Mayor Presents Case for Prop 2 1/2 Override
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
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.
|Tags: budget, override, raises|
City Council Sets Override Vote for June 21
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."
The city is facing a $1.2 million deficit caused by declining state aid and rising costs. Alcombright said his finance team has formed a budget $238,000 less than this year with cuts to all city and school departments. (For reference, here's last year's budget story.)
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."
|Tags: budget, override|
Solar Power Partnership Wants to Expand Usage
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The installation of a solar array at the landfill will heat up opportunities for residents, businesses and the city to take greater advantage of sun power.
Blue Wave Capital, with partners Consolidated Edison, installer Alteris Renewables and engineering firm Tighe & Bond, was selected by the city to install a 2 megawatt array at the landfill. The installation, one of the largest per capita in the state, is expected to generate between 25 and 30 percent of the city's power.
"This seems to be the perfect partnership," Mayor Richard Alcombright told the City Council on Tuesday. "I don't think we find a stronger financing partner than ConEd."
ConEd is financing the project and will lease the landfill and own the array, selling the power back to the city at a locked-in, lower rate over the next two decades. The city could have the option of buying the array after six years.
"Three out of every four years, electricity prices have gone up," said John DeVillars, manager of Blue Wave Capital, in presenting the project to the council. "It will be a very precise price ... it's a hedge against what every energy economist predicts will be substantial increases."
Alcombright and DeVillars said they were looking at other municipal locations, such as the airport, former wastewater plant and Drury High School, as possibilities for arrays.
DeVillars said once the municipal side was done, Blue Wave would work with the city in outreach to the community on solar use. Alteris Renewables, the region's largest solar panel installer, has a "zero down" program for residences and businesses. Working with SunRun, a provider of residential solar electricity, homeowners could apply for solar installations for minimal or even zero investment.
Further, DeVillars said for every five homeowners who sign on for a panel, the partnership would donate one for a community or municipal facility.
"This hasn't really been tried yet in the way we envision this," he said. "We hope we could use it as a community organizing tool."
For example, parishioners could band together to target a church or hall for solar; a neighborhood could select community center or city building.
In response to a question from Councilor Alan Marden, DeVillars said the installation would create short-term jobs as Alteris is committed to subcontracting with local companies to install the arrays.
DeVillars expected the array to be up and running by the end of the year to take advantage of state and federal tax incentives.
In other business:
• Discussed changes to a vendor bylaw were postponed until July 12. The issue was raised last summer but stalled in the General Government Committee.
"I don't think there's an easy answer to this; currently, what's in the books is working, there's some flexibility there," said committee Chairman Keith Bona. "We can still talk about it in General Government more ... .
The mayor suggested it be postponed to "see how things go through the Wilco weekend."
• An order on renaming a section of Summer Street for former resident and horticulturist Lue Gim Gong was filed at the motion of Councilor Michael Bloom. Bloom said there did not appear to be support on the council or in the community for the change but urged historian Paul Marino, who raised the idea, to work with the Historial Commission on a more appropriate memorial.
• The council adopted the state's anti-idling law at the behest of the Board of Health and on the recommendation of the Public Safety Committee. The "adoption" merely indicates support for the law, which is in effect statewide.
• Approved an economic development opportunity area for the North Adams Transcript site on American Legion Drive and minor changes suggested by MassDevelopment to the tax incentive financing agreement with Scarafoni Associates that will allow the property to be purchased and renovated for the Brien Center.
• Approved restructuring of bond debt.
|Tags: solar, Lue Gim Gong, vendors|
Councilors Unhappy With Union Pay Raise
City Council President Ronald Boucher left the dias to question the mayor on the DPW contract.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright took flack on Tuesday night for giving the Department of Public Works union a 1 percent raise while preparing for a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Alcombright said the DPW was one of several of the city's seven public unions that had reached agreements on three-year contracts; negotiations were halted on the rest.
The City Council was asked to approve a compensation schedule retroactive to the beginning of fiscal 2011 to reflect the agreement. The cost, said the mayor, was around $9,000 this fiscal year, from reserve, and had been built into next year's budget.
Councilor Marie Harpin objected to the raises, which will be 1 percent next year and 2 percent the year after.
I'm very concerned about this mayor," said Harpin. "We're in a very financial bind in the city."
The mayor said settling the contracts now will ensure the city knows how much it will spend on wages over the next two years and allow it to budget accordingly.
"I think we've come to a fair settlement and a fair arrangement," said the mayor. "We don't want to be where we were last year settling two years of contracts ... I've had a year and half of surprises and I'm done with surprises."
He said the teachers had also agreed to a contract, which would be explained by the superintendent at the school budget review. The money would come this year and next from federal stimulus funds designated for job retention.
"The political argument is don't give anybody a raise," said the mayor, but he continued that the practical side is that wages are now fixed costs and the city avoids a possible lengthy and expensive arbitration that might have cost it the same or more in wages in the end.
"We really negotiated hard and well with these unions and I think we're in a good place."
Mayor Richard Alcombright explained his reasoning on union contracts.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer said she knew that city employees worked hard but state workers had had wages frozen and been forced to take furloughs.
"I have a hard time voting for this when I have to I [and] think we would have a much easier time selling an override if we didn't give a raise," she said, worrying the raise would "set a precedent."
Councilor Michael Bloom thought it a good precedent. "It sends a positive message to unions that we will settle ... at this point to have one union behind us is the right thing to do."
Council President Ronald Boucher switched places with Blackmer, the council's vice president, to address the mayor from the floor. He asked if the compensation plan could be delayed until after the override vote in June to have more information.
Alcombright said the override wouldn't affect the fiscal 2011 compensation plan — the money was already in there and the contract "signed, sealed and delivered."
He chided the council and audience for focusing on $9,000 when he'd saved tens of thousands over the past year, including $80,000 in taking over the water treatment plant, and cut the budget more than $235,000.
"I have 10 years worth of increases ... typically from 1 1/2 to 2 3/4 [percent] range" negotiated by the past administration on union contracts, he said, including during the recession under former Gov. Mitt Romney. Alcombright said the city had started at zero but, based on advice from labor attorney Fred Dupere, came to the 1 percent agreement.
The city has been struggling to cover a $1.2 million deficit for the coming year. Over the past four years, it's seen more than $3 million in local aid cuts and run through its reserve to balance budgets.
On Friday, the mayor will ask the council to approve a ballot question for a Proposition 2 1/2 override. He said he would be prepared prior to the vote to explain the consequences of $1.2 million in cuts — Plan B.
The council passed the compensation plan to a second reading and publication with Harpin voting the sole naye.
Blackmer predicted it would cause difficulty with the upcoming override vote.
"It's just that the economy is so hard," she said. "What I've heard is, 'well if you're giving raises I'm not voting for it' ... I'm just telling you what I'm hearing on the street."
|Tags: budget, unions, contracts|
City, College Look at How to Draw Students Downtown
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — College students are looking for more retail variety and information about events in the downtown. They also feel pretty safe in the city and would like more recreational opportunities.
The data comes from a survey done by Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts seniors Corey Brown and Meghan McMahon, who presented the information to the City Council on Tuesday night.
The project, part of a class with professor Nancy Ovitsky, was designed to find out what would draw students from the Church Street college to the city's main retail center. Councilor David Bond had met with the students in January as part of conversations about how better to tap into the college's 1,000-odd population.
Brown said 160 students responded to the survey, citing they would like more restaurants (including a bakery and health food) and more retail outlets, especially sports or discounters like TJ Maxx.
"A lot of the students, what they're looking for is for businesses to stay open longer," said Brown.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer agreed that later hours would be nice but said the city had little control over businesses opening. She wondered if retailers were doing their best to reach out to students.
Meghan McMahon and Corey Brown, seniors at MCLA, said students were interested in the city but often didn't know what was happening or available downtown.
McMahon said social media was the best way to reach students now, a situation that had changed dramatically since she'd entered college. "It used to be coupons in our mailboxes but now students just throw them away."
Students want to do things in North Adams and the area, she said, but many venues were not easily accessible, such as Greylock Bowl. Students would like to see more recreational activities, such as bowling or a skateboard park, closer to the college and have more information about events.
"I think the students would like to see a lot more marketing to those events downtown," McMahon said.
In response to a question by Councilor Alan Marden, McMahon and Brown said they had not included Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the survey because it was a major attraction and the college was already heavily involved with the museum.
Both students and councilors agreed that the city could not be described as a "college town." Mayor Richard Alcombright said he was working with the college on coordinating sidewalk clearance during the winter and would look into more lighting around the Pitcher's Mound, which some students felt was unsafe.
He also held out some hope that the city would be able to move forward with a basic skateboard park at MoCA.
"We do see a great change from being a freshman," said McMahon. "I think we can make it better. There are other college towns much bigger than this that we could get ideas from."
Councilor Keith Bona noted that students will spend if they find something they like. He said the college clientele at his Main Street store had increased tenfold.
"I didn't think college students liked antiques but they do ... ."
In other business, the council:
• Put off a recommendation to adopt the state's anti-idling statute until it could be submitted in order form.
• Appointed Aurora Cooper, a student at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, to the Youth Commission.
• Referred to the Community Development Committee a request to change all or a section of Grimes Street to Cascade Way at the request of Cascade School Supplies.
• Read through a lengthy list of committee reports.
|Tags: students, survey|