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Alcombright, Boucher Talk Budget, Basics at Debate

By Tammy Daniels
iBerkshires Staff

Incumbent Richard Alcombright, left, and challenger Ronald Boucher take questions on stage at the MCLA Church Street Center on Friday night. The debate can be heard here.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Spectators hoping for fireworks at Friday night's mayoral debate were likely disappointed as the candidates stuck to their scripts while landing a few light blows on each other.

Challenger Ronald Boucher said the city is not as attractive or lean as it could be and was failing to grow under a visionless leader with poor management. The incumbent, Richard Alcombright, ribbed Boucher for failing to see downtown improvements and thriving businesses or acknowledge the budgets cuts and savings made during his tenure.

The event at Massachusetts College of Liberal Art's Church Street Center was well attended, if not filling quite as many seats as last election's face-off that saw Alcombright elected. This time Boucher, the City Council president, is hoping to topple the incumbent.

The two took turns answering questions posed by North Adams Transcript Editor Michael Foster and Senior Reporter Jennifer Huberdeau. The debate was sponsored by the newspaper and the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.

Boucher has taken issue in particular with Alcombright's description of the city's finances as "a little less than horrible" as quoted to a Boston Sunday Globe reporter in a story earlier this year.

"The image of a community, I think that plays a very big part in everything. It's how you sell your community outside this area," he said, chastising the mayor for not putting a more positive spin on the city and allowing it to be described as the poorest in the state. "I think that businesss and people outside the area reading that article would get the impression that, hey, 'why would I want to come to North Adams to start a business?' "

Alcombright said he wouldn't apologize for stating facts for describing the city's finances: "We are in horrible financial shape but we're getting better, we're getting better despite many things."

He said the structural deficit he inherited has been reduced through a combination of cuts and savings. "In the FY2010 budget it went $3.2 million to just about $422,000 in two short cycles, so we're getting better," he said, continuing that he'd saved thousands by restructuring debt, cleaning up the health insurance, taking over the city water treatment plant.

Boucher said he didn't believe there was any significant saving from taking over the plant because it hadn't taken into account the pensions and benefits of the workers; Alcombright said those had indeed been part of the savings analysis.

Alcombright said he would continue to look at ways for savings and raising revenue to balance the budget.

"I do not think we can do one without the other, that doesn't mean I'm a tax mogul," he said. "Last year was an anomaly [when the city taxed to the levy and instituted a sewer fee]. This year, we may see taxes go up 3-3 1/2 percent."

While Alcombright said he'd look at raising fees, Boucher responded that he'd already forced the Board of Health to back off a fee hike claiming it would be "political suicide."

Alcombright admitted he had after the new bills had gone out to restaurants and other businesses. He described the fees as doubling and tripling. "They were huge and they were wrong ... and I asked them to roll them back," he said.

"If you're going to empower boards to do their job, let them do their job," retorted Boucher.

Boucher also claimed there was "a lot of fat still there" in city governement and "we need to do more with less." Alcombright got a laugh when he claimed the only fat left in City Hall "is in the mayor's office."

The candidates agreed on a number of items, including supporting the arts, getting tourists downtown from Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts, community policing, and not quite knowing how to capitalize on the new MCLA science building yet.

They continued to differ on long-vacant Mohawk Theater, with Boucher insisting it should be sold to a for-profit venture as a way to generate tax revenue and bring people to the city for concerts, live-streamed events and plays. A for-profit would be able to tap into the $2.5 million historic tax credits available, he said.

Alcombright said he is working on a plan for MCLA to take over management of the theater to use it as a learning lab for its fine and performing arts department as a way to bring students and other into the downtown. His proposal, he said, would cut the estimated $12 million development in half, making the tax credits insignificant.

In a back and forth about the Fire Department, Boucher indicated he'd be open to changing the department's structure from full-time staff to a core staff with paid volunteers.

"There's a presumption out there I'm out to cut the Fire Department," he said. "That's not the truth."

However, he said the city's population had significantly dropped and it was worth looking at options that could be instituted "5 or 7 years down the road."

Alcombright said he remained committed to a fully staffed department because even if the population dropped, the aged buildings, and college, hospital and high-rise remained. He also objected that because the population had shrunk, it didn't mean it wouldn't rise again.

While Alcombright touted the relationships he's built with the local communities and regional organizations like the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Boucher said he'd keep the BRPC at arm's length, claiming it had sunk the Lowe's deal on Curran Highway with onerous environmental demands (a claim also made by the former mayor John Barrett III in a radio interview the day before).

"Lowe's might have been here if they hadn't gotten in the way," said Boucher, adding that recent news the home improvement chain has once again scaled back its store openings means the city will never see one.

Alcombright said he was more convinced it was the low traffic volume and economy that induced Lowe's to step back, not the BRPC. With the Super Walmart coming in, that may change, he said.

"What I'm hearing with a statement like that is 'back to basics' really means back to past practices," said Alcombright, taking a shot at the challenger's campaign motto.

"Again you're a fan of them, I'm not," said Boucher.

The 75-minute debate will be aired on Northern Berkshire Community Television, Channel 17, on Saturday at 5 and 9 p.m. and Sunday at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Check listings for further airings.

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