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The Finance Committee on Wednesday begins review of the fiscal 2020 budget.

North Adams Finance Committee Begins Review of $44M Draft Budget

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Thomas Bernard presented a draft fiscal 2020 spending plan of $44.3 million on Wednesday that he described as "maintenance budget." 
The total to be raised by taxation is $17,768,621, up $247,569 or 1.41 percent over this year. 
Of that, the expense budget of $40.9 million includes a $152,850 increase in expenses over this year, or about .37 percent, a full-time position at the airport to be offset by revenues there, and all contract wage increases including 1 percent for non-union staff.
The total budget of $44,319,602 includes cherry sheet offsets, state assessments and estimated tax abatements, up less than 1 percent over fiscal 2019.
There is no anticipated use of reserves or increases in water or sewer rates to balance the spending plan. The city will see nearly $1 million fall off in debt as a number of projects are paid off, including Brayton and Drury High schools.
The North Adams Public Schools, which take up about 43 percent of the budget, will be level-service funded at $17.8 million.
"Even though we have the retirement of debt, we're really looking at another another maintenance budget," said the mayor. "We're not looking at any significant capital investment, we are going to do our best to capitalize on new revenue opportunities, including things like the cannabis, understanding that we're projecting an extremely conservative number right now, because we don't know what that will look like given the overall marketplace for cannabis statewide. 
"And then as as mentioned, we're talking about a review of structural items starting in FY20. That would include the classification compensation plans, as well as our overall fee structures."
Wednesday's Finance Committee meeting is the first of several planned reviews of the budget prior to its anticipated presentation to the full City Council at the end of May. 
This first meeting the committee went over unclassified, capital, interest and debt, and revenues line items as presented by the mayor, Administrative Officer Michael Canales and Auditor David Fierro. 
The major increase in unclassified expenses — line items that don't fit in other categories — is medical insurance. That expense is up $232,472 or about 5 percent.
The administration is projecting a small increase in revenue by staying on the conservative side. With the state budget process still moving along, the city's financial team is sticking with the numbers in the governor's budget released in January. 
"We're watching those numbers as they continue to develop, we're being as conservative as we can upon local receipt estimates," the mayor said.
The revenues for fees are set at the current rates although those are expected to be changed when the Finance Committee takes them up later this spring.
Projected tax revenue from cannabis is penciled in at $15,000, which the committee questioned. Bernard said the company proposing a dispensary is still going through the state permitting process. 
"If you look at the numbers that Northampton saw, they were phenomenally higher than that," acknowledged the mayor. "But we're also at a point now that the benefits are probably ... saturation as the market has expanded. ...
"Again, a conservative number to acknowledge we expect something, but what that would be remains to be seen."
The city also plans to sell 40,000 in solar credits out of a bank of 150,000. It is required to purchase all the credits from the solar array on the capped landfill and then uses those against it electric bills; when the array overproduces, the excess credits can be saved or sold. 
One thing that's been added to the revenue budget is the aviation gas sales and leasing at Harriman & West Airport. The city is projecting about $96,000 in revenue that would offset the proposed maintenance position for the airport. 
Canales explained that the city purchased aviation fuel and then sells it at a 75 cent markup determined by the Airport Commission. The Shamrock Hangar that had been in private hands is now owned by the city and the four spaces in there are now leased.
Bernard said the city would also be pursuing an operator for the planned cafe in the new administration building that would also bring in revenue. 
"We've talked over the last year and a bit about this million dollars or so in debt that was going to fall off of the books this year," the mayor said. "And you're seeing that reflected in the fiscal 2020 budget, which is one of the factors that is contributing to the ... currently modest budget increase. We're not seeing a lot of opportunity for additional capital investment but it is allowing us to fund the budget without significant increase."
Committee Chairwoman Marie T. Harpin had concerns that only about $46,000 was being added to the capital budget, bringing it up to $821,000. 
"Some of the things I'm concerned about are some of the structure in the city and some of it really might be something that might bite us, if we don't plan for it," she said. "You see walls that are kind of almost falling and roads in disrepair."
Committee member Rebbecca Cohen agreed that some of these items might be falling by they wayside as other projects move ahead of them. She did, however, compliment on the administration for implementing a program that allows abuttors to buy city land straightforwardly. 
"So I hope that there's more opportunities like that, that we can turn around some zero dollar land for, to make some money," she said. 
Bernard said once this budget is set, the conversation looking ahead to fiscal 2021 will be to talk about the constraints as the city approach its levy ceiling.
"One of the things we're going to look at is the impact of retirements and replacements on the budget," he said. "And we'll continue to pursue growth opportunities. Again, these are these are sort of big, big level strategic priorities. But I think it's important as we talk about this year's budget to set the stage for where we see the city going over the next few years."
The Finance Committee has scheduled meetings for Wednesday, May 1, to discuss public safety and public service; Wednesday, May 8, for school budgets; Wednesday, May 15, for general government and the classification and compensation plan; and Wednesday, May 22, for general review and recommendation vote. All meetings are at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers. 

Tags: fiscal 2020,   north adams_budget,   

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Jack's Hot Dog Contest Crowns Local Champ, Raises Charity Funds

By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent

Professional eater Kevin Strahle goofs around with Mayor Thomas Bernard and Jack's Hot Dog Stand owner Jeffrey Levanos. 
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Kevin Strahle traveled all the way from his home in New Jersey to compete in the Jack's Hot Dog Stand eating contest on Eagle Street on a sweltering Saturday.
But because of some late intestinal distress, he did not take the title home with him.
Strahle, better known as "L.A. Beast," is a professional eater with over 2.3 million subscribers on YouTube. He holds several distinctive records in the world of professional eating, including: eating five light bulbs in 10 minutes, the entire menu of burgers from Burger King while wearing a shock collar, and ingesting 21 dimes covered in olive oil. 
One of Strahle's better known feats is eating an entire pineapple. Not just the entirety of the traditionally edible parts but the whole fruit. 
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