Alcombright Urges North Adams Citizens to Pull Together
Mayor Richard Alcombright gave his 'State of the City' address on Tuesday.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright is asking citizens to pull together — and those that won't, to at least get out of the way.
Beginning his third term, the mayor gave a "State of the City" on Tuesday night that revealed his levels of frustration with state funding and local naysayers while impressing upon his constituents the dedication of the city's go-getters and its future potential.
"I am so encouraged by the numbers of young people who are getting involved in our community. From the new city councilors, to board and commission members, to events volunteers, to those that serve various civic and community organizations, it is apparent that a new day is dawning in our city," Alcombright said.
"On the flip side, I have heard enough from those who want only pull down what is trying to be accomplished with a 'woe is me' attitude. North Adams is a miniature version of our nation. The age of industrialism in America is over. Our traditional sources of authority are in decline. But America is the country of the future and we must be a city that looks to the future."
Alcombright had hoped to eliminate a $300,000 structural deficit, down from $2.6 million over the last four years, but the failure of Gov. Deval Patrick's fiscal 2015 budget to increase local aid — and Speaker Robert Deleo's ambiguous vow the House "would do better" — is causing "considerable frustration."
"My last four budgets have increased each year on average less than 1 percent," said the mayor. "We have made cuts, consolidated departments, reduced staffing through attrition, cut health insurance costs through reform, and made significant and unfortunate cuts to our schools. ...
"With state revenues pacing some 8 percent ahead of projections and state reserves now at some $1.2 billion, it is very hard to understand why Unrestricted Local Aid was not increased — substantially."
Even as the city again must struggle with budgets and increases, it also can look ahead to some significant positive developments, several of which the mayor had spoken of in last year's address.
The city is working with developers to privatize Western Gateway Heritage State Park in Greylock Market, and the construction of a new facility for the state's Hoosac Tunnel and the city's local history museums. The Berkshire Scenic Railway will be begin scenic rail service between North Adams and Adams this summer and long-delayed solar projects are inching forward. And the city and the new North Adams Chamber of Commerce are teaming with the Franklin County Community Development Corp. to share resources and help small businesses.
The mayor also spoke to the controversial Conte School renovation that is expected to begin construction in the next two months and the continued development of the Route 8 corridor that will now include a large Cumberland Farms at the vacant Greenberg's site.
The city's first master plan in decades, Vision 2030, is nearing completion and a more detailed capital plan will be developed, he said. "This year, we have applied for a grant to help craft a formal 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 and will allow us to proactively plan projects and seek grants."
The city continues to contend with pervasive effects from substance abuse in the region, not the least of which is crimes resulting from addiction. Alcombright pointed to the priorities made over the summer in cracking down on crime with the aid of the district attorney's office, sheriff's department and state police.
"As a community, we need to embrace the reality that to simply lock up addicts is a very small part of the solution to a greater problem," he said. "Anecdotally, I can say with great confidence that addiction and the underlying mental health issues that contribute to the addiction is one of the largest and fastest growing social issues in this country."
More policing has to be backed up with more outreach and education through the Prescription Drug/Heroin Abuse Task Force, the Systems of Care Committee, and Not Before 21 (NB21), said Alcombright. "All efforts that deal with prevention, education and eradication and the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction. I actively sit in on all three of these groups. Through these efforts, conversations are finally being had on traditionally hidden and sensitive subjects."
But the mayor called on the community to look to the future, and named a number of community members for their good works and dedication to making the city better -—from Lois Daunis and her work with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and substance abuse prevention to Glenn Maloney and Spencer Moser for bringing more than 300 college students and residents together for community service days.
"As a community, as a city, we should never forget our past and who we were," said Alcombright. "However, we should not hold on to that past so tightly, that we diminish the hope of what we can become."
The city has changed but too many see it with "angst and resentment."
The mayor asked citizens to "pick up the rope of hope and success ... and pull hard," or to cheer others on if they can't. Or to stop if they are unhappy with the direction, or offer ideas for a new rope.
"If you don't want anything to do with the rope then please, don't get in the way of those pulling," he asked, "but continue to watch because as we pull and pull and as things begin and continue to happen ...
"You too may just want to begin to pull."
Below is the mayor's address as prepared for delivery and edited to conform to style:
As I come into my fifth 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 our quest, working towards a truly balanced budget and strong reserves, continues to provide me and our finance team considerable frustration.
My last four budgets have increased each year on average less than 1 percent. we have made cuts, consolidated departments, reduced staffing through attrition, cut health insurance costs through reform, and made significant and unfortunate cuts to our schools.
Reserves have been fully utilized to balance the budgets, taxes have been raised, water and sewer rates have increased, but not enough to offset reductions in unrestricted state and school aid coupled with increases in state assessments, utility costs, capital expenditures and rising salary and pension costs, just to name a few.
As we begin to build our fical 2015 budget, I must be certain that this council and residents understand that this will undoubtedly be the most difficult budget this city has seen in recent memory.
As you know, the governor recently unveiled his FY2015 budget with no increase in the Unrestricted Local Aid.
This is the lifeblood of municipalities, especially those like us. Without yet getting into the numbers, that announcement will be the "inaction" that will immediately put our next budget significantly out of balance.
At the Mass Municipal conference a couple of weeks ago, House Speaker DeLeo in his remarks to the membership recognized the Governors omission of increased funding, assuring us that the "Legislature would do better." But what is "better?" I guess only time will tell.
With state revenues pacing some 8 percent ahead of projections and state reserves now at some $1.2 billion, it is very hard to understand why Unrestricted Local Aid was not increased — substantially.
My past four years of tough fiscal policy, significant sacrifice by staff, programmatic cuts and consolidations, while difficult proved to have kept this city's fiscal position in check.
Taking our deficit from $2.6 million four years ago to some $300,000 this cycle gave us a lot of satisfaction hoping that we might have a balanced document this year. Couple all of this with our infrastructure woes and we have a lot of work to do.
I am hoping that the numbers will change as the Legislature and Senate with strong support from our Berkshire delegation, will bring forward better revenue expectations. I will continue to keep this council very well informed.
I am very happy to report:
• That the Hadley bridge will be completed by June 1
• That the privatization of Heritage State Park continues to move ahead through discussion with the principals of the Greylock Marketplace.
• That our solar project on the site of the capped landfill and along the northerly edge of the airport continues to move forward.
• That the Conte School renovation is out to bid and we hope to see construction begin within the next 60 days.
• That further development along the Rte. 8 corridor with Cumberland Farms and Bond Auto gives me hope for more commercial development in that area.
This year, we have applied for a grant to help craft a formal 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 and will allow us to proactively plan projects and seek grants.
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 crimes resulting from addiction. As a community, we need to embrace the reality that to simply lock up addicts is a very small part of the solution to a greater problem.
Opiate use that leads to heroin addiction is everywhere in our community, greater community, region, state and country. Anecdotally, I can say with great confidence that addiction and the underlying mental health issues that contribute to the addiction is one of the largest and fastest growing social issues in this country.
What are we doing about this in North Adams? First and foremost: more policing, more arrests, more convictions.
Last summer, we engaged with several local law enforcement agencies as well as the district attorney to truly crack down on the drug activity in the city. This action brought about a significant number of arrests, confiscations and convictions. Both street and higher-level dealers were arrested with several still awaiting trial. Significant amounts of heroin and marijuana was seized and to this day, these efforts are ongoing.
Yet despite these efforts, the problem persists because addiction persists. It persists in our families and our neighborhoods and as I am responsible to this community for enforcement, I am also responsible for education.
Last year saw the creation of the Prescription Drug/Heroin Abuse Task Force, the Systems of Care Committee, and nb21 — all efforts that deal with prevention, education and eradication and the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction. I actively sit in on all three of these groups.
Through these efforts, conversations are finally being had on traditionally hidden and sensitive subjects. Think about it — no one wakes up one day choosing a life of addiction. Quite honestly, I very strongly believe that addiction chooses them. Mental health "illness" and the "disease" of addiction that are prevalent in every socio-economic class, age, race, and gender need to be seen and addressed as such, and as a community we need to discuss these issues and help create solutions.
I am very pleased to see our North Adams Chamber of Commerce getting off the ground in partnership with the Franklin County CDC and our Office of Tourism. This combined effort located on Main Street should be an invaluable resource to our every growing small business community.
I continue to work with our community partner MCLA, on a sustainable project that will breathe life into the Mohawk Theater. With continued engagement and commitment of state and federal governments for additional funding, I am very hopeful that we will be able to announce a solution. MCLA as a partner guarantees a project with long term sustainability providing daily use, revenue, management, programming and other attributes that will assure success.
We have significantly completed our Master Plan "Vision 2030." This process through the efforts and ideas of many is creating the road map 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. The final draft will be out for public comment very soon.
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. Many good things have and will continue to come from their efforts.
I am so encouraged by the numbers of young people who are getting involved in our community. From the new city councilors, to board and commission members, to events volunteers, to those that serve various civic and community organizations, it is apparent that a new day is dawning in our city.
On the flip side, I have heard enough from those who want only pull down what is trying to be accomplished with a "woe is me" attitude. North Adams is a miniature version of our nation. The age of industrialism in America is over. Our traditional sources of authority are in decline. But America is the country of the future and we must be a city that looks to the future.
As a community, as a city, we should never forget our past and who we were. However, we should not hold on to that past so tightly, that we diminish the hope of what we can become. Time after time, I run into people who say our community has changed - and they say it at times with angst and resentment.
Living here all my life, I certainly do not disagree that our community has changed. What hasn’t changed?
Well the answer to that is simply this: Many of us have not changed, or simply do not want to.
The next several years will be critical and I want to send the message tonight in a very clear tone. We need to collectively ask this question: If there was no North Adams and we were to build one, what would it look like? What do we need?
Well we have so many community assets to build on:
1. Our people
2. Our arts and cultural community
3. Our beautiful physical environment
4. A great hospital
5. An exceptional college
6. A world class museum
7. An airport
8. A growing business community
9. A good public school system
10. A Master Plan
11. The Partnership for North Adams
All assets that are necessary to build a community — and while we have them all — they are a bit disjointed yet.
How do we more effectively link them all to fully maximize their role and relevance in this "new" North Adams.
What we need to do is focus on our assets knowing that if they grow, our liabilities will shrink. We need to continue to capture the ideas and creativity of many and harness those thoughts and that energy in a productive way.
We have Amanda Chilson in our city who is leading the charge with her Mass in Motion program through the [Northern Berkshire] Community Coalition — this effort speaks volumes to the physical and emotional vibrancy in the city.
Will we all embrace her spirit?
We have Lois Daunis, Jess Dennis, Annie Rodgers and Carrie Crews in our city who are collectively representing three groups working very hard to educate our youth about the ills of substance abuse and beat down the stigma surrounding those in our community with mental health issues.
Will we embrace their compassion?
We have Glenn Maloney and Spencer Moser in our city who fostered a partnership with MCLA and the city, twice a year mobilizing over 300 people for Community Days of Service.
Will we embrace their hard work?
We have Mark Rondeau and his crew at the Friendship Center in our city providing food for those in need throughout North Adams and north Berkshire.
Will we embrace their kindness?
We have a growing small-business community who work each and every day to provide services, sell goods, create jobs and take risk to serve us.
Will we embrace their dreams?
We have Anne French in our school system who two weekends ago was given two days of notice and took her weekend to punch out a 20-page narrative and application for a $200,000 grant from the attorney general to bring a valid curriculum back into our schools that will deal specifically with substance abuse.
Will we embrace her dedication?
We have a hospital staffed by our neighbors and friends that provide for the physical health of our community. As they try to keep us physically healthy, we know that the hospital is not fiscally healthy.
Will we embrace our hospital and make it our first stop for medical care?
We have elected and appointed officials in this city who despite significant fiscal hardship and lack of resources, work each and every day to promote economic growth, healthy schools and community stability.
Will this community embrace their combined efforts?
I am asking all here tonight, all those listening, all those who will read about this, all the residents of this city:
• To pick up the rope of hope and success with me and so many others — and pull hard
• If you can't pull but like what we are trying to do then cheer us on — give us an "atta-boy"
• If you pull and you don't like where we are going then quit pulling for a while; but pick up the rope again when it suits you
• If you have ideas for a new rope let us know
• If you don't want anything to do with the rope, then please don't get in the way of those pulling. But continue to watch because as we pull and pull and as things begin and continue to happen, you, too, may just want to begin to pull.
You know, if we wait for the government to do it, if we wait for others to do it, then it will never get done. The re-invention of this city is in our collective hands and on our collective backs. We will grow or we will die — it truly is that simple.
This year, we will see:
1. The re-birth of our Heritage State Park into the Greylock Marketplace
2. A scenic rail experience
3. The Conte School renovation
4. Continued investment by small business
5. Continued outreach to the private sector and our state and federal delegations for job development opportunities
6. Selective demolition of blight in targeted neighborhoods
7. A truly grand plan by a very dedicated local developer for the redevelopment of the Mohawk building on Marshall Street
8. Re-engagement on the Mohawk Theater project
9. We hope the opening of the Armory as a community center, and
10. Some greening projects
All things that will need many hands pulling on that rope.
I look forward to working with this council, the School Committee, our School Building Committee, and all of our boards and commissions. I very much appreciate the guidance of my neighboring town leaders and our local delegation. I truly value 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.
I will close with the same words as last year: "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, place of pride for all of us.