North Adams Budget Slashed Again
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The mayor will present his "Plan B" budget to the City Council next week that includes nearly a half-million in cuts from the already passed fiscal 2012 budget.
That brings the fiscal 2012 budget to $35,074,495, down nearly $900,000 from last year's budget and $50,000 less than fiscal 2009.
"We know that the Prop 2 1/2 was defeated; by virtue of that, the voters challenged me, and us, to come back with a document that meets the needs of the city without an override," Mayor Richard Alcombright told the Finance Committee on Monday evening. "We've made significant progress but not without pain."
The committee will recommend a further fiscal 2012 reduction of $457,011 that includes $250,000 in cuts passed last week by the School Committee. That still leaves the city with a structural deficit of $423,739 that the mayor is hoping to close with an increase in anticipated state aid and by dipping into the city's depleted reserves.
The mayor had pushed for a Proposition 2 1/2 override of $1.2 million to balance the fiscal 2012 budget. Over the past three years, the city has lost $3.2 million in state aid and was carrying a structural deficit of more than $1 million heading into the fiscal year. The school department has cut some $4 million over past few years that included the closure of Conte Middle School.
But voters, already pinched by property tax hikes and sewer and water fees instituted last year, rejected the override last month, forcing city officials to find more cuts.
Still, property owners can expect an increase of up to 41 cents per $1,000 valuation as the city taxes to the full levy capacity. Alcombright said the increase comes to just under $60 more a year for a home valued at $150,000.
Included in the cuts is a reduction in seasonal workers for highway and parks and not filling one highway position; the transfer of $38,500 in police salaries to a Verizon 911 grant; a reduction of more than $20,000 in pensions approved by the Pension Board and based on recalculating the funding schedule; elimination of funds for the Historic, Human Services and Youth commissions; $5,000 from the tourism department and $10,000 from insurance.
That is on top of the 10.5 teaching positions and elimination of a curriculum director included in last week's school cuts.
Finance Committee members expressed concern over the cuts being made in the school system, with Chairman Michael Bloom questioning the loss of a kindergarten teacher and curriculum director.
"We cut 10.5 teachers, if you figure each teacher interacts with 20 kids, we have to do something differently with 200 children," said Superintendent James Montepare, who noted school choice funds are being used to cover underfunded salary and residential placement accounts. "But if you look at what we had to cut to get where we did, we had to cut bodies."
He said ideas had been floated about instituting fees for sports or for full-day kindergarten, for which parents are being charged anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 a year in other communities. But the task of collecting the money, and the fact that the city's high poverty level would make most students eligible for discounted rates, made the cost savings questionable, Montepare said, at this point.
"We have substantial enough reserves now to get into our budget cycle," said Alcombright, who is hoping the proverbial "pennies from heaven" will appear from the $65 million more alloted this year to cities and towns by the state. "Let's say they level fund us ... that could be another $175,000, another $200,000 that could reduce this deficit ... I think we're in a good place with this budget."
The city's reserves, once in the millions, now total about $530,000 not counting free cash - the funds left in accounts from fiscal 2011. Those funds cannot be touched until the state certifies the accounts this fall. The city will also be closing out the $800,000 medical insurance trust fund, which could bring another $50,000 or so.
Alcombright said his contacts with the state Department of Revenue have been positive and encouraging.
"We are doing all the right things," he said. "In December of 2009, the council — and I was one of them — moved $1.8 million from reserves to lower the budget, to pay debt; last year, we used $1.2 million in reserves to pay debt. This year, we're going to use $423,000 in reserves and we may not have to if we get additional state aid. ... We've made tremendous progress."
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McCann Assessment Down $38K For 2012
McCann School Committee Chairman Daniel J. Maloney Jr. and Superintendent James Brosnan, both at right, presented the district's spending plan to the Finance Committee last week.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Northern Berkshire Regional Vocational District is assessing the city $890,353, a decrease of $37,867 over this year, for fiscal 2012. The total budget is $7.97, up .19 percent over this year.
The city's amount includes $91,000 for transportation and $42,169 toward the gymnasium renovation. The city had 176 students enrolled at McCann Technical School this year out of a total enrollment of 526.
The city has seen a decline in the number of students — 214 were enrolled in 2005 — because of the general ebb of the region's population and, more recently, from the eighth grade being moved to Drury High School.
The opportunity to pursue sports and stay with their friends has affected some students' decisions on whether to enter McCann in the ninth grade, Superintendent of School James Brosnan told the Finance Committee at its meeting last Tuesday, and the school is looking at more ways of reaching them. "Most of the other communities have pretty much stayed the same."
The school district has seen revenue losses in some areas, including from the end of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, and has had to absorb some of those costs.
Most of the line items have been level-funded, although the school district has seen increases in contracted services in a number of departments. Over the past four years, membership dues, including for SkillsUSA, has increased significantly, from $2,290 in 2008 to an estimated $20,000 for next year.
Brosnon described the SkillUSA membershiop as "absolutely priceless." The Massachusetts group has 23,000 students, the largest in the nation, and offers competitions and professional development. "What it does for students, it's just a phenomenal association and our students do very, very well."
School Committee Chairman Daniel J. Maloney Jr. noted the school doesn't offer a lot of the extracurricular that others do. "Skills is our activity; we don't have band, we don't have a lot of clubs, so if you look at athletics that's what we have, and Skills."
The school switched from heating oil to gas at the beginning of fiscal 2010, and that has resulted in some savings. Professional salaries are down because of two retirements, and costs for the media center are down from the reduction of an instructional aide.
Employee benefits and insurance continue to rise, up more than $25,000 over this year and $100,000 over fiscal 2008. The school district splits the cost of health insurance 75/25 with staff and retirees.
The assessment is included in the city's $35.5 million budget being presented to the City Council on Tuesday night.
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School Committee Approves $15.54M Budget
The City Council's Finance Committee, Alan Marden, left, Chairman Michael Bloom and David Bond attended the School Committee's public hearing on the school budget for fiscal 2012. School Committee members John Hockridge and Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger are to the left.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — In a joint meeting on Tuesday night, the School Committee approved and the Finance Committee recommended a fiscal 2012 school budget of $15.54 million that includes reductions in staffing but no program cuts.
"In order to get to that number we had to cut upwards to a $1 million all from this budget," said Superintendent James M. Montepare, despite contractual agreements such as heating and busing that usually increase. "In putting this budget together I don't believe we have compromised any of our existing programs ... [but] we are to the bone at this point in time."
Cuts through attrition and job elimination include a special education post and teaching support staff in the elementary grades that were no longer needed; a Spanish teacher shared by the elementary school that will be replaced in part by the introduction of a world cultures curriculum in the English language arts program; a Title 1 director and a technology director.
The two administrative positions are being replaced by divvying up some of their responsibilities and creating two lead posts with stipends. Montepare said some $120,000 in administrative staff was cut but a teacher was saved.
Also cut were a custodian position, three paraprofessionals and two teaching assistants. There were a total of 11 retirements, some which will be replaced by younger — and cheaper — teachers.
The teachers have restored $90,000 by returning a 1 percent raise for next year. Some $816,000 in banked school choice funds will be used in two $360,000 allocations over the next two years against the salary account. Montepare said it was easier to do that than shift the money to separate programs. What's left will be set toward special education needs.
"All in all I think we were able to keep our programs intact and we shuffled a lot of funding around to continue to support special education and classroom teachers," said Superintendent James Montepare. "I'm estimating we are probably about $340,000 or $350,000 above foundation."
School Committee member William G. Schrade Jr. said cutting to foundation level would decimate the school system.
Mayor Richard Alcombright, chairman of the School Committee, said the budget's proximity to the foundation level, the amount of education spending mandated by the state, complicates the scenario should the Proposition 2 1/2 vote fail in two weeks. "We're limited to what we can cut because we can't cut below minimum."
The administration has identified about $1 million in possible cuts from the school system, ranging from closing the Johnson Alternative Program to instituting fees for sports and extracurricular activities should the $1.2 million override fail.
With the Prop 2 1/2 vote two weeks away, Finance Committee member Alan Marden asked if any more cuts could be made now as a gesture similar to the City Council cutting its stipend.
"If we could send a small message tonight to help that vote go the right way, I think you ought to consider that," he said. "All I ask you is to try to find some few places to cut ... if you don't send that message I just worry about two weeks from now."
School Committee Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger said she went "over this with a fine-tooth comb trying to find some place to cut ... the work of the principals, the administration and the [school] finance commitee to even come up with a budget that's $233,000 less than the current budget is amazing itself."
School Committee member William G. Schrade Jr. expressed concern that school budget has been taking the hit for years as it maintained almost level funding. "We're up maybe 1 percent – that doesn't even cover our fixed costs," he said. "[For the last] five years we've had an increase of 1 percent but we're losing 7 or 9 percent."
Montepare said some $4 million had been slashed over past four years. The Finance Committee voted to recommend the budget as it stood.
The mayor will present the school and city budgets at the next City Council meeting on June 14. The city is required to submit a balanced budget to the state by June 30. Should the override fail, Alcombright said "we'll have to go back to the drawing board."
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North Adams School Budget Hearing Slated
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee will hold a public hearing on the fiscal 2012 school budget at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in the Conte Middle School conference room that will be attended by the Finance Committee.
Mayor Richard Alcombright plans to bring the school budget before the City Council at its next meeting on June 14. However, scheduling the Finance Commmittee to review the spending plan beforehand became problematic because of senior week activities (Drury graduates on Thursday) and other commitments, including another presentation on a proposed Proposition 2 1/2 override on Friday night.
The option to meet and review the budget during its presentation to the School Committee was considered after last week's Prop 2 1/2 session since it would allow both committees to meet at once. The School Committee will hold its regular meeting immediately following the public hearing.
Prior to the hearing, the Finance Committee will meet at 5 p.m. in the City Council chambers to review the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District budget with Superintendent James Brosnan.
The school budget being presented on Tuesday is $15.6 million, the largest single item in the city's proposed $35.6 million spending plan.
The budget is also the largest target in "Plan B" should the $1.2 million Prop 2 1/2 override fail on June 21.
Superintendent James Montepare said the school budget has been trimmed by more than $4 million over the past few years and that the budget being presented is $147,000 below this year's.
The administration has identified more than a $1 million in possible program cuts and layoffs, and fees for certain extracurricular activities. School spending, however, cannot go below state-calculated foundation level of $15.4 million without endangering some $14 million in Chapter 70 funds.
At the second of six public hearings on the proposed override, Montepare said the city had been funding well above foundation for years ($3 million or more) but reductions in local aid had decreased its contribution to about a half-million above foundation.
All presentations begin at 7 p.m.
The override question, which would permanently raise the tax levy to meet current obligations, has divided the city going into the June 21 election. An outspoken group is calling for more reductions in spending to offset the $3.2 million decrease in state aid; others are advocating for the override, saying the city can't afford to cut its schools and services anymore.
A website, VoteYesForNorthAdams.com (created by Brian Miksic), is being promoted on Facebook and offers information on the current budget, the proposed cuts and Proposition 2 1/2. It also has a handy calculator: drop in your property assessment and it will total up the added cost of the override.
Opponents say the override estimates of about $20 a month more for the average home isn't factual because it doesn't take into account last year's 10 percent tax increase, the hike in the water fee and the implementation of a sewer tax. Homeowners have been hit by these increases over last six months in the quarterly bills.
The antagonism is getting heated enough that the mayor posted a message on his Facebook page asking people to leave the "NO on Prop 2 1/2" signs popping up around the city alone.
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Morocco Retiring to Ease Budget Crunch
Finance Committee members Alan Marden, Chairman Michael Bloom and David Bond reviewed the fiscal 2012 budget with Mayor Richard Alcombright and department heads. Also in attendance were Councilors Marie Harpin, David Lamarre, Michael Boland, Lisa Blackmer and President Ronald Boucher.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco will retire at the end of the fiscal year to "take pressure of the budget" it was announced at Wednesday's Finance Committee meeting.
The disclosure came during discussion of the Public Safety Department's budget in which the commissioner's salary was slashed to $21,000.
"He knows the plight we're in ... he will be retiring at the end of the fiscal year," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, who added that the commissioner had approached him about retiring within the last week or so. "I want to keep the commissioner on for at least six months to work on the transition, then he can offload the things he does to other people."
Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco will stay on for six months to help the department transition. He said it would be difficult for the fire and police directors to take over his duties.
The Department of Public Works union is also cognizant of the tough times, said Alcombright. "They voted as a body to forgo their fiscal 2012 raise."
Union members were slated to get 1 percent (they received a 1 percent retroactive raise for this year), which the mayor figured would be a savings of around $7,500.
"These are people who unfortunately do not make a lot of money," Alcombright said. "They do a lot for the city. It makes a difference if the average guy made $300 a year [with the raise]; if the 2 1/2 override passes, they're probably going to get hit with $250."
The mayor halted contract negotiations with some of the other unions; he said the teachers, who have settled, have indicated they may reconsider their contract as well.
The City Council submitted a home-rule petition to the Legislature last year to extend Morocco's tenure two years past his mandated retirement age. At the time, city officials were considering whether to dispense with a commissioner. Keeping Morocco on was to give them a two-year buffer to research the matter, although little progress has been made in that direction.
Alcombright said the Morocco's leaving did not indicate a change in the public safety structure and the commissioner's position would remain active until the city determined what to do. The mayor said he didn't think the savings of eliminating the position would be significant.
"You're going to go away from the commissioner but nobody knows what I do," said Morocco. "I've brought in $5 million in grants; someone has to maintain those."
The police and fire director jobs would have to change, he said. "Call them what you want, they still have a job to do so to say they're going to their job and do what I'd do managing grants and budgets and stuff ... ."
Morocco's partial departure reduces Public Safety's administrative budget by $63,000. The rest of the departments are for the most part level-funded and there are no increases for department heads with the expectation of the assessor, whose salary reflects the position's change from four days a week to five.
The mayor defended hiring a new tourism director, saying it would be a source of revenue.
The administrative officer position is funded for a half-year, with hopes it can be filled by next January. An assistant information systems director has been added at $50,000 but an assistant inspector of buildings will be left vacant as will two posts in the library — the assistant director and an office clerk.
The Finance Committee recommended slashing stipends from city boards, including the City Council, on Wednesday but voted 2-1 to keep the tourism director position after nearly a half-hour of discussion.
Committee member Alan Marden called for all volunteer boards to have their stipends slashed and the City Council to accept $1 each this year, a $27,000 cut, "just for one year to send a message."
Alcombright said some of the stipends may be required by state law. "They may be mandated but there's no reason they have to accept it," said Marden.
The mayor vigorously defended keeping the tourism director position and department, a cost of about $51,000 total, in the budget.
"I think this is a vital position for the city of North Adams," he said, comparing it to the Megan Wilden's work in Pittsfield's Cultural Office. "I think that this position has the ability to generate revenue, I think this position with the right person has the ability to generate grants, that it has the ability to reach out and in a sense be the face of the city.
"I really think this is a very, very important part of us moving forward."
Councilor David lamarre wondered if it would be better to wait a year to offer a higher salary and attract better candidates for the vacant post; Alcombright said the eight people to be interviewed, including "five who are spectacular," had been told the $34,000 salary and indicated it was acceptable.
Councilor Marie Harpin asked if the Develop North Adams and the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, or staff at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art could coordinate city events. The mayor and Finance Committee members Chairman Michael Bloom and David Bond said it would be difficult and unlikely.
"If they were to bring in a half-million, the $34,000 would be money well-spent," said Bloom.
Bloom and Bond voted to recommend the position; Marden voted against, adding "this is the hardest vote for me."
A public hearing on the $15.6 million school budget will be held Tuesday, June 7, and presented to the Finance Committee the next day. The city budget will be presented at next week's City Council meeting.
The draft budget is below and can be found on the sidebar. The document was created horizontally but, unfortunately, appears vertically on Scribd. We will try to find a way to post it so it's easier to read.
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