NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city administration is looking at what kind of scenario North Adams can operate under without knowing how the state budget will play out.
Mayor Thomas Bernard told the City Council on Tuesday night that "worst case is a hard thing to project right now simply because with 44 percent of our budget coming from state sources, a worst case is something that we can't manage, so what we're trying to figure out is what the worst case is that we can reasonably operate under."
The mayor said, in response to Councilor Jason LaForest's questions about an "emaciated" budget, that they would be "slicing something that's already been cut pretty deeply." However, he is looking at how City Hall can streamline functions, such as in the finance offices by focusing on needs and not who is in which office.
The novel coronavirus is expected to devastate budgets across the state as revenues have dropped over the past two months both locally and at the state level. The Legislature is basically rewriting the fiscal 2021 spending plan and figures provided to communities early in the year are no longer in play. If a budget is not in place by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, the city could have to adopt a continuation or 1/12 budget.
"One of the options we would have to consider is whether we do a continuation budget or not," Bernard told Councilor Robert Moulton Jr. when asked if there was a Plan B. "And if we go much further, we're going to have to, because without a without a sense of clarity ... ."
He said he's hoping for something definitive from the Legislature: it it decides on a continuation then the city will follow suit. "But if we can avoid it, I would like to have as specified as solid a budget projection as we can put in place," he said.
The School Committee is as much in the dark as the city side, Bernard told Councilor Keith Bona.
"They are, because again, we have the same set of unknowns. For us, it's our unrestricted government aid for the school, it's the Chapter 70 ... a lion's share of our state appropriation is education funding," he said. "As we're trying to make some best guesses to provide the the council and the Finance Committee with numbers, the School Department is trying to do the same thing for the School Committee."
Normally, the administration would have been in the process of presenting a budget to the Finance Committee but was only able to provide a general overview at the last meeting
. (A Finance Committee scheduled last week was canceled for lack of a quorum.)
Councilor Lisa Blackmer recalled a decade ago when the city got hit with budget cuts in the middle of the year because of the Great Recession.
"I'm hoping and I'm pushing that we get some kind of numbers, sooner rather than later because the longer we go in to the next year without some firm numbers — even if the state extends their budget — if they make huge cuts and we're sitting here, it's a lot harder to cut in December than it is to cut in September," she said.
Councilor Benjamin Lamb said he'd been hearing that private entities were looking at 5, 10 and 15 percent cuts.
"I'm just wondering if that's sort of an approach that at least starts to get the cogs moving," he said. "You may be doing this already, so I don't mean to step on toes if that's already the case, but I'm just curious ... if there is a way for us to start to flesh that out."
Bernard said those were ballpark numbers but wanted to have more confidence in them before bringing them forward.
"Unfortunately, because the city is so reliant on state aid over 40 percent of our budget is state aid, it's a little more difficult for the administration I think to make some decisions, then maybe some other local towns are in Berkshire County and in Massachusetts," said Councilor Marie T. Harpin, chair of the Finance Committee. "We're being patient as a Finance Committee but these are all really great questions and, hopefully, you know when we get to meet, we can all ask these questions together and come up with some answers."
Bernard also noted that the current economic outlook is not good. The most recent figures from the state Department of Unemployment Assistance show Berkshire County with a jobless rate of about 16 percent and Pittsfield and North Adams at 18 to 19 percent.
"We've all heard about accommodations and food service and retail being among the hardest hit in those and it's also challenging because with the state stay-at-home guides and the responsibilities that people have without child care, that there may also be a factor of people not seeking jobs right now," he said.
The city did receive additional Community Development Block Grant funding through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday on how to use the funds.
"[We have] some ideas ... for how to support, particularly small businesses and within that sector, micro enterprises, which is businesses with five or fewer employees, through the CDBG program," the mayor said, adding, "you may have heard about Northampton or Pittsfield making decisions about their CDBG money.
That's because they get it directly from the feds and ours is what's called the mini-entitlement community. The funding comes through the state so it's just been a slightly longer process for us."
Also to aid local business, North Adams and the Chamber of Commerce have adopted a "back to business" guide being used by the city of Reading to educate local entities on the state's Phase 1 guidelines for reopening. He said the goal is for the city's inspection services to work with businesses to help them succeed in opening safely and develop plans for when the state enters the next phases. Each phase will be highly dependent on public health data showing COVID-19 is being contained.
"We're responsible for following the safer-at-home guidelines. This is especially important. As the weather gets nicer and we all want to spend as much time as possible outside. And then for businesses, it's really understanding and following both the mandatory workplace safety standards, and then the specific sector guidelines for each sector," the mayor said. "Remembering that some of these are mandatory requirements and some of these are best practice guidances so the difference between what must be done and what should be done. And it's up to businesses to comply with these things."
In other business, the council deferred communications on short-term rentals, fees and fines, the council's right to seek opinions from the city solicitor, and the pillar art controversy to meetings in July and August; referred a communication on speeding in Autumn Heights to the Traffic Commission; tabled a communication related to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Commission; approved a resolution supporting mail-in voting; and approved a secondhand license for Timonthy Randall of Williamstown, operating as Sanford & Kid at 160 Houghton St.