North Adams Honors Former Tree Commissioner
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Alma Benedetti was honored on Friday morning for her many years of making the city beautiful with the planting of a lilac tree at the entrance of Windsor Lake.
The longtime tree commissioner and retired art teacher was joined by family, friends and city officials (and a very busy woodpecker) as the Tree Commission celebrated Arbor Day in the city. Drury High School freshmen Catherine Record, Allison Meehan and Morgan Michaels provided musical selections under the guidance of music teacher Christopher Caproni.
The former chairman of the commission has helped to honor others on Arbor Day, but commission member Erica Uchman described her as "the most deserving honoree."
Fellow Commissioner Christine Petri spoke of Benedetti's other activities, including teaching art to so many residents who had been educated in the North Adams school system.
"For 35 years, she was not only on the Tree Commission but also the Garden Club and is currently on the board of the Friends of the Library," said Petri.
Uchman said she and Benedetti had worked on many projects over the years and while she had been surprised to learn Benedetti's age, she joked she wouldn't reveal it now. (Benedetti graduated from then North Adams State Teachers College in 1937.)
Reading from a large card she'd made for her friend, Uchman said, "serving with you quite a few years gave me the opportunity to find out what a special lady you are ... I admire so much how you devoted yourself to be the ideal chairperson; how you pursued all responsibilities as diverse as they could be ...
"In my book, you will always be the lovely, contributing, so-devoted chairperson of the North Adams Tree Commission."
Benedetti, after posing for some "shovel photos" by the already- planted tree, said she'd worked with some very dedicated people over the years. "We've planted over 200 trees," she said and, as a member of the Garden Club, helped install the garden on Union Street at the entrance to the city.
Her walks take her up by Fish Pond so she'll see the now-budded lilac coming into bloom.
"I wanted something flowering," said Benedetti. "So this was a good choice."
Mayor Richard Alcombright read a proclamation declaring May 13 as Arbor Day in the city and that called for residents to "support the effort to protect our trees and woodlands."
"Thank you so much for your service and dedication over the years," he said to Benedetti. "You set a true example of volunteerism and what is really meaningful in our community. It's really what makes a community like ours succeed."
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North Adams Prepping For Override
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright has canceled all contract negotiations and is preparing a ballot question for a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Alcombright said deals had been struck with some of the city's seven public unions but all would be put on hold until the budget is dealt with. The city is facing a budget gap of $1.2 million for fiscal 2012, caused in large part by falling state aid and rising costs.
An override would add about $237 a year to the tax bill on the average home, which in North Adams is assessed at $138,500.
"Unless we can really find some different way to attack this, I will probably call a special council meeting to bring in a ballot question for an override," the mayor told the Finance Committee on Thursday.
He said he planned to present a ballot question to the committee at this meeting ahead of next week's City Council meeting but was "looking into some things that could be interesting." He declined to elaborate but it became apparent as the conversation continued that what the mayor was looking into was selling off some properties.
Committee member David Bond thought putting properties up for sale, even if they didn't find buyers, would send a message that commercial opportunities were available.
However, the mayor said he didn't want to use sales to cover the shortfall since it wouldn't fix the city's finances in the long term. The land sale reserves had already been used to cover three years of budget gaps, but the city still had a deficit and now no cash to cover capital projects.
"If I sold $4 million in real estate today we would still be a $1.2 million in the hole," he said. "We have to fix today so we can work tomorrow."
Even if the properties could be sold and the funds used to pay down the tax rate, said the mayor, the override would still be needed now to balance the budget.
Alcombright and Bond went round and round about the conundrum that cutting services now to save costs would make the city less attractive to the very businesses and people they were hoping could drive growth and expand the tax base.
Resident Wayne Goodell asked the mayor if he had asked the public unions to take a cut in pay or increase their share of insurance costs.
The mayor said he had not discussed pay cuts but had raised the insurance issue. He noted that the Legislature is considering a bill that would loosen restrictions on municipalities negotiating over insurance options. The deal struck with the public unions on insurance last year might delay implementing such a measure until 2013, he said.
Alcombright said nearly a half-million dollars has been reduced from the original deficit of $1.8 million but it was getting difficult to find more places to cut either in the city or schools without affecting services or getting minimal return.
He used the example of laying off four firefighters: The city would be responsible for 28 weeks of unemployment and, since so many firefighters had seniority and five weeks vacation, the amount of overtime to cover shifts would eat away at any savings.
Even so, the mayor said he met last week with city workers to inform them of the possible consequences if the override fails.
City Council President Ronald Boucher said he did not think there was support for an override and asked what Plan B is should it go down. The mayor said once the override is placed on the ballot, he would give presentations on what would happen if it failed — Plan B.
"Numbers don't lie. I stare at these for hours; it's very disheartening," said Alcombright.
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School Project Goes Back to Drawing Board
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city's going to "take a step back" from the school building project.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said a press conference regarding the project will be held Friday at noon to explain the whys and wherefores.
The school building committee and its designers have come under withering fire from parents and neighbors of Sullivan School on Kemp Avenue when it became apparent it would likely be sacrificed for the renovation of Conte Middle School.
During a three-hour meeting last Thursday, parents hurled charges that the committee and designers hadn't spent enough time on finding ways to renovate the school. They oppose sending youngsters downtown to Conte, which had operated as a high school and middle school for nearly 100 years, but never as an elementary school.
The designers and school officials, including faculty, say the hillside school is problematic because of its multiple levels and limited expansion options because of the steep grade.
In an email announcing the press conference, Alcombright said the decision was being made in consultation with Superintendent of Schools James Montepare.
"This time will allow the design team to more fully explore Sullivan School options and will allow us to meet on any new proposals," he wrote. "Upon receipt of new design options, we will re-engage the School Building Committee, School Committee and City Council through public process as well as convene additional public sessions with the result being more significant and consistent support."
The mayor said he and the superintendent would be available for questions on Friday.
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'Tent City' Raises Safety, Sanitation Concerns
The Board of Health heard concerns about the tent city planned for Noel Field this June. At the table are secretary Dianne Hein, Health Inspector Manual Serrano and Chairman David Polumbo, Brendon Bullett and John Moresi.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Board of Health will decide on the limits of a "tent city" planned at Noel Field Athletic Complex to house Wilco fans despite protests from local campgrounds.
A public hearing on the so-called Solid Ground on Wednesday night drew only a few people who expressed concern over health and safety issues. The board said it would take their comments under consideration but insisted that it would set the final conditions.
The city is proposing up to 300 tent sites on the soccer field to house concertgoers to the Solid Sound Festival this June 24-26 at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Solid Ground was prompted in large part by the dearth of hotel rooms and overflowing campgrounds at last year's August event.
Steve Daniels, co-owner of Shady Pines Campground in Savoy, continued to express his concern over sanitation and state guidelines related to the site. Daniels and other campground owners had protested Solid Ground last month at a meeting with Mayor Richard Alcombright and Charles Kaniecki, district health officer for the state Department of Public Health.
Daniels sent a large package to the board outlining concerns and referring to the state's housing guidelines in relation to information provided by Kaniecki. But health officials said the material didn't apply in this case.
"Ninety percent of what you gave us was about housing, about rented apartments, living space ... this is not permanent living space," said Chairman David Polumbo.
Health Inspector Manual J. Serrano said the temporary housing fell under the auspices of the Board of Health, which can set the number of tent sites and sanitation requirements.
"If we didn't have the temporary housing capabilities in the housing code, you wouldn't have carnivals, you wouldn't have circuses, you wouldn't even have the Big E ... that all falls under temporary housing," he said.
"I believe it is unsafe and I'm still protesting this situation," said Daniels.
The camping is being operated by the ROPES program, which is staffed by volunteers almost entirely from local police, fire and ambulance departments. Police Lt. David Sacco, representing ROPES at the meeting, said the group's purpose was to facilitate whatever whatever was asked. "If you want 12 portapotties down there we'll put in 12, if you want 24, we'll put in 24."
Local business owner Jennifer Barbeau said she hoped it was successful but wondered if the scale of the event was too much for an all-volunteer group. She suggested using Windsor Lake and History Valley Campground for overflow.
Robert M. Moulton Jr. said he was concerned that there would too many people at the site and about the damage to the field.
"Potentially, maybe a 100 tents could be posted there, where we have showers already in place and system in place," she said.
Robert M. Moulton Jr., also a local businessman and a former city councilor, also objected to the scale, noting up to 1,200 people could potentially be on the field damaging it. "I'd like to see how this goes," he said, but added, "I think it's going to hurt businesses ... I think there's more of a downside than an upside."
Any profits from the tent city will used first to repair any damage to the field, city officials have said.
Ernest Gamache, who operates a used-car dealership abutting the field, said he was concerned about policing and restrooms.
"I'm in favor of the whole idea because I know what this can do for the city," said Gamache. "But I've got a big investment and that's what I'm worried about."
"Our intention is to increase the visibility of police down there, Ernie," responded Sacco, who said there will be a regular police presence and command center in addition to the volunteers. "We are cognizant of your business ... we'll keep an extra eye on it."
About 140 tent sites, with a maximum of four people, have been reserved so far through the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; Historic Valley is filled and has a waiting list.
Palombo said the board will issue its decision at a later date. That will likely be next week when it also hears a request for a temporary housing permit for Northern Berkshire Relay for Life, which annually hosts hundreds of Relay team members for 24 hours at Noel Field.
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Ward 3 Moving to St. Elizabeth's Parish Center
Voters in Ward 3 will join those in Wards 1, 2 and 5 in casting ballots at St. Elizabeth Parish Center in the next electin.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Voters in Ward 3 will be moving to a new polling location in the next election.
The polling station for Ward 3 has been located in the Ashland Park Apartments High-Rise. Ward 3 will join Wards 1, 2 and 5 at the St. Elizabeth's Parish Center, consolidating four polling stations in one location. The Board of Registrars voted unanimously to change the location of Ward 3.
City Clerk Marilyn Gomeau said the consolidation had been discussed for years because of the promiximity of the four polling stations – they were all within a mile of each other. The consolidation actually began when the closure of Notre Dame Church on East Main Street pushed out the polling station for Ward 2 that had been located in the church's basement hall.
"We had to move from Notre Dame, then when Conte Middle School was closed (in 2009), we had to move Ward 1 out of the gym," said Gomeau, who added that the idea was to move one polling station at a time to ensure it worked. "I've been very pleased with it so far."
Ward 1 and Ward 2 — literally across the street from each other for years — moved into St. Elizabeth's Parish Center, where voting for Ward 5 was located. When the parish changed the date for its annual bazaar, the availability of the parish center gym allowed the full plan to be put in action.
"It was a very easy transition for everyone," said Gomeau. "The gym at St. Elizabeth's is large enough to accommodate all four wards. St. Elizabeth's is easily accessible to everyone, and is handicapped accessible."
She said the move will save money since there will be fewer machines to program and fewer police officers on duty. The parish center also provides easier access to all four wards in the event of a machine problem and an easier set up for the Public Works Department.
But she stressed the move was not prompted to save costs, but rather the final step in a long-discussed plan to streamline and group voting stations. It will also cut down the clerk's travel time between polling stations, making it easier for her to deal with problems like balky voting machines.
She does not believe the move will significantly affect turnout in Ward 3. "We did our homework on the population, and it's not a huge population that votes," said Gomeau, who added that the plans are being made to provide rides to the new location for the elderly.
The change will not affect the wards themselves, which are required based on population, although voters will have to remember which ward they're in now — not where they vote.
Voting for the city's fifth, Ward 4, will remain where it is at Greylock Elementary School.
"We would never pull Ward 4 from the West End," said Gomeau. "It's a very large turnout in Ward 4. But it made sense for the others. ... We think this is a win-win for everyone."
Registered voters in Ward 3 will receive a notice in the mail informing them of the change in voting location.
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