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North Adams Public Safety Officials Decry Budget Cuts

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Fire Director Stephen Meranti explains what will happen to his department should drastic cuts occurred. The Finance Committee reviewed the general government and public safety budgets on Thursday night.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Public safety officials warned Thursday night that department reductions would be dangerous for the city as well as its fire and police force.

North Adams is facing a $625,000 deficit for fiscal 2015 that will mean deep cuts if the mayor's proposed revenue package is rejected.

Mayor Richard Alcombright's "worst case" budget would eliminate four firefighters and three police positions total, among other cutbacks.

"The way this department is set up now we can't go any lower and provide the service we do," Fire Director Stephen Meranti told the Finance Committee on Thursday night.

Police Director Michael Cozzaglio said his force has been dealing with an uptick in crimes fueled by an influx of drugs over the past year or more.

"By reducing that work force it's going to make it more difficult," he said. "It's going to make it more dangerous for the officers."

Both said the cuts could end up costing more because their reserves — seven for the police and four for the Fire Department — would be eliminated along with the permanent posts.

"The cost is going to go up and morale is going to go down," said Cozzaglio.  

Alcombright said the cuts would save some money, but would compromise safety.

"We have three unfilled positions right now that can be filled," said the mayor of the Police Department.

The current plan is not to fill one of those positions; all three would be left empty if the revenue package does not pass.

Meranti said the loss of four firefighters would put his department below safe staffing levels.

"We used to have 12 [men] per shift back in the in the '90s, and that was reduced to eight men on the shift," he said. "Now we have six men with a five-man minimum [by contract with the city]."

The fire director said minimum staffing is not per shift put per engine.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends four people for each vehicle.

That means the city is below staffing to run an engine and a ladder, or two engines, he said, and two or three short of the recommended number at a fire, even calling in off-duty personnel.

"We've been doing more with less for years," said Meranti.

The committee wondered if call firefighters could be transitioned into the department as savings or volunteers could be used.

Committee member Lisa Blackmer noted that Greenfield, which is similar to the city, has permanent and call firefighters.

"Going forward, this model is not sustainable," she said.

Meranti said the Greenfield department has three more personnel than the city's 24 and isn't cheaper to operate.

City Councilor Eric Buddington said he'd found the Greenfield department's budget was $1.7 million ($2 million for fiscal 2015).

The city is proposing $1.5 million for fiscal 2015.

"I don't understand the difference in the models but it's not cheaper," said Buddington.

Meranti estimated that taxpayers would spend about a quarter a day to fund the department, and could pay up to 10 percent more on their home insurance if it was cut back. An attempt to try volunteers a decade ago turned up three people, one of who didn't seem to understand what he was responding to, he said.

The mayor said he was not opposed to looking into different models but noted that the firefighters felt the minimum staffing was a safety issue.

Cozzaglio said cutting his force would bring it down to dangerous levels after finally adding officers in 2011.

"They're willing to work with the council and the mayor," he said of the officers. "We're running down a slippery slope if we do this."

City Clerk Marilyn Gomeau, saying she was speaking as a citizen, hoped the council would approve the revenue package, which would raise fees and add another $35 to $66 to annual water and sewer bills.

"I'll pay $66 a year to know I've got safety here in North Adams," she said.

City Councilor Keith Bona said he'd rather lose the tourism director post than a police officer.

Indeed, the tourism post came under a great deal scrutiny. Committee members were somewhat on the fence over the effectiveness of the post, but seemed inclined to pass it over in favor of public safety.

The mayor continued to champion the position, saying it was important to have strong leadership in organizing events and marketing the city.

There has to be some balance, said Alcombright, "this is the happy in the budget."

Tags: budget cuts,   budget shortfall,   city budget,   fiscal 2015,   public safety,   

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