Members of the Finance Committee had a little trouble keeping track of their place as they read off the budget items being approved.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday approved a $40 million budget for fiscal 2018.
The spending plan, at $39,955,755, is up $501,072, or 1.27 percent, over this year. The main increases are in the school budget, health insurance premiums, pensions and the Community Development Office, and three new hires, including filling vacant posts in Wire & Alarm and inspection.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said the budget was built on anticipated revenues.
"We have spent hours trying to project local receipts as well as working to consolidate and streamline departments and processes," he told the council in his statement. "We are pacing to close the current fiscal year in the black, having used zero reserves this year for the second consecutive cycle."
The mayor said it appeared that there would be money again this year flowing into free cash.
"If we look at our free cash situation and reserves we've been building, we are right about $2 million in overall reserves," he said. "Typically [the state] is looking at 5 percent of budget numbers, with a $40 million budget, we really positioned ourselves well."
Alcombright, however, said some of those savings came on the heels of years of deferred maintenance.
"That's why with some of these reserves, we're going to be coming back in the next few meetings with some creative thinking on how we might approach some of this stuff without depleting reserves," he said. "We're not going to make a huge dent in anything but we want to make certain now that we have some money we'll be able to start some projects."
The mayor thanked the city's financial team for its efforts in putting together a lean budget.
City Councilor Lisa Blackmer, chairman of the Finance Committee, reviewed some of the highlights of the budget, noting the added positions, the continuing concerns over insurances costs, and the reduction in administrative costs that can be charged to Community Development Block Grants from 18 percent to 15 percent, which affected salaries in the Community Development Office.
Blackmer also noted that the budget being approved was based on revenues and appropriations, and that city and school officials have also pursued grants to fund a plethora of projects and programs.
"This doesn't count the grants that the school has aggressively brought in or the work that the Community Development Office has done to get grants," she said. "That's our budget out of taxation and there's probably another few million that comes from these grants."
In response to complaints that taxes continue to rise, the councilors defended the city's spending plans and the public employees who are continuing to do more with less.
"All of these departments do a lot with less. I just want to say that because I think it's important," Councilor Ronald Boucher said. "I know people yell and scream about things but we do a heck of a job with everything out here, considering what we have."
Councilor Nancy Bullett objected to the idea of making large cuts to the school system.
"We really can ill afford to do less for them, the students are our future ... I hope moving forward we can continue to support our kids," she said. "We have committee meetings that go on and they're open to the public ... if you want questions asked or answered."
Blackmer said a lot of the budget cutting happens long before the final product is voted on, including initial reductions made by department heads and administration even before the Finance Committee sees it.
"Maybe everybody should come in with their wish list," she said, and then compare the final budget numbers with that. "I think we get a good product."
Alcombright cautioned that the next mayor and City Council will have to deal with a looming levy ceiling and the state's failure to keep up with real costs associated with education.
"They need to make discussions around school funding a priority," he said. "Two percent [increases] a year ain't cutting it, so to speak. ...
"The $17 million or so that is in our budget that represents the schools is the only thing that's an investment ... the rest is just paying the bills."
In other business, the council voted to increase in the scale rate at the transfer station from .0506 cents per pound to .0568 cents per pound effective July 1. That translates to $113.64 a ton, an increase of $12.41, on the recommendation of the Public Services Committee and the administration.
The price for bags ($2.25 for blue and $1 for green) will not change, nor will the sticker fees. There will be a minimum charge of $6 for up to 105 pounds over scale.
The transfer station is currently permitted as a Large Transfer Station but the over the past year has not exceeded 50 tons per day. Based on the reduction in tonnage, the administration and state Department of Environmental Protection are recommending permitting the facility as a Small Transfer Station.
Change the permitting would mean material from large commercial haulers would no longer be accepted; smaller commercial pickup trucks would still be allowed.
As a Small Transfer Station, the city would be required to submit state reports every five years rather than the current annual and quarterly reports. Administrative Officer Michael Canales says that will save the city upwards of $10,000 a year.
• The council also affirmed the reappointment of Gail Sellers to the Public Arts Commission with a term expiring in 2022. But it postponed a vote on her colleague, Eric Kerns, at the request of Councilor Eric Buddington who raised concerns over Kerns ability to attend meetings. The mayor said he would speak to Kerns and the commission chair.
• The council referred a question over the removal of several parking spots on the west side of Ashland Street near the Holiday Inn to the city solicitor. The Traffic Commission had recommended the change last month as part of the city's Complete Streets program to create bicycle lanes.
However, the letter on the removal was confusing in that it didn't address the spots, only the meters. A more specific letter was submitted and Traffic Commissioner Amanda Chilson and Eammon Coughlin of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the city's Complete Streets adviser, attended to provide information.
Councilors endorsed the idea but questioned whether an ordinance was needed. The matter was referred to the city solicitor for an opinion.
• The council approved a resolution for the mayor to apply for a $778,000 grant from the Parkland Acquisitions and Renovation for Communities Program for Phase II of the Noel Field Athletic Complex renovation that will include new basketball courts and a splash pad.
• And an application submitted by Richard Bostwick of Bracewell Avenue to drive taxi for RJ Taxi was approved.
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