defended the agency’s work getting stimulus payments out and said the number of checks sent matches “what was projected to be the eligible population.”

“The IRS will always have returns in processing,” he said, citing the impact of the coronavirus and other more recent obstacles, including inclement weather that slowed agency operations.

These 2.4 million Americans still can collect previous stimulus payments as part of their 2020 returns, if they are eligible. But they may face another long wait. The IRS has racked up an additional backlog of 12.4 million returns filed mostly by individuals, both electronically and in paper filings, from the 2020 tax year that it has started processing but suspended pending further, deeper review, according to the government figures.

The tally includes about 7 million returns that the IRS has designated for “error resolution,” meaning they will require manual review that takes months to wrap up. The Post first reported on these figures last week. But the IRS has millions of additional tax returns to analyze, including those involved in investigations related to issues such as identity theft, contributing to its immense workload.

The backlog has only compounded other troubles at the IRS, including technical glitches that took down its online portal for tracking refunds earlier this year — and lingering staff shortages that appear to affect its ability to answer taxpayers’ questions in a difficult year. Only about a quarter of those who call the IRS end up speaking to someone, according to agency data shared with lawmakers, who expressed concerns about the response rate in what is shaping up to be a complicated tax year.

The ranks of the frustrated include Neava Ford, a Kansas City-area resident who filed her 2019 tax returns late in the year, yet hasn’t heard much from the agency five months later. She hasn’t received a stimulus check, either, but Ford says she hasn’t bothered to call the IRS because she knows she’s unlikely to reach anyone.

“I knew it would be pointless with everything that would be going on,” she said.

Acknowledging the issues, the Treasury Department said in a statement Wednesday that the backlog reflects “serious challenges stemming from inherited problems and diminished capacity.” An agency spokeswoman said the IRS so far has sent out 90 million stimulus payments under the American Rescue Plan. “It will take time to work through these challenges we inherited, but this investment will help us in tackling them head on,” the department added.The agency’s struggles have generated bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill over the past few months. In February, for example, Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee — including Rep. Mike Kelly, a member of its oversight panel — wrote the IRS on behalf of constituents who have contacted lawmakers’ offices, trying to track down their refunds.

“We cannot have millions of hard-working Americans and small business owners waiting up to a year to receive money that they are owed, and the federal government paying billions of dollars in interest on top of that,” said Kelly, adding that his office never received a response to the earlier letter. “This needs to be fixed.”

Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, blasted the IRS over its announcement to change the filing deadline amid its mounting backlog. He said it serves as a sign that the $1.9 trillion stimulus has caused “chaos, to the point that delaying tax filings in order to accommodate the law’s provisions may be a wise decision.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have said the situation points to the need for additional changes at the IRS. The recently adopted American Rescue Plan includes billions of dollars to help modernize the agency, but party lawmakers say a more permanent fix is necessary to prevent similar backlogs in the future.

“It’s much harder for the IRS to build the plane while flying it,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. “We need sustained funding so the IRS can build and maintain these systems over the long-term.”

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Swanzey methadone clinic eyes move to Keene
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A Swanzey substance-use treatment clinic wants to relocate to Keene, according to a proposal that will go before the city’s planning board Monday night.

The Keene Metro Clinic, which opened in 2006 and is currently at 1076 West Swanzey Road, plans to renovate and move into an existing building at 152 Davis St., the proposal says.

It’s unclear from the proposal why the facility wants to move. A staff member who answered the phone at the clinic Wednesday referred a reporter to the company that owns it, Florida-based Colonial Management Group LP, which did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The Keene site is behind New England Fabrics on Ralston Street. According to city property records, the for-profit clinic purchased the property — which previously served as a commercial office building and martial arts school/studio — in late October.

The clinic serves people with substance-use disorders who live in Keene, Swanzey, Marlborough, Winchester, Hinsdale, Richmond and Brattleboro, as well as Orange and Athol, Mass.

One of the clinic’s services is its medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program, which administers methadone and Suboxone — medications that treat opioid addiction. The medication is often coupled with counseling and behavioral therapies.

The clinic also offers group and one-on-one counseling, according to its website.

Methadone and Suboxone are opioids, and can have addictive properties. Nevertheless, when the drugs are taken as prescribed, they are an effective course of treatment for many patients, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Keene Metro’s proposal says the clinic would be open seven days a week, with peak dosing times between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. The proposed hours of operation are Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. (with dosing ending at 11:30 a.m.) and Saturday and Sunday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

MAT patients would visit the facility daily, and prior to receiving their dose would be evaluated by the on-site nurse or doctor.

The proposal says that between 101 and 173 patients were served daily at the clinic over the past three months.

The clinic plans to modify the Keene property’s existing parking lot and traffic circulation, landscaping and exterior lighting, according to the proposal. It’s asking the planning board for a waiver from the city’s development standard on lighting.

The clinic’s proposal will be heard by the board at its meeting Monday at 6:30 p.m. Members of the public can attend via Zoom; information about how to do so can be found at ci.keene.nh.us/planning-board.

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Keene State plans full in-person return this fall
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Keene State College is moving forward with plans for a full return to in-person classes and events in the fall, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

These plans also include in-person athletic events, on-campus student activities and study abroad opportunities, Kelly Ricaurte, Keene State’s director of strategic communications and community relations, said in an email.

“With regard to prevalence and severity of COVID-19, we expect to be in a better place by the end of this summer with the vaccine rollout underway,” Keene State President Melinda Treadwell said in a written statement. “Our students have told us loud and clear that they want to be together on campus in our community. We are having a successful spring semester, and are actively planning a shift to additional on-campus and in-person community experiences for the fall 2021 semester.”

Keene State delayed the start of its spring semester by three weeks in an effort to wait out the winter surge in COVID-19 cases. Since the beginning of January, the school has reported 138 coronavirus cases among students and employees, according to Keene State’s online COVID-19 dashboard.

That number includes 16 new student infections last week, which the college reported Wednesday, continuing a downward trend since new cases hit a peak of 42 in the last week of February. Since then, Keene State has been testing students for COVID-19 twice a week. Employees are required to be tested once a week if they go into on-campus buildings, and have the option of twice-a-week tests.

Thus far this semester, the college has conducted 18,897 student and 6,582 employee tests. Keene State enrolls roughly 3,200 students and has approximately 700 employees.

This semester, Keene State students have the option to take four different types of classes: in-person, online, hybrid and blended. Hybrid classes offer a mix of in-person and online learning, with groups of students rotating days they receive in-person instruction. Blended courses feature in-class teaching, along with online components that can be completed anytime outside of class.

The college is also continuing this semester with all of the coronavirus mitigation protocols implemented in the fall, including a mask requirement on campus, physical distancing in classrooms and other shared spaces and a limit on the size of gatherings. Keene State is moving forward with plans for an in-person commencement ceremony May 29, but graduates will not be able to have any guests on campus for the occasion.

Looking ahead, Ricaurte said Keene State expects to continue COVID-19 testing, masking and physical distancing protocols in the fall semester. When needed, the college could also offer some online and hybrid classes next semester, she added.

And as Keene State keeps working on plans for the fall semester in the months ahead, Treadwell said college leaders will continue to make decisions based on data and government public health guidance.

“Safety guided by science will remain a priority in the fall, and we will continue to carefully monitor the pandemic to make decisions accordingly,” Treadwell said in the statement. “Ultimately, our goal is to continue to safely operate while we expand our on-campus student life and in-person learning experiences.”