Mayor Richard Alcombright gave his annual 'State of the City' address at Tuesday's City Council meeting that looked as successes and challenges in the coming year.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright says he's focusing on 0 and 1.
Not the binary language but the incremental increases that will halt the city's population decline and the goal of having a budget serviced by revenues, not reserves.
Alcombright laid out his vision for the city, and some of its successes over the past year, during his annual "State of the City" address on Tuesday night at the City Council meeting.
"The number 'one' relates to our census," said the mayor. "The city has seen declining population for more years than any of us care to remember. I think it will be a great day when we see our population trend begin to tick upward ... even if only by "1."
"'Zero' is indicative of a balanced budget ... something that we have not had for many years. When we are able to set a budget and pay for it strictly from revenues — without utilization of reserves — that will also be a very good day."
Alcombright said the city has had "modest" successes in lowering its structural deficits. He is planning a budget for next year that will look at the city's long- and short-term needs.
"I am certain this document will bring to light the many capital and infrastructure issues facing the city," he said, calling for the administration, council and citizens to work together to achieve that goal.
But while the city has continued to struggle with finances, it has seen positive signs in both public and private arenas.
The mayor pointed to the recent announcement of the Berkshire Scenic Railway establishing train rides between Adams and North Adams beginning next year and the public and private investment planned for Western Gateway Heritage State Park.
"With some $880,000 committed to the park from a MassWorks infrastructure grant coupled with blossoming discussions with the private sector, I am more convinced than ever that the re-birth of the park is right in front of us," he said. "[Heritage State Park] has become the northside visitors' center for Mount Greylock and the bike trail from Adams to HSP is well on its way."
The mayor also pointed to the establishment of a local chamber of commerce, the opening or expansion of 24 small businesses, the addition of more than 70 jobs at Crane's Fine Printing Division and the soon-to-open Walmart Supercenter and its 100 jobs, 40 full time, as growth indicators. The city is also on the final leg of its master planning process that will lay out goals and priorities for the coming years.
He acknowledged that not everything is moving as fast as hoped. The rebirth of the long-shuttered Mohawk Theater is still in the future as the city works with Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to "breathe life" into the building.
The mayor referred to the citizens petition filed on Monday asking for a ballot vote on the $29 million Conte School project and restated his support for the renovation. In the balance is $23 million in state funding for the project.
"Conte School renovation is worthy of overwhelming community support as are those who are appointed and elected that have been charged to make this decision," he said. "I will not let this project slip away."
The city is under order to bring its public facilities up to standards under the Americans With Disabilities Act; Alcombright has estimated that will cost about $1 million — not including the problematic public safety building. He expects to use Community Development Block Grant funds to begin planning a solution to the police and fire station.
Beyond the physical building, "public safety will continue to be a priority as the city continues to deal with crime issues that are pervasive in more urban communities, not least of which are the problems caused by addiction," said the mayor. He continued that there have been several major arrests within the past few weeks of people bringing drugs into the city.
Alcombright said there are several groups working on addiction and mental health issues, including two of which he is a member. "One that is working to bring awareness to adolescents with serious emotional disturbances and the other is working with a group to find solutions to the serious abuse of prescription medications," he said. "The problems we see stem from much larger social issues that are plaguing not just this city, but communities everywhere."
The mayor ended by saying how much he appreciated the support of the council and other municipal boards, the Berkshire delegation, neighboring town leaders, city employees and "the patience and support of the great people of this city."
In other business:
Councilor Jennifer Breen, second from right, objected to an attempt to modify salaries at the meeting.
• The council appointed Timothy Lescarbeau to fill the unexpired term of Ronald Boucher on the Hoosac Water Quality District, with The mayor had put forward Lescarbeau's name at the last meeting but clarification over who appointed the district commissioners led delayed the appointment, which by law was made by the council. Councilor John Barrett III asked that the appointment be delayed as others had expressed interest and to allow the city's other commissioner, John Moresi to weigh in. The mayor responded that the selection had been done in conference with Moresi. Lescarbeau is the city's public services superintendent and former manager of the water plant.
• Approved at a second reading the revised classification plan, with amended language as provided by the city solicitor. The Finance Committee had asked for new language to clarify what was being changed in the plan. Barrett attempted to amend the plan to raise the per diem of the reserve officers, whom he said "were completely left out with no increase."
"I believe these individuals have been slighted," he said.
Councilor Jennifer Breen agreed they were "grossly underpaid" but questioned Barrett's attempt to arbitrarily raise their wages. "It's really not our role to determine salaries, it is our role to approve or not approve of the budget."
The two went back and forth about the role of the council; Breen also questioned the mayor on the length of time reserves on the force. Alcombright estimated about four or five years (while working other jobs) before they became full-time officers. Breen commented that the reserve officers appeared to be paying their dues before landing the "luxury" of a union job.
The mayor added that, in his experience, the council didn't act on compensation plan amendments that had not been submitted by the mayor's office. "I will say again for the 10th time in six weeks, I'm only asking for the council to approve what the they already approved last year in the budget."
Barrett's amendment was defeated, 6-2, and the compensation plan passed 7-1. Council President Michael Bloom was absent.
Mayor Richard Alcombright's "State of the City" as prepared for address. (Edited to conform with style.)
As I come into my fourth year in office, I am here tonight to give you my thoughts relative to our fine city for this year to come.
Over the past several cycles, we faced many fiscal challenges as we tried to strengthen our financial position. We have had modest success however we have a long way to go in working towards balanced budgets and strong reserves. Despite the economy, we have positioned ourselves well for many good things to come.
We continue to spend many hours managing projects such as the airport, the Hadley Bridge (WILL be completed this year), privatization of Heritage State Park, partnership with MCLA on the Mohawk, a new solar project, Conte School renovation, Super Walmart, Crane expansion and other projects that are in the works.
There are two very important numbers that I continue to focus on and that I think are critical to our success, those numbers are ... one and zero. The number "one" relates to our census. The city has seen declining population for more years than any of us care to remember. I think it will be a great day, when we see our population trend begin to tick upward ... even if only by "1." "Zero" is indicative of a balanced budget ... something that we have not had for many years. When we are able to set a budget and pay for it strictly from revenues - without utilization of reserves - that will also be a very good day.
This year, as we build the budget, we are putting together a comprehensive capital plan outlining the short-, mid- and long-term needs of the city. This list will include everything from vehicles to building infrastructure to our water and sewer systems. I am certain this document will bring to light the many capital and infrastructure issues facing the city and the reason why we all have to work together to begin to address what are truly overwhelming needs.
Public Safety will continue to be a priority as the city continues to deal with crime issues that are pervasive in more urban communities, not least of which are the problems caused by addiction. Over the past few weeks, there have been several major arrests in the city, primarily of people moving drugs here from outside of the city. We are very much aware of the problem(s) and our Police Department continues to work with Berkshire County Drug Task Force.
Additionally, there are several groups actively meeting to help bring awareness to addiction and the mental health issues that many times are the underlying factor. I sit on two committees, one that is working to bring awareness to adolescents with serious emotional disturbances and the other is working with a group to find solutions to the serious abuse of prescription medications. The problems we see stem from much larger social issues that are plaguing not just this city, but communities everywhere. The disease of addiction and resulting crime is prevalent at all socio-economic levels.
The past two years have seen significant growth of new businesses and business expansions - 24 small businesses have either opened or expanded, filling vacant storefronts and creating jobs and opportunity. I thank all of these entrepreneurs who have invested in our community.
With this growth and expansion in the small-business community we will be working with the newly formed North Adams Chamber of Commerce to help facilitate the growth and development of our business community. We will work to further define the role of our director of culture and tourism to be certain that community events grow but more importantly, that North Adams is promoted as widely as possible as a destination in Berkshire County. Additionally, I am working on a partnership with the Franklin County [Community Development Corp.] to bring their small business loan program here to North Adams and Northern Berkshire. This program could prove invaluable to small businesses looking for low-cost capital.
My efforts to privatize Heritage State Park will continue as the fastest-moving, most actively supported public/private project currently underway in the city. With some $880,000 committed to the park from a MassWorks infrastructure grant coupled with blossoming discussions with the private sector, I am more convinced than ever that the re-birth of the park is right in front of us. With the support of Department of Housing & Economic Development, Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Department of Transportation and the private sector, I am confident that this project will succeed. HSP has become the northside visitors' center for Mount Greylock and the bike trail from Adams to HSP is well on its way.
I am thrilled with our most recent announcement of the "Hoosic Valley Service" that will connect North Adams and Adams with tourist train trips as soon as spring of 2014. This collaborative effort between the city, town of Adams, Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum, MassDOT, DCR, with support of the governor, holds significant economic, social and cultural promise and further enhances the excitement of the re-birth of HSP. As MassDOT Rail works to acquire the rail and put back the last mile of track, we will be working with BSRM to further plan what programming will look like for the tourist train.
I continue to work with our community partner MCLA, on a sustainable project that will breathe life into the Mohawk Theater. With continued engagement, additional application for credits, looking to the state and federal governments for additional funding, I am very hopeful that we will be able to announce a solution. While I am disappointed that this project has not moved faster than I had hoped, there are many moving parts and we need to do this right. MCLA as a partner guarantees a project with long-term sustainability providing daily use, revenue, management, programming and other attributes that will assure success. I am very much hoping to utilize cash realized from the privatization of HSP to further advance this project.
We are 18 or so months into our Master Planning process Vision 2030. This process through the efforts and ideas of many is creating the roadmap that will allow the city to move forward. The plan addresses many issues concerning development, environment, neighborhoods, education, culture, recreation, healthy living and other topics vital to a healthy community. Our plan is unique to the city but we have aligned it with the larger countywide master planning process currently being developed by Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. We will continue to have community visioning sessions and discussions to fine tune the effort before adopting the final version.
I am very excited to be a part of the Partnership for North Adams, a "think tank" of sorts that has been established to look at different sectors of our economy and develop ideas and solutions for growth and development. The partnership consists of a group of residents from Northern Berkshire who represent virtually every major economic sector and I am confident much good will come from these efforts.
We will continue the important work to bring the city into compliance with the [Americans With Disabilities Act] requirements identified by the DOJ audit last year. We are poised to begin work at the Mary Spitzer Center and the Joe Wolfe Field complex this year. This work will begin through a small borrowing and utilization of [Community Development Block Grant] funding. We will continue to use CDBG funding over the next several cycles to complete our ADA work. This will all culminate with a study and, hopefully, a solution to our public safety building.
Super WalMart will be opening soon providing 100 or so new jobs, 40 of which will be full-time positions.
As exciting, North Adams has officially become the headquarters for Crane's Fine Printing Division. In doing this, [Crane has] consolidated several of their business units into the North Adams plant and are finalizing the acquisition of a company, the William Arthur Stationary, located in West Kennebunk, Maine. This acquisition will prompt $5 million in plant and technology investment and create 75 new manufacturing jobs in North Adams, assuring an employment level of 280 positions as early as this fall. I will be bringing a special tax agreement to council at the next meeting to help facilitate this great opportunity.
I will continue to build our budget in the same open, transparent and team-oriented fashion as I have since taking office. Containing costs will be our biggest challenge as labor, utilities, pensions and capital expenses rise. We are currently working with our unions on health insurance reform that could save the city and employees money on premium costs.
We are moving forward with a new solar project and pricing and terms are being negotiated at this time. When we have a solid power-purchase agreement in place, I will come to council with a comprehensive presentation of the project by the developers. This project is really gaining momentum and I remain hopeful that the city will see the resulting savings in the FY2015 budget.
I will continue to move forward with the Conte School project, one that has been fully endorsed and approved by the Mass School Building Authority, our School Building Committee, our School Committee and this council. We have done considerable financial analysis to support our assumptions of affordability. My administration has worked to be certain that the debt incurred by this project can fit within the current budget without the need for a tax override or a debt exclusion provision.
The Conte School renovation is worthy of overwhelming community support as are those who are appointed and elected that have been charged to make this decision. I will not let this project slip away.
I have very much appreciated the support of this council, the School Committee, our School Building Committee, the commitment of all of our boards and commissions, the guidance of my neighboring town leaders, our local delegation, the wonderful employees of our city and school system, and I am very thankful for the patience and support of the people of this great city.
There is an old saying, "the wheels of government grind slowly," and that they do. But with continued support and patience, we will continue to grow and make "our" city, nestled here in the palm of God's hand, a place of pride for all of us.