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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North Adams Rejects Override Proposal
Supporters and opponents of the override were in a good mood on Tuesday.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Voters rejected a $1.2 million Proposition 2 1/2 override by 577 votes on Tuesday, sending city officials back to the drawing board to plug a $957,000 hole in the 2012 budget.
"This is a democracy, this is why people are able to make these choices, and we'll respect the choice," said a disappointed Mayor Richard Alcombright, who vowed to "look under every rock" for savings and revenue (yes, taxes will still go up). "I was hoping, hoping beyond hope I guess, for a different outcome."
His concern was that the city was continuing to "kick the can down the road" by not dealing with the loss of revenues. The same hurdles will be there next year, he said.
"We're not going to be able to fund things that we want to fund, we're not going to be able to continue things that we want to continue, and we know darn well the revenues aren't going to come back," the mayor said. "At best, next year we're level funded [by the state] which is still a 3 percent step back."
The mayor was busy answering two phones after the election results came in.
Outspoken opponent Robert Cardimino, on the other hand, was jubilant. "It sent a message to City Hall," he said.
The city has seen its state aid drop by more than $3 million and revenues decline even as costs have continued to rise. With no significant reserves left, the mayor proposed a Proposition 2 1/2 override that would have increased the city's levy limit to raise more taxes to match revenues to spending.
The override, on top of last year's 10 percent property tax increase, water rate increase and implementation of a sewer fee, had a segment of the population howling.
"I can't afford to lose my house," said Robert Martel, who was standing outside St. Elizabeth's Parish Center with a large "NO" sign. "My taxes have gone up $667."
The question has divided the city, with harsh words at public meetings and allegations of scare tactics. At least one landlord reportedly handed out fliers warning tenants their rent would be hiked if the override passed.
The results came quickly as the override was defeated by at least 70 votes in each of the four wards stationed at the parish center. Ward 4, at Greylock Elementary School, rejected it even more decisively by 200 votes.
The final tally was 1,812 against and 1,235 for, with 36 percent of registered voters casting ballots. The vote wasn't quite as harsh as in Cheshire, which defeated a $200,000 override 2 to 1 on Monday night, but it wasn't far off.
Election wardens were mixed on how the vote might be going; the diversity of the voting population made it difficult to get a forecast on the outcome.
Ken O'Brien, head warden at St. Elizabeth's, said the turnout had been steady throughout the day with voters ranging from the very young to the very old; a large number voters brought their children.
Over in Greylock, Warden Christine Petrie said the bulk of the votes — some 500 — had been cast by around noon, with a couple eager voters ready an hour before the polls opened at 9. "There was a woman here with a baby 4 days old and another woman who said she was 95."
By all accounts, there was little hesitation in checking off yes or no for the one question on the ballot. Some didn't even bother using the voting booths; "One man marked the ballot in his hand and walked right to the box," said Assistant Clerk Jane Wise.
"As a parent, I'm really concerned," said Drury High School Principal Amy Meehan, who has spoken in support of the override at some of the six information sessions held over the last few weeks. "I think that North Adams is a good place to raise children but I don't know what the city is going to do to close the shortfall.
Alcombright congratulated Robert Cardimino on the outcome, but Cardimino couldn't resist jabbing the mayor again with his claims of 'scare tactics.' We call unsportsmanlike conduct.
"Voter turnout was so low, I'm very disappointed ... this is going to be a longtime loss for all."
Alcombright said he was going to "take some very, very deep breaths and try to absorb where we are" and then meet with school administrators and department heads to craft another spending plan to present to the City Council by the second meeting in July. A list of cuts already presented to the public will be on the table.
"The biggest challenge now is the school getting down to minimize spending; that means we have to find a half-million or so in the city budget and that is near and next to impossible," he said. "... but we will and we'll make it work."
He was unshaken by a major setback in only his second year in office; he'd spent weeks trying to persuade voters to make a difficult choice that would directly affect their wallets.
"It's probably just more than people were willing to absorb," he said. "You try to minimize by saying the average would be $195 a year, but it's still 195 bucks out of somebody's wallet. ... Even a win would have been bittersweet: you passed your budget, you move forward, however, you're throwing this liability on thousands of people."
Please be aware that we have closed comments on past override stories to keep the conversation up to date.
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North Adams Voters to Decide Override Question
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Voters will decide on Tuesday whether the city's budget will be cut by $1 million or they'll shoulder the burden to keep school programs and services in place.
The Proposition 2 1/2 override has split the city, with opponents saying they can't afford any more taxes. Proponents say the city's been undertaxed for years and is due for an increase, albeit harsh, to keep functioning.
The polls will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for voters to decide on giving the city the authority to assess an addition $1.2 million. Wards 1, 2, 3 and 5 will vote at St. Elizabeth's Parish Center; Ward 4 will vote at Greylock Elementary School.
Over the past few years, North Adams has lost more than $3 million in state aid and burned through its reserves. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been slashed from the 2012 budget, including full and part-time posts in both the city and school system. The proposed $35.5 million spending plan approved by the City Council last week is short $957,762, even though it's $300,000 less than this year's budget.
If the override passes, it will permanently raise the levy limit to a higher benchmark from which future tax levies will be calculated. Since each year municipalities can raise another 2.5 percent from its assessed real estate and personal property, North Adams will have about another $340,000. Added to the override, the city would have the ability to raise up to $1.5 million.
Should the override be defeated, it will mean severe cuts, mostly on the already stressed city side. Because the school system is so close to state-mandated foundation level, it can only be cut by about $300,000.
Between the $15.4 million school budget and assessments to McCann Technical School ($890,000), nearly half the budget will be locked up in educational spending. A large part of the city budget is also locked into fixed costs, including $3.75 million in medical insurance, $1 million in wastewater services, a $1.3 million in debt payments and more than $2 million in pensions.
If the override goes down, the mayor will have to present the City Council with a spending plan in July.
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Prop 2 1/2 Meetings Come To a Close
The final of six public information meetings about Tuesday's vote on proposition 2 1/2 drew a small crowd.
Editor's Note: Mayor Alcombright has informed us that NBCTV encountered difficulties taping Friday night's override session. It was discovered this morning that the audio did not tape. The station will instead rebroadcast just the override presentation the mayor gave at the City Council meeting several weeks ago. The air times are Sunday, June 19, at 9 a.m., and 3 and 7 p.m., and Monday at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., all on Channel 17.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The proposition 2 1/2 public information meetings came to a close Friday night at Greylock School and the decision is now in the hands of the voters.
"I thought the process went very, very well," Mayor Richard Alcombright said of the meeting. "At the first meeting there was this aura of skepticism...Now I see people and they have a focused questions and that's what we're trying to do. People began to understand."
Alcombright hosted six meetings across the city to discuss the override vote on Tuesday. Friday's meeting was the most sparsely attended - drawing a crowd of only a few dozen. Alcombright said he hopes the meetings encouraged residents to vote in favor of the proposition. However, he said he tried to remain relatively neutral – only slightly nudging in favor of the vote – during the meetings to encourage dialogue.
"I really would like people to know that I am available, that the city counselors are available. I wanted people to come out and share their opinions and not be judged," Alcombright said. "I think people, hopefully, see the need for this."
About a dozen people spoke at Greylock School and they were all in favor of the proposition except for Robert Cardimino, who continued his campaign advocating for additional cuts rather than raising taxes. Most who spoke centered around funding for the schools.
"Something has to be done for the long-term goals," Drury High School teacher Melissa Quirk said. "If we continue to think short-term, we will never be able to grow to the potential that this community has to offer. We need to be thinking long-term and in order to do that we all need to make as much as an investment as we can in this community."
City councilor Michael Bloom said that this budget was "unlike" any budget he has seen before and encouraged people to vote in favor of the override.
"There is too much negativity. There are no hidden accounts. There is no hidden agenda," Bloom said. "If you want to make further cuts and take step backwards, you can vote no on this. If you are look to build the community you will vote yes."
Cardimino, however, said the schools will survive without the override vote and said Alcombright had not made enough cuts.
"Let the mayor get out his scalpel and make some cuts," Cardimino said.
Now there is nothing left for the city to do to inform residents about the vote and the city's next steps lay in the hands of the voters.
"I'm hopefully optimistic. I'm hoping, beyond hope, that people rally around this," Alcombright said. "Whether you are for it or against it, vote."
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Students Take To Street In Favor Of Prop 2 1/2
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Outside the iBerkshires office Wednesday a group of students marched by holding signs in favor of Proposition 2 1/2.
A friend of the students started the awareness campaign at 10 a.m. and was later joined by the Drury High School students - who suggested making more signs. The group spent the day walking all around the city attracting attention from passing cars.
One sign lists possible cuts to the school that the students would "lose" if the override is voted down. The other signs pleaded for people to vote for the students that are unable to vote.
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