Prop 2 1/2 Battle Rages On At Greylock School
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Sprague Electric is not coming back and the city needs to focus on the future, Mayor Richard Alcombright told a crowd gathered at Greylock School to debate the Proposition 2 1/2 override vote.
Residents badgered Alcombright for nearly two hours Monday, citing a lack of business growth and declining population as reasons for additional cuts to the $35.5 million budget. One resident accused the city of inflating its payroll since Sprague Electric left the city more than 20 years ago.
"The woe is me about Sprague has to end," Alcombright retorted. "There are 40 to 45 percent less people in City Hall now."
A major boon to the area like Sprague, which employed thousands more than two decades ago, is not going to come back and the city will need to find ways to encourage other industries, he said. As for the city's payroll, he said many, many jobs have been cut over the years and not just in City Hall. The Department of Public Works decreased from 42 to 16 employees in that timeframe, he said.
However, Alcombright added that he is "not giving up on light manufacturing just yet." There are opportunities for green jobs — such as building and installing solar panels — that the city will try to reel in, he said.
Residents pleaded that he "trim the fat" out of the city budget and mentioned ways to do so. One idea was to cut the police budget because of the smaller population. Alcombright, however, said he would not be comfortable reducing that staff more because the city has the same type of urban crime as any other metropolis.
While the crowd debated the similarities to a city like Holyoke, City Councilor Lisa Blackmer researched the Holyoke Police Department on her cell phone and said there are at least 100 more officers employed there. Holyoke has 26 superior officers, 97 officers and 12 reserves while its population is only around 44,000.
"If anything we are underfunded in the Police Department," Blackmer said.
Alcombright contested that the city has reduced its budget by $600,000 and is continually chipping away at the amount the city will need above the 2 1/2 percent levy limit.
While the override vote is for $1.2 million, it is looking like the city will need only about $966,000 of that to set the budget, he said. He reiterated that since the $1.2 million figure was set — in order to provide enough time for the regulated hearings and notices — the city was able to reduce the deficit by level-funding pensions, eliminating the commissioner of public safety position and by the teachers giving back their 1 percent raise.
The newest version of budget — which includes the school budgets — will be presented to the City Council on Tuesday. Monday's meeting was the fourth in a series of six public meetings on the override vote scheduled for June 21 and, despite the anger showed by some residents Monday night, most of the attendees seemed in favor of the override.
Those in favor said it was a move that would better position the city for the future.
But the golden days of manufacturing was not the only past brought up. One resident angrily accused Alcombright of putting all the blame for the financial situation on former Mayor John Barrett III. Alcombright was part of the City Council and therefore has to shoulder some of the blame, the resident said.
"Since day one, I have stayed clear of blaming the past mayor," Alcombright said. "The blame is on the loss of revenue from the state."
Alcombright added that he voted against using reserve funds to balance the budget in prior years and that disagreement was a reason he ran against Barrett in 2009.
"I ran for mayor because I didn't like using reserve funds. I am not pointing at the mayor — that was the way he managed. I manage differently," Alcombright said.
Note that information on absentee ballots for the override vote on Tuesday, June 21, can be found in the sidebar at right. The next public hearing is Wednesday, June 15, at Drury High School at 7 p.m.
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Override Resolution on City Council Agenda
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Councilors will have to take a stand on the proposed $1.2 million override when the City Council meets on Tuesday, June 14.
On the agenda is a resolution stating that the council "supports the passage of the Proposition 2 1/2 override ballot question and urges voters to vote yes thus avoiding any further cuts to the important Public Education, Public Safety, Public Services and General Government functions of the City of North Adams."
The administration says the the override is critical to preserving services and educational programs. Over the past few years, the city has lost $3.2 million in state aid even as costs have continued to rise.
The same night, Mayor Richard Alcombright will present a fiscal 2012 budget of $35,537,010, nearly $400,000 below this year's budget. It includes a $15.5 million school budget and a McCann Technical School assessment of $890,000 and is based on the passage of the override.
City Council Agenda for June 14, 2011
The resolution can read below:
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Land Auction Unloads City-Owned Tracts
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city unloaded some excess land on Wednesday night as bidders blew through some 50 lots in about 90 minutes.
People packed into the City Council Chambers to try for vacant lots large and small that had been taken by the city over the years for back taxes. Although many had once had houses on them, only a few now fell under the zoning requirements for new construction.
Quite a few parcels went to single bidders at the $500 starting price, more than a few found no takers and a handful sparked some spirited bidding wars.
Michael Nuvallie was battling a woman a few seats away from him for a plot on Galvin Road assessed at $32,600. Egged on by the auctioneer (who frequently urged "you came here to buy this, don't lose it now!") the price hit around $11,000 or $12,000.
That's when Richard Pellerin decided it was time to jump in — and the woman dropped out, shaking her head at the price. Pellerin and Nuvallie went toe-to-toe but Pellerin emerged victorious at $20,000 — one of the highest, if not the highest sale in the auction. Pellerin said his strategy was to bid later "to show I was serious."
Michael Nuvallie, second from left, was bidding against the woman in white for a Galvin Road plot until Richard Pellerin and John Sherman, in the photo at right, jumped in.
"That was the best lot in the auction," said Nuvallie. "That was still a building lot."
It was a building lot Pellerin didn't want anybody building on, he said. The parcel sits between his land and his neighbor, John Sherman, so they decided to partner and split the price and the lot down the middle.
"I don't want anymore neighbors," said Pellerin, as Sherman joked, "I'm close enough." Sherman needed more space to build a garage, to which Pellerin has no objection — there'll still be space between them.
Most of the bidders seemed to be abuttors looking to increase their yards. Jason Griffin and Julia Budway were eyeing a lot on Tremont Street that would significantly expand their property. But they walked away empty handed when someone else with more money in their pockets liked it, too.
The lots not sold will be rolled into the next round of tax takings, probably next year, said city Assessor Ross Vivori on Thursday. Collar City Auctions and Realty Management Inc. of Albany, N.Y., which ran the auction, was expected to have the final numbers of the sale by Tuesday.
"I think everyone who attended and got what they wanted, walked away happy," he said.
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School Committee Approves $15.54M Budget
The City Council's Finance Committee, Alan Marden, left, Chairman Michael Bloom and David Bond attended the School Committee's public hearing on the school budget for fiscal 2012. School Committee members John Hockridge and Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger are to the left.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — In a joint meeting on Tuesday night, the School Committee approved and the Finance Committee recommended a fiscal 2012 school budget of $15.54 million that includes reductions in staffing but no program cuts.
"In order to get to that number we had to cut upwards to a $1 million all from this budget," said Superintendent James M. Montepare, despite contractual agreements such as heating and busing that usually increase. "In putting this budget together I don't believe we have compromised any of our existing programs ... [but] we are to the bone at this point in time."
Cuts through attrition and job elimination include a special education post and teaching support staff in the elementary grades that were no longer needed; a Spanish teacher shared by the elementary school that will be replaced in part by the introduction of a world cultures curriculum in the English language arts program; a Title 1 director and a technology director.
The two administrative positions are being replaced by divvying up some of their responsibilities and creating two lead posts with stipends. Montepare said some $120,000 in administrative staff was cut but a teacher was saved.
Also cut were a custodian position, three paraprofessionals and two teaching assistants. There were a total of 11 retirements, some which will be replaced by younger — and cheaper — teachers.
The teachers have restored $90,000 by returning a 1 percent raise for next year. Some $816,000 in banked school choice funds will be used in two $360,000 allocations over the next two years against the salary account. Montepare said it was easier to do that than shift the money to separate programs. What's left will be set toward special education needs.
"All in all I think we were able to keep our programs intact and we shuffled a lot of funding around to continue to support special education and classroom teachers," said Superintendent James Montepare. "I'm estimating we are probably about $340,000 or $350,000 above foundation."
School Committee member William G. Schrade Jr. said cutting to foundation level would decimate the school system.
Mayor Richard Alcombright, chairman of the School Committee, said the budget's proximity to the foundation level, the amount of education spending mandated by the state, complicates the scenario should the Proposition 2 1/2 vote fail in two weeks. "We're limited to what we can cut because we can't cut below minimum."
The administration has identified about $1 million in possible cuts from the school system, ranging from closing the Johnson Alternative Program to instituting fees for sports and extracurricular activities should the $1.2 million override fail.
With the Prop 2 1/2 vote two weeks away, Finance Committee member Alan Marden asked if any more cuts could be made now as a gesture similar to the City Council cutting its stipend.
"If we could send a small message tonight to help that vote go the right way, I think you ought to consider that," he said. "All I ask you is to try to find some few places to cut ... if you don't send that message I just worry about two weeks from now."
School Committee Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger said she went "over this with a fine-tooth comb trying to find some place to cut ... the work of the principals, the administration and the [school] finance commitee to even come up with a budget that's $233,000 less than the current budget is amazing itself."
School Committee member William G. Schrade Jr. expressed concern that school budget has been taking the hit for years as it maintained almost level funding. "We're up maybe 1 percent – that doesn't even cover our fixed costs," he said. "[For the last] five years we've had an increase of 1 percent but we're losing 7 or 9 percent."
Montepare said some $4 million had been slashed over past four years. The Finance Committee voted to recommend the budget as it stood.
The mayor will present the school and city budgets at the next City Council meeting on June 14. The city is required to submit a balanced budget to the state by June 30. Should the override fail, Alcombright said "we'll have to go back to the drawing board."
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North Adams School Budget Hearing Slated
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee will hold a public hearing on the fiscal 2012 school budget at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in the Conte Middle School conference room that will be attended by the Finance Committee.
Mayor Richard Alcombright plans to bring the school budget before the City Council at its next meeting on June 14. However, scheduling the Finance Commmittee to review the spending plan beforehand became problematic because of senior week activities (Drury graduates on Thursday) and other commitments, including another presentation on a proposed Proposition 2 1/2 override on Friday night.
The option to meet and review the budget during its presentation to the School Committee was considered after last week's Prop 2 1/2 session since it would allow both committees to meet at once. The School Committee will hold its regular meeting immediately following the public hearing.
Prior to the hearing, the Finance Committee will meet at 5 p.m. in the City Council chambers to review the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District budget with Superintendent James Brosnan.
The school budget being presented on Tuesday is $15.6 million, the largest single item in the city's proposed $35.6 million spending plan.
The budget is also the largest target in "Plan B" should the $1.2 million Prop 2 1/2 override fail on June 21.
Superintendent James Montepare said the school budget has been trimmed by more than $4 million over the past few years and that the budget being presented is $147,000 below this year's.
The administration has identified more than a $1 million in possible program cuts and layoffs, and fees for certain extracurricular activities. School spending, however, cannot go below state-calculated foundation level of $15.4 million without endangering some $14 million in Chapter 70 funds.
At the second of six public hearings on the proposed override, Montepare said the city had been funding well above foundation for years ($3 million or more) but reductions in local aid had decreased its contribution to about a half-million above foundation.
All presentations begin at 7 p.m.
The override question, which would permanently raise the tax levy to meet current obligations, has divided the city going into the June 21 election. An outspoken group is calling for more reductions in spending to offset the $3.2 million decrease in state aid; others are advocating for the override, saying the city can't afford to cut its schools and services anymore.
A website, VoteYesForNorthAdams.com (created by Brian Miksic), is being promoted on Facebook and offers information on the current budget, the proposed cuts and Proposition 2 1/2. It also has a handy calculator: drop in your property assessment and it will total up the added cost of the override.
Opponents say the override estimates of about $20 a month more for the average home isn't factual because it doesn't take into account last year's 10 percent tax increase, the hike in the water fee and the implementation of a sewer tax. Homeowners have been hit by these increases over last six months in the quarterly bills.
The antagonism is getting heated enough that the mayor posted a message on his Facebook page asking people to leave the "NO on Prop 2 1/2" signs popping up around the city alone.
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