Louis Chalifoux calls on councilors to adjust budget expectations to residents' resources. 'You work for us; we don't work for you.'
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright laid out a Plan B strategy on Tuesday night of layoffs, furloughs and "devastating" line item cuts that would affect almost every service in the city and wipe $1 million from the budget.
Using the City Council meeting for the first of six planned presentations to convince voters to pass a Proposition 2 1/2 override, the mayor listed some $500,000 in reductions and some 30 full- and part-time job cuts already made from the city and school budgets for next year.
He warned that if the override didn't pass, the city would have to institute two-week unpaid furloughs for nonunion workers, eliminate another 15 positions (including eight teachers) and cut programs such as drama and the Juvenile Resource Center, and implement fees for preschool and athletics. (The full list of reductions totaling $1.13 million are in the mayor's presentation below.)
The city has seen its costs rise even as its state aid has shrunk from 53 percent of its revenues to 45 percent, said Alcombright, or $3.2 million less than four years ago.
"We held this problem at bay with our reserves; our reserves are gone," said Alcombright, summing up with "we need to fix this before we can go forward."
But if the crowd packed into City Hall was any indication, the mayor will have a tough time convincing voters to raise taxes to plug the $1 million hole in the fiscal 2012 budget. A police officer was stationed in the chambers at the council president's request, prompting regular critic Robert Cardimino to accuse the administration of intimidation — especially when he wasn't allowed to bring a sign stating his opposition to the override into the room.
Calls to use what little is left in the city's reserves sparked applause in the council chambers while explanations of the 1 percent raises for city workers met with groans.
Louis Chalifoux urged the City Council to do more research, saying the city had lost population and half of what was left weren't homeowners, putting more of a burden on those who were. "The mayor and the council should go back to work and take look at the resources we have and put together a program based upon that."
The city should assess the larger nonprofits like North Adams Regional Hospital and get payment in lieu of taxes from them, he said, and Alcombright should go to Boston plead for funds.
Others spoke of neighbors who couldn't afford bus fare or medical prescriptions; Ron Gardner said his water bill had already doubled because of recent hikes and the city's services were terrible.
"The people in this city who pay taxes have no incentive to be here anymore," he said. "My personal taxes have almost doubled ... now if this passes, that's an extra $400 a year on my taxes."
Alcombright countered that even with the override passing, North Adams would remain one of the five lowest-taxed communities in the commonwealth.
"It's like paying your mortgage with your savings account, sooner or later you have to find more income or sell the house," he said. "I'm telling you right now I'm doing this because I don't want to sell the house."
Spending down the half-million left in reserves would not restore the millions spent balancing budgets the last few years, he said. "My goal is to build reserves, not to reduce reserves." There's little expectation of more aid from the state this year because Beacon Hill is concentrating on replenishing the "rainy day" it's had to use to get through the recession, said Alcombright.
The mayor and his predecessor John Barrett III continued to play out the 2009 campaign over spending policies. Barrett, who spoke against setting the vote on the override, appeared within minutes of Councilor David Bond saying his administration "mismanaged" the medical insurance trust fund, leaving the city to pay out an $800,000 settlement to clean it up.
Tuesday, May 31, Drury High School
Friday, June 10, Drury High School
Monday, June 13, Greylock Elementary
Wednesday, June 15, Drury High School
Friday, June 17, Greylock Elementary
All presentations begin at 7 p.m.
Barrett vigorously defended himself but the debate between he and Alcombright swiftly turned to "no, I didn't; yes, you did" over various actions taken during Barrett's tenure.
The former mayor said Alcombright hadn't been tough enough with the unions and that it was "unconscionable" to talk about cuts in the school programs when he'd handed the teachers raises.
"If you took all steps to reduce the spending as much as possible I'd be the first to say let's have a Prop 2 1/2 override," claimed Barrett. "However, what I don't understand is why you can give out pay raises and then say, 'let's increase it.'"
Alcombright countered that it was easy to balance a budget when Barrett had millions in reserve at the time. "It's not so easy to cut, but it was very easy to spend these monies down," he said, calling it a "philosophical difference."
"I'm not going to argue but we cannot continue to fund with reserves."
A Kemp Avenue resident said people had to think outside the box.
"It's become way too personalized, you need to think bigger," she said. "I'm on a fixed income, I'm a homeowner, I'm a taxpayer, but I'm willing to pay for someone else's kid to get a good education because that's the most important thing."
In other business, the council passed a compensation plan for a 1 percent retroactive raise (about $9,000 total) for Department of Public Works employees but not without reiterating some of their objections from two weeks ago. The plan passed the second reading 8-1 with Councilor Marie Harpin voting against.
"It's very hard for me to vote for increases when we're laying off people in the city and we're asking the people of the city to vote for an override," she said.
Echoes of the last election could be heard at Friday's special City Coucil meeting as former Mayor John Barrett III took issue with an override vote requested by current Mayor Richard Alcombright.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Friday night voted 5-4 to schedule a special election for a Proposition 2 1/2 override of $1.2 million for Tuesday, June 21.
Councilors President Ronald Boucher, Lisa Blackmer, David Lamarre and Alan Marden voted against, believing the council should review the line-by-line budget before setting a date. Blackmer suggested the end of July but the council voted directly on the motion for June 21.
Mayor Richard Alcombright, reading from a prepared statement, described the move as "political suicide" but insisted that "we need to preserve the services that we have and make a firm and positive statement that we as a community will not allow our city to take major steps backwards because of political or fiscal influence."
An override would add an estimated $237 a year to the tax bill on the average home, which in North Adams is assessed at $138,500. This would follow on last year's 10 percent hike in property taxes and water fees, and the institution of a sewer fee.
Resident Alice Cande said she had voted for Alcombright expecting taxes to rise, but an override would hike the total increase to about $600 in two years. "I just think it's unrealistic for this community at this time," she said. "I think if you go for the vote now, you're not going to get it."
The mayor believed he could "make a compelling argument" in six planned public presentations to convince voters an override was necessary and what would happen — Plan B — if it failed.
Four councilors voted against the setting a vote on the override because they wanted to wait until after the budget was reviewed and passed.
"Every bit of financial experience I have convinces me that an override is our best solution," Alcombright said.
His predecessor, however, took issue with Alcombright's version of a city overly dependent on state funds and financially mismanaged for years, and took aim at union contracts that he said haven't been fully divulged.
"I'm tired of the things that have been said here and I'm tired of them saying this city's reserves were used up because right now, as we speak, I can show you $1.4 million," said former Mayor John Barrett III. "It's there and it should be used if needed.
"I know every mayor that leaves office gets blamed for everything but you know, at least be factual."
He chastised the council for failing to ask hard questions and for even considering putting out an override vote before seeing the line-item budget. "You're basically giving up your responsibility as city councilors," he said. "You can cut a budget and you're not even getting a chance."
The Finance Committee was given the budget broken down by departments and the expected revenues and will begin reviewing line items next Wednesday. Alcombright said he'd wanted conversations with department heads and employees before beginning the in-depth review.
Barrett claimed there was $2.9 million in reserves when he left office; now with some $900,000 in school choice funds and a half-million in reserves, there's no need for an override. The city was in worse shape in 1990-1991 when there was only $1,000 in the reserve, said the former mayor.
"I'm here for one thing, and one thing only: My friends and neighbors are hurting out there in this community and they're not being listened to," said Barrett. He offered to make himself available to help with budget deliberations.
Alcombright, who served as a city councilor during Barrett's tenure, did not engage with the former mayor or attempt to dispute anything said. He addressed his responses to councilors and urged them not to wait until the next fiscal year for an override.
A combative Robert Cardimino was gaveled silent three times but warned that voters would remember in November.
Councilors Blackmer, David Bond and Alan Marden questioned the necessity of having a vote before July 1. Marden asked why set the amount of $1.2 million if savings could be found in review. Alcombright said if a lower amount was needed it would be reflected in the tax rate.
"If you delay this and it goes into the next fiscal year, you're spending at a higher rate than you can afford. Then by the time the ballot question gets passed ... that's just more cuts you have to make," said Alcombright. "This is just trying to align this fiscal question with the end of the fiscal year so we will know on June 21 if we fish or cut bait."
Robert Cardimino, who called the mayor evasive and "intimidating the people of North Adams," was gaveled down several times but got in the last word: "I'm sure the people are going to remember this come November."