NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city drained its free cash account Tuesday to cover a shortfall in veterans' benefits.
The City Council approved transferring $163,833 from free cash to cover the overrun account and even more reserves are expected to be used next month to finish off the 2011 budget.
The transfer had to be completed before the end of the month before the state freezes that account.
The city saw a boost in the number of benefits the city has given to 48 different veterans. The state will reimburse the city 75 percent of the benefits but not until next fiscal year.
"A lot of it's outreach and a lot is the economy," Mayor Richard Alcombright said. "It's about $100,000 more than the year prior."
Alcombright pointed to the depressed economy to explain the sharp increase. Veterans' unemployment benefits are running out and they must now turn to the city, he said.
The deficit only covers the benefits for North Adams veterans, Alcombright said when asked about the shared agent with Williamstown and Adams. The city pays for the agent and the other towns pay the city proportionately, which enters the budget as revenue. Earlier this year, Williamstown also reported an increase in benefits given out.
"The only thing we see at city hall is North Adams cases," Alcombright said. "The benefits and salary gets split."
The move nearly drains the free cash account to finish off the fiscal year, which ends next week, he said.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Sprague Electric is not coming back and the city needs to focus on the future, Mayor Richard Alcombright told a crowd gathered at Greylock School to debate the Proposition 2 1/2 override vote.
Residents badgered Alcombright for nearly two hours Monday, citing a lack of business growth and declining population as reasons for additional cuts to the $35.5 million budget. One resident accused the city of inflating its payroll since Sprague Electric left the city more than 20 years ago.
"The woe is me about Sprague has to end," Alcombright retorted. "There are 40 to 45 percent less people in City Hall now."
A major boon to the area like Sprague, which employed thousands more than two decades ago, is not going to come back and the city will need to find ways to encourage other industries, he said. As for the city's payroll, he said many, many jobs have been cut over the years and not just in City Hall. The Department of Public Works decreased from 42 to 16 employees in that timeframe, he said.
However, Alcombright added that he is "not giving up on light manufacturing just yet." There are opportunities for green jobs — such as building and installing solar panels — that the city will try to reel in, he said.
Residents pleaded that he "trim the fat" out of the city budget and mentioned ways to do so. One idea was to cut the police budget because of the smaller population. Alcombright, however, said he would not be comfortable reducing that staff more because the city has the same type of urban crime as any other metropolis.
While the crowd debated the similarities to a city like Holyoke, City Councilor Lisa Blackmer researched the Holyoke Police Department on her cell phone and said there are at least 100 more officers employed there. Holyoke has 26 superior officers, 97 officers and 12 reserves while its population is only around 44,000.
"If anything we are underfunded in the Police Department," Blackmer said.
Alcombright contested that the city has reduced its budget by $600,000 and is continually chipping away at the amount the city will need above the 2 1/2 percent levy limit.
While the override vote is for $1.2 million, it is looking like the city will need only about $966,000 of that to set the budget, he said. He reiterated that since the $1.2 million figure was set — in order to provide enough time for the regulated hearings and notices — the city was able to reduce the deficit by level-funding pensions, eliminating the commissioner of public safety position and by the teachers giving back their 1 percent raise.
The newest version of budget — which includes the school budgets — will be presented to the City Council on Tuesday. Monday's meeting was the fourth in a series of six public meetings on the override vote scheduled for June 21 and, despite the anger showed by some residents Monday night, most of the attendees seemed in favor of the override.
Those in favor said it was a move that would better position the city for the future.
But the golden days of manufacturing was not the only past brought up. One resident angrily accused Alcombright of putting all the blame for the financial situation on former Mayor John Barrett III. Alcombright was part of the City Council and therefore has to shoulder some of the blame, the resident said.
"Since day one, I have stayed clear of blaming the past mayor," Alcombright said. "The blame is on the loss of revenue from the state."
Alcombright added that he voted against using reserve funds to balance the budget in prior years and that disagreement was a reason he ran against Barrett in 2009.
"I ran for mayor because I didn't like using reserve funds. I am not pointing at the mayor — that was the way he managed. I manage differently," Alcombright said.
Note that information on absentee ballots for the override vote on Tuesday, June 21, can be found in the sidebar at right. The next public hearing is Wednesday, June 15, at Drury High School at 7 p.m.
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.
Robert Cardimino, left, has often been an aggravation to the council and the mayor. Council President Ronald Boucher is now asking residents to submit in writing what they plan to address in open forum.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Those planning to speak during the City Council's open forum will have to put it in writing. Council President Ronald Boucher on Tuesday said that residents planning to speak will have to submit the issue they wish to speak on — and stick to it. He said the new rule would go into effect at the next meeting on March 22 and was prompted by the brouhaha at the end of the last council meeting.
"The disrespect shown to the open forum process, this council body and this administration will not be tolerated or allowed," said Boucher, who added the council chambers were not the place for arguments or allegations between the public and the administration.
Outspoken critic Robert Cardimino had apparently taken Mayor Richard Alcombright to task about several issues and accused him of having city plows clear private driveways. He held up a picture of convicted swindler Bernie Madoff and compared him to the mayor.
Cardimino, a strong supporter of the past administration, has frequently addressed the mayor during council meetings, demanding answers and lobbing allegations on a variety of issues. While Cardimino has stated it's within his First Amendment rights to speak at council, Boucher described it as a privilege.
"It is a privilege to address this council body either on an agenda item or in open forum," he said, "and to voice your opinions in a respectful manner.
"As adults we are all responsible and accountable for our actions."
Cardimino, seated in the front row, whispered loudly, "They're going to do whatever they can to stifle us."
Boucher had recommended changes to Council Rule 11 earlier this year. The change would have moved open forum to the beginning of the meeting from the end, but calls from residents concerned they would not have a chance to respond to issues that arose during the meeting led Boucher to withdraw it.
Instead, open forum speakers would be limited to 2 minutes and required to be respectful.
Mayor Alcombright said Cardimino's actions impugned his integrity and the council's respectability.
Alcombright, reading from a letter to the council, said he had not supported moving open forum but did applaud any changes that would add to the council's decorum, particularly in terms of Cardimino, who once dumped a rock on the council president's desk.
"Last year, he held up cards to the camera that said 'despicable Dick'," said the mayor. "Mr. Cardimino might hide behind the First Amendment and claim to have the right to do this and while I think there are some in the community who think this is funny and entertaining, I think any comments from anyone in attendance at these meetings that cross the line need to be firmly dealt with and people should be held accountable."
Rather than using a broad brush, he urged Boucher to consider that "taking swift or decisive action to remove or ban those who cannot maintain civility might be the way to go."
Councilor Keith Bona suggested that Boucher should "just react quicker with that gavel."
The pugnacious Cardimino had the last word of the night: "Go ahead and challenge me," he said, "and I'll challenge you back."
:: Preliminary Election: Deadline to register is Wednesday, Sept. 7. (Office open from 8 to 8.)
:: General Election: Deadline to register is Tuesday, Oct. 18
Registration can be completed at the city clerk's office at City Hall.
Absentee ballots are now available at the city clerk's office for the Sept. 27 preliminary city election. Voters may come in between the hours of 8 and 4:30 weekdays. Written reguests for mailed ballots can be sent to City Clerk's Office, 10 Main St., North Adams, MA 01247. Deadline for absentee ballots is Monday, Sept. 26, at noon.
The preliminary election will be held Tuesday, Sept. 27, to narrow the field of three mayoral candidates to two. The general election to select nine city councilors and a mayor will be held Tuesday, Nov. 8.