Committee Debates School Project Direction
The School Building Committee debated options for the school project on Wednesday night.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — School officials and the School Building Committee are hashing out an educational strategy that will be financially and politically palatable to voters.
The easiest and cheapest solution is to build or renovate one school; the more difficult, convincing skeptical taxpayers on the need to pass a debt-exclusion override to build or renovate two schools. More than a few at the meeting thought that would be an uphill battle after the recent defeat of a Proposition 2 1/2 override that would have prevented school budget cuts.
School Building Committee member Nancy Ziter, the city's business manager, summed it up: "Are we ready to fight the fight for two buildings?"
The city is looking to resolve the educational needs of 620 students, a number approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority and based on projected enrollment, the closure of Conte Middle School and the reconfiguration of grades into K-7 and 8-12.
The project, however, has been at a low boil since parents at Sullivan School objected vociferously to the idea of shuttering the 50-year-old hillside structure in favor of renovating Conte as a new K-7 building.
Meeting on Wednesday night, school and city officials failed to come to a consensus on how to proceed despite the already busted timeframe.
"Anymore delay for the MSBA is not a good thing," said Mel Overmoyer, principal with consultant Strategic Building Solutions, who facilitated the meeting. "They are already impatient with us. We have to put to them a new time line and we have to stick with it."
The nearly century-old Conte had been off the radar until Margo Jones Architects began a review of the school district's buildings. They determined that Conte's architecture would fit the grade-clustering concept well and would be cheaper to renovate at $24 million.
Mel Overmoyer of SBS counts votes as attendees deliberated on school options.
Sullivan parents, however, objected when it became apparent Conte would replace Sullivan, resulting in moving the their children to the downtown location.
Renovating or adding on to the multitiered Sullivan is considered impractical and building a new school on the current site or by taking over nearby Kemp Park would cost around $31 million. Some of the higher cost is because of the significant grading and site preparation (which would not be covered by state reimbursement) and for moving the children off-site during construction. Relocating the building to Kemp Park would mean the loss of the ballfield there and a prominent three-story building in the very residential area.
The group did agree on two things: There was support and need for a new or renovated Greylock School and there was no support for 620-pupil school.
But they were stuck on whether to pursue a two-school solution — one that the MSBA has not clearly stated it would support — or do one school, with the goal of doing a second in the future.
Committee member Keith Bona was concerned that the city was gambling with a two-school solution that the MSBA might not reimburse and that taxpayers wouldn't support.
The anticipated cost to the city would add about $70 to the average tax bill, said the city councilor. "When I hear that $70, I know that's just one part of what people are going to get hit with."
Doing one school, on the other hand, would not require a debt-exclusion vote if it did not raise taxes above the levy limit. The city is coming to the end of its debt obligations for the construction at Drury High School and Brayton Elementary, neither of which required votes.
"If we do one school, say $6 million to $8 million, with the debt falling off Drury and Brayton while this project is being completed, that bond is absorbed into the budget," said Mayor Richard Alcombright. "The council approves it."
If the city went with one school project, likely Greylock, it could do some repairs at Sullivan in the meantime, said the mayor.
Building Inspector William Meranti, a member of the School Building Committee, warned that any significant repairs would trigger the Americans With Disabilities Act and force the city to spend far more in making the building handicapped accessible.
Building Committee members agreed to return the second week in August to allow some of its newest members to absorb the information provided at Wednesday's meeting.
"We have to get off this fence and say we want something," said committee member Ronald Superneau, who served for more than three decades on the School Committee. "If you're really concerned about something here, bite the bullet."
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Council Subcommittee Debates BYOB
Mark and Renee Lapier, right, speak with the General Government Committee of Lisa Blackmer, Chairman Keith Bona and Michael Boland about developing a BYOB ordinance.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The General Government Committee will look for expertise from public safety and the License Commission as it attempts to craft a so-called "bring your own bottle" ordinance.
BYOB restaurants are becoming popular in some areas; Big Shirl's Kitchen is the first in the city to seek guidance on how to operate as one. The committee met Wednesday to begin dicussions on the issue.
State law does not regulate BYOB other than stating venues with alcohol licenses may not allow BYOB. Because it is not covered by state law, municipalities can create ordinances to regulate it.
City Councilor David Lamarre, a former member of the License Commission, questioned the need for a BYOB ordinances when the city has no limit on alcohol licenses. "It just seems to me unnecessary."
Mark and Renee Lapier, owners of Big Shirl's, said they were not oppposed to licensing and regulation but were thinking of the convenience of their patrons and not the overhead that would come with a liquor license.
The small, 40-seat restaurant would have to expand for storage space for alcohol and add anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 to its insurance bill, said Mark Lapier. To cover that cost, "we'd have to push the booze I don't want do that."
Lamarre said the city could lose in meals tax if people began going to Big Shirl's with their own bottles. Renee Lapier said more sales of meals might make up for that.
Committee member Lisa Blackmer said she didn't think BYOB is the tipping point for diners.
"I think people decide to go to a restaurant because of the food," she said.
Committee member Michael Boland worried that too much attention was being paid to the needs of a single restaurant.
"We should be doing what is good for the community, not what's good for Big Shirl's," he said.
Chairman Keith Bona agreed but said the Lapiers' concerns should be taken into consideration. In questioning both the couple and Lamarre, it was decided the ordinance should look at licensing and fees; waitstaff TIPS (alcohol serving) training; state open bottle laws, hours of operation and compliance.
The committee will invite E. John Morocco, retired public safety commissioner, and License Commission Chairman Jeff Polucci to its next meeting in August to discuss the issue in more depth.
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City Council Approves Reduced 2012 Budget
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday night approved a revised fiscal 2012 budget of $35,074,495, reflecting some $462,515 more in cuts for the so-called "Plan B" budget.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said the reductions reflected the "will of the voters," who rejected his bid for a $1.2 million override in June to balance the budget.
"During the override discussions, I heard that people wanted local government to downsize spending holding the line with a budget that's more reflective of a population that's been in decline for many years," he said in a prepared statement to the council.
The mayor said the 2012 budget reflects a 3.2 percent decrease, or $1.125 million in cuts, over the past two years.
The city's nearly $1 million deficit has been reduced to about $423,000 (not counting some $560,000 in underfunded accounts in the school department being covered by school-choice funds). The shortfall will be funded between anticipated increases in state aid and more than a half-million in reserves and free cash.
Councilor Alan Marden, a member of the Finance Committee, reads the line item reductions of $462,000 more for fiscal 2012.
The council unanimously approved the budget, with Councilors President Ronald Boucher and Michael Bloom absent, despite urging from former Mayor John Barrett III to question accounts such as salaries and questionable water-treatment plant savings.
"There are a lot of other questions that haven't been asked that should be asked," said Barrett, who is considering a rematch against Alcombright after being ousted in 2009. "It's being done in subcommittee, it's not being done in the full view ...
"When I was mayor, I always brought and went through it step by step, line item by line item explaining why there were shortages," he said. "What [voters] wanted to see was some accountability."
Alcombright objected, saying "the Finance Committee met, literally, for hours and hours on this budget. ... I don't think there was anything that was unanswered and, quite honestly, I don't think there was anything unasked."
"Where were the questions — I did question it — when we transferred in $1.8 million in December '09 to reduce the budget?" he countered. "That started my administration with a $3.2 million deficit."
Barrett responded, "We had the money available to keep the tax rate down. I make no apologies for that I make no apologies for doing it in 1991, 1992 or any other time."
The two, not suprisingly, also differed on the medical insurance trust fund, the semantics of audits and mismanagement, and the back and forth began to resemble a campaign debate before Council Vice President Lisa Blackmer, presiding in the absence of Boucher (who is also considering a run), brought it to a close.
In other business:
• The mayor provided an opinion from the city solicitor finding that Berkshire Family and Individual Resources' residential home on Lorraine Drive was a permitted use. Neighbors on the street had petitioned that the nonprofit BFAIR was operating a business and should not be allowed to operate a home for the disabled and developmentally challenged.
• Approved a five-year lease agreement for an all-terrain mower for $39,000, nearly $43,000 with an interest rate of 4.75, with option to buy at the end. Councilor Alan Marden voted against after advocating buying the mower outright rather than paying annually.
• The mayor reported that the city will get $700,000 back from the $880,000 held for Blue Cross Blue Shield for the runout — or unexpired claims — as the city switched away from self-insurance. Alcombright said the funds will wipeout the city's $680,000 liability with the state.
The agenda for Tuesday's meeting can be found here; the new budget numbers can be found here. Note that the final reduction is $5,000 more because of a a math error. Edited since posting to remove confusing language.
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North Adams City Council Agenda, July 26, 2011
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Sons of Italy Sold to Redevelopment Authority
|The Sons of Italy has been sold twice in the last year. The newest owner is the Redevelopment Authority.|
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The North Adams Redevelopment Authority has purchased the former Sons of Italy building for $150,000 from Deborah Renzi and K & M Nominee Trust of Pittsfield.
The money was taken from the HSP/Redevelopment Authority Account, which after the purchase has a balance of $150,000.
In a message to the City Council, Mayor Richard J. Alcombright said the purchase was to ensure overflow parking for Western Gateway Heritage State Park after an attempt to negotiate parking in return for an easement to hook into the city's sewer line.The property was purchased for $75,000 by Michael Renzi and Kurt Hotspot in spring 2010 with the idea of developing the building at 1492 Christopher Columbus Drive. The Sons had put the building up for sale in 2006 as its membership aged and declined. More than half its members were over the age of 80, Sons of Italy Lodge 704 Trustee Paul Catelotti said last year.
Renzi and Hotspot were aware of the septic issues but hoping to overcome them to develop the property into studio or retail space.
Alcombright explained the reasoning for the purchase in his communication to the council, posted below:
Last year, two gentlemen from Pittsfield purchased the Sons of Italy building. As the building had a failed septic system, they wanted an easement to hook on to city sewer. As I thought through the process, I determined that the City has no "legal" parking rights in the Son's lot for what we refer to as the overflow parking for Heritage State Park (HSP).
In the ensuing months, I negotiated with the owners to give the city an easement for the parking in exchange for an easement for the sewer. They would not give the easement. My persistence with wanting the easement on the parking was determined by the following:
1. Parking has always been limited at the park and in that respect, limits potential growth whether owned by the city or held in the private sector.
2. As the Department of Conservation and Recreation has committed to locating a visitors office in HSP in 2013, this will give the park considerably more exposure as the North Side Visitors Center [for Mount Greylock State Reservation] and have the potential of putting tens of thousands of visitors through the park annually.
3. This, combined with the completion of the bridge, potential capital improvements at the park and a good marketing plan could drive more retail or arts-based businesses back into the park, also increasing the need for parking.
Additionally, the Sons of Italy building and land is the only parcel not owned by the Redevelopment Authority from the entrance on West Main all the way down to the Apkin property. There have been discussions with the city and the Partnership for North Adams with respect to future passenger rail and/or some sort of tourist/scenic rail. The Partnership has been in conversation with Pan Am as well as Berkshire Scenic Railroad and while this concept is still far away, it is something that could certainly come to fruition.
With the owners not willing to give an easement on the parking, I could not risk losing that parking and as time passed, the owners threatened to block all parking and access to park customers ... and at one point did chain off the parking. With no clear rights to the parking, I spoke with the city solicitor and he advised me that a purchase of the property would be the best solution and would avoid a court case and prolonged litigation should the owners continue to barricade the lot and prevent HSP parking (which they were prepared to do). The priority then became to find a way to assure the city retain that area and assure adequate parking for the park.
In May, I began negotiations with the owners to purchase the property and last month, I met in executive session with the Redevelopment Authority to discuss the details of that purchase. The Authority approved the negotiated purchase of the Sons of Italy building for a price of $150,000 and authorized me to act on behalf of the Authority through the city solicitor to finalize the purchase. The property was purchased on Tuesday, July 19.
Please know that the funds for this purchase came from the HSP/Redevelopment Authority Account which after the purchase has a remaining balance of approximately $150,000. No "city" money was used for this purchase.
I will be happy to answer any further questions at the council meeting.
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