City Council Approves Reduced 2012 Budget
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday night approved a revised fiscal 2012 budget of $35,074,495, reflecting some $462,515 more in cuts for the so-called "Plan B" budget.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said the reductions reflected the "will of the voters," who rejected his bid for a $1.2 million override in June to balance the budget.
"During the override discussions, I heard that people wanted local government to downsize spending holding the line with a budget that's more reflective of a population that's been in decline for many years," he said in a prepared statement to the council.
The mayor said the 2012 budget reflects a 3.2 percent decrease, or $1.125 million in cuts, over the past two years.
The city's nearly $1 million deficit has been reduced to about $423,000 (not counting some $560,000 in underfunded accounts in the school department being covered by school-choice funds). The shortfall will be funded between anticipated increases in state aid and more than a half-million in reserves and free cash.
Councilor Alan Marden, a member of the Finance Committee, reads the line item reductions of $462,000 more for fiscal 2012.
The council unanimously approved the budget, with Councilors President Ronald Boucher and Michael Bloom absent, despite urging from former Mayor John Barrett III to question accounts such as salaries and questionable water-treatment plant savings.
"There are a lot of other questions that haven't been asked that should be asked," said Barrett, who is considering a rematch against Alcombright after being ousted in 2009. "It's being done in subcommittee, it's not being done in the full view ...
"When I was mayor, I always brought and went through it step by step, line item by line item explaining why there were shortages," he said. "What [voters] wanted to see was some accountability."
Alcombright objected, saying "the Finance Committee met, literally, for hours and hours on this budget. ... I don't think there was anything that was unanswered and, quite honestly, I don't think there was anything unasked."
"Where were the questions — I did question it — when we transferred in $1.8 million in December '09 to reduce the budget?" he countered. "That started my administration with a $3.2 million deficit."
Barrett responded, "We had the money available to keep the tax rate down. I make no apologies for that I make no apologies for doing it in 1991, 1992 or any other time."
The two, not suprisingly, also differed on the medical insurance trust fund, the semantics of audits and mismanagement, and the back and forth began to resemble a campaign debate before Council Vice President Lisa Blackmer, presiding in the absence of Boucher (who is also considering a run), brought it to a close.
In other business:
• The mayor provided an opinion from the city solicitor finding that Berkshire Family and Individual Resources' residential home on Lorraine Drive was a permitted use. Neighbors on the street had petitioned that the nonprofit BFAIR was operating a business and should not be allowed to operate a home for the disabled and developmentally challenged.
• Approved a five-year lease agreement for an all-terrain mower for $39,000, nearly $43,000 with an interest rate of 4.75, with option to buy at the end. Councilor Alan Marden voted against after advocating buying the mower outright rather than paying annually.
• The mayor reported that the city will get $700,000 back from the $880,000 held for Blue Cross Blue Shield for the runout — or unexpired claims — as the city switched away from self-insurance. Alcombright said the funds will wipeout the city's $680,000 liability with the state.
The agenda for Tuesday's meeting can be found here; the new budget numbers can be found here. Note that the final reduction is $5,000 more because of a a math error. Edited since posting to remove confusing language.
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'Plan B' School Budget Reduced By $250K
The School Committee on Wednesday voted to reduce the school budget by another $250,000.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee on Wednesday approved a pared-down fiscal 2012 budget that includes another $250,000 added to nearly a quarter million in cuts and the loss of a director of curriculum.
Superintendent of Schools James Montepare presented a budget of $15.29, nearly a half-million below last year's budget, at the noontime meeting.
The most recent cuts are on top of $233,000 in reductions in the budget approved by the City Council on on June 14, a give-back of a 1 percent salary raise by the teachers and the use of $360,000 in school-choice funds to ensure programming.
Superintendent James Montepare said the reductions include the elimination of a director of curriculum.
That budget was built on hope that a Proposition 2 1/2 override would be pass; it didn't and Mayor Richard Alcombright will have to present a "Plan B" budget to the council on July 26 that covers a $1.4 million deficit.
"[The school reductions] all comes out to about $1.3 million worth of cuts this year because when we start this process and put everything in, we topped out at about $16.54 million," said Montepare. "So to get to ground zero, we cut about $700,300."
The school system could only cut about $340,000 this round before running afoul of state-mandated minimum spending. "We're right on, we wouldn't want to go any closer," said Montepare of further reductions.
Some $36,000 has been cut out of the operational side, including automobile expenses for the superintendent and business manager and reducations in contracted services and maintenance.
The bigger hit was in salary reductions, with the elimination of the curriculum director ($66,752), a tech teacher at Drury ($58,182), Sullivan kindergarten teacher ($45,000), and a science post ($45,000) at Brayton. Added back in are a Drury High physical education teacher and a speech pathologist.
Committee member Mary Lou Acetta expressed concern about taking resources from Brayton School. "It's the largest population and a population that needs a lot of services."
Montepare said when the budget review started, "we really tried to make sure that all of the bases were covered, and I think we juggled some positions around to accommodate some of the higher-number classrooms."
Mayor Richard Alcombright, chairman of the School Committee, said the budget he will bring before the Finance Committee on Monday shows a lot of compromise.
The budget reflects the loss of 10.5 teaching positions, three administrative positions, four teaching assistant posts, a custodial job and a half-time tutor. Some of the posts are being left vacant because of retirements, some staff members are being moved into grant-funded positions or having hours reduced, and about six are losing their jobs.
At the same time, the schools "are bursting at the seams," said Montepare, despite a state study that forecast a drop in enrollment.
"I don't see it going down," he said. "They said we'd have 1,300 kids three years from now; we're at 1,600. We're not going to lose 300 kids in three years."
Committee member William G. Schrade Jr. noted that Montepare was taking on yet another role with the loss of a curriculum director; he's down three administrative positions.
"I appreciate everything you've done and support it ... but you're wearing about 17 different hats as superintendent," he said, adding the schools will have to start refilling those positions because "at some point you're going to want to retire."
Editor's Note: We had our amounts backward and have fixed them.
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City Transfers $786K to Balance 2011 Books
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday night authorized the transfer of $786,441.46 from a number of departments to close out the city's books for fiscal 2011.
The amounts ranged from $2,627 from the wire and alarm account to $225,000 from the School Department to balance the books in other accounts, including significant overruns in police ($264,000) and fire ($180,279) salaries because of overtime, disabilities and four officers away at academy.
"It is lengthy but no different than any other year," said Mayor Richard Alcombright of the number of transfers. "This is required to be done by July 15."
The mayor told the council that he had kept the Finance Committee informed of existing overruns, which included a significant deficit in the veterans service account that required a $164,000 transfer from free cash, emptying that account
Councilor Marie Harpin is sworn in by City Clerk Marilyn Gomeau for service on the Housing Authority Board. Harpin was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick as the state representative on the board.
"While we have overruns due to spending increases in school and city departments, we were able to hold back in many areas," he said. "We're fortunate that with exception of free cash transferred two weeks ago and a $50,000 order you will see coming next from reserves, we were able to cover all other expenses in this year's budget despite a $400,000 shortfall in local receipts."
Councilor Lisa Blackmer questioned the small amount — $4,198.36 — transferred from the tourism department considering the director had left in March. Alcombright, after confirming with Business Manager Nancy Ziter, said that account, like a number of others, had not been emptied.
All unexpended funds from each fiscal year are rolled over into free cash once the books are certified by the Department of Revenue.
Among the brighter spots was an excess of $105,000 that could be transferred from the Water Department because of savings in taking over the water filtration plant.
"The cost savings we projected were somewhere in the $30,000 to $40,000 range and after [Public Works Commissioner Timothy Lescarbeau] did some analysis, it was closer to $70,000 to $75,000 that we saved," said the mayor.
The council also approved a $50,000 transfer from the landfill reserve account to the Department of Public Safety's trash removal service account as a "buffer" in case unanticipated bills come in. If nothing comes in, the money will fall into free cash.
Resident Robert Cardimino asked how much was left in the city reserves. Alcombright said there was zero in the free cash account after the last transfer; about $310,000 in the stabilization and, after the transfer, $212,000 in the combined landfill and parking meter reserve accounts.
The mayor said he expected to dip into the reserves to help in balancing the fiscal 2012 budget. Last year, the city used some $1.2 million from what was left in the land sale account to balance the fiscal 2011 budget.
"There was not a lot in there but we just found out today that about $75,000 more is coming our way in state aid," he said, adding the passage of the state budget this week also holds up hope for more funds from some $65 million targeted to local aid.
Meanwhile, the deficit has been cut from more than $1 million to $404,000. The mayor expects to present the Plan B budget at the next meeting.
In other business:
• The council approved the rappointment of Pearl Mullett to the Housing Authority and the appointment of Ross Jacobs, an alternate on the Zoning Board, to complete the term of permanent member Ernest Gamache and for Gregory Roach to fill out Jacobs' term, both terms ending next year.
• Approved a request by Ernest Dix of Clarksburg to connect to the city's water system.
• Heard a statement in open forum by Mark Trottier addressing the importance of allowing residents to speak to the council.
• A request from Big Shirl's Kitchen owners Renee and Mark Lapier to allow their establishment to offer "bring your own bottle."
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BYOB, Appointments on North Adams Agenda
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A local establishment is asking to go BYOB — as in bring your own [beer or wine] beverage.
The mayor's office is forwarding the request by Big Shirl's Kitchen to the City Council on Tuesday night, July 12, for review. Big Shirl's owners Renee and Mark Lapier are hoping the city will adopt a policy related to BYOB within the city's borders.
A number of other municipalities, such as Needham, Woburn and Westborough, allow the practice. According to an opinion from the city solicitor, establishments with liquor licenses cannot allow BYOB but non-licensed can, although the municipality has some control. They may not, however, "uncork" or otherwise handle the alcohol. BYOB is limited to beer and/or wine.
Mayor Richard Alcombright is asking the council to refer the matter back to his office and to the appropriate council committee.
City Councilor Marie Harpin will be sworn in as the governor's appointment to the Housing Authority.
Also on the agenda is a host of appointments and permission for a sewer connection. The mayor will present the final tallies on some accounts that will close out the 2011 fiscal year.
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Students Make Plea to Pass Override
Robert Cardimino, left, and music teacher Chris Caproni were talking outside Drury High School. Cardimino said at the meeting that if the teachers voted to return the one percent raise in their contract, he'd support the override.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Three Drury High School students spoke up for their education on Tuesday night, pleading with voters not to slash school programs to balance the budget.
"I want to leave knowing I can come back here and have a place to be proud of," said Andrew Varuzzo of North Adams, who will be attending Holy Cross in the fall. "I would hate to see this community, this school die a slow death because we could not pass this bill."
The senior and classmates Evan Schueckler and Luke Sisto addressed about a 100 people in the Drury High School auditorium at the second of six planned public sessions on a $1.2 million Proposition 2 1/2 override that city officials say is critical to saving services and school programs.
Schueckler, of Stamford, Vt., is going to Harvard, but hoped to return to the city "to do great things," but not if he wasn't assured his own children would get the same education he received.
Varuzzo said he planned to register to vote on Wednesday "solely for the purpose of voting yes for a Proposition 2 1/2."
Their statements were greeted with applause from an audience that seemed weighted by parents and educators. It was a far cry from last week's City Council meeting, when opponents of the proposal railed at Mayor Richard Alcombright to cut services and use the city's meager reserves to plug a $1 million hole in the fiscal 2012 budget.
"There were more people with different points of view," said the mayor after the 90-minute session. "It felt better to listen a little more.
All presentations begin at 7 p.m.
On Tuesday, the mayor repeated much of the presentation he made last week, noting the city has lost more than $3 million in annual state aid since the economic crisis in 2008 and has burned through most of its reserves.
The city had more than $1 million in free cash in 2008 but the account is now at about $165,000. Most of the funds in the land sale account have been used to offset cuts, although the city is hoping to replenish some of that with the sales of about 60 lots this month and some lands it owns outside its borders.
Alcombright said the much talked about $900,000 in school choice funds will be used to retain special education programs for the next two years, with a $100,000 held out as buffer for other special ed needs. But the failure of the override would mean deep cuts in staff and programs, including drama, music and arts.
At least 100 people attended Tuesday's session and more than a dozen, mostly educators, spoke in favor of the override. Drury Principal Amy Meehan wore an oversized T-shirt that said 'Support Our Students.'
"This are things that we discussed that could possibly be cut if the override doesn't pass," he said, adding that any of the programs slashed might not be reinstated for years. "Some people say I'm threatening .. this is no threat, this is reality."
Patricia Wall took the mayor to task for waiting too long to bring options to citizens. She said she would have supported a $600,000 override for the school system but that city should look at raising fees and other measures.
"Unfortunately, the ballots are all printed, this is it. It's black and white when we go to vote," she said. "There should have been more options; it was realy not fair to do it this way."
More than a dozen people spoke on the issue, most with links to the school system including Superintendent James Montepare. Former School Committee member Ronald Superneau recalled how Proposition 2 1/2, when it passed in 1980, had devastated the school system and how it had taken the city years to recover.
"I don't like taxes ... but I don't want to see any of this stuff gone," he said.
But Louis Chalifoux, who spoke against the override last week, said citizens are already being taxed every which way.
"The only tax that any of us have any control over is Proposition 2 1/2. Now why in the world would anybody vote to increase your own taxes when in fact you have the opportunity and the right to control the city's budget," he said to applause. "And that's the key — the buck stops here."
Robert Cardimino, another vociferous opponent of the override, found himself stating he'd support it after music teacher Christopher Caproni, former president of the teachers' union, pledged to vote to give back his one percent raise for next year at the union's Thursday meeting.
"If you do forgo your raises I will vote yes for this proposition," he said, then complained Caproni didn't live in North Adams.
Sisto, the final speaker and president of the Drury Drama Team, said the cuts would "slash the spirit of our school."
"We students are an investment in the future," he said. "Are we not worth $20 a month? For all property owners, are we not worth that extra $20 a month?"
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