City Council Sets Override Vote for June 21
Echoes of the last election could be heard at Friday's special City Coucil meeting as former Mayor John Barrett III took issue with an override vote requested by current Mayor Richard Alcombright.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Friday night voted 5-4 to schedule a special election for a Proposition 2 1/2 override of $1.2 million for Tuesday, June 21.
Councilors President Ronald Boucher, Lisa Blackmer, David Lamarre and Alan Marden voted against, believing the council should review the line-by-line budget before setting a date. Blackmer suggested the end of July but the council voted directly on the motion for June 21.
Mayor Richard Alcombright, reading from a prepared statement, described the move as "political suicide" but insisted that "we need to preserve the services that we have and make a firm and positive statement that we as a community will not allow our city to take major steps backwards because of political or fiscal influence."
The city is facing a $1.2 million deficit caused by declining state aid and rising costs. Alcombright said his finance team has formed a budget $238,000 less than this year with cuts to all city and school departments. (For reference, here's last year's budget story.)
An override would add an estimated $237 a year to the tax bill on the average home, which in North Adams is assessed at $138,500. This would follow on last year's 10 percent hike in property taxes and water fees, and the institution of a sewer fee.
Resident Alice Cande said she had voted for Alcombright expecting taxes to rise, but an override would hike the total increase to about $600 in two years. "I just think it's unrealistic for this community at this time," she said. "I think if you go for the vote now, you're not going to get it."
The mayor believed he could "make a compelling argument" in six planned public presentations to convince voters an override was necessary and what would happen — Plan B — if it failed.
Four councilors voted against the setting a vote on the override because they wanted to wait until after the budget was reviewed and passed.
"Every bit of financial experience I have convinces me that an override is our best solution," Alcombright said.
His predecessor, however, took issue with Alcombright's version of a city overly dependent on state funds and financially mismanaged for years, and took aim at union contracts that he said haven't been fully divulged.
"I'm tired of the things that have been said here and I'm tired of them saying this city's reserves were used up because right now, as we speak, I can show you $1.4 million," said former Mayor John Barrett III. "It's there and it should be used if needed.
"I know every mayor that leaves office gets blamed for everything but you know, at least be factual."
He chastised the council for failing to ask hard questions and for even considering putting out an override vote before seeing the line-item budget. "You're basically giving up your responsibility as city councilors," he said. "You can cut a budget and you're not even getting a chance."
The Finance Committee was given the budget broken down by departments and the expected revenues and will begin reviewing line items next Wednesday. Alcombright said he'd wanted conversations with department heads and employees before beginning the in-depth review.
Barrett claimed there was $2.9 million in reserves when he left office; now with some $900,000 in school choice funds and a half-million in reserves, there's no need for an override. The city was in worse shape in 1990-1991 when there was only $1,000 in the reserve, said the former mayor.
"I'm here for one thing, and one thing only: My friends and neighbors are hurting out there in this community and they're not being listened to," said Barrett. He offered to make himself available to help with budget deliberations.
Alcombright, who served as a city councilor during Barrett's tenure, did not engage with the former mayor or attempt to dispute anything said. He addressed his responses to councilors and urged them not to wait until the next fiscal year for an override.
A combative Robert Cardimino was gaveled silent three times but warned that voters would remember in November.
Councilors Blackmer, David Bond and Alan Marden questioned the necessity of having a vote before July 1. Marden asked why set the amount of $1.2 million if savings could be found in review. Alcombright said if a lower amount was needed it would be reflected in the tax rate.
"If you delay this and it goes into the next fiscal year, you're spending at a higher rate than you can afford. Then by the time the ballot question gets passed ... that's just more cuts you have to make," said Alcombright. "This is just trying to align this fiscal question with the end of the fiscal year so we will know on June 21 if we fish or cut bait."
Robert Cardimino, who called the mayor evasive and "intimidating the people of North Adams," was gaveled down several times but got in the last word: "I'm sure the people are going to remember this come November."
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North Adams Honors Former Tree Commissioner
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Alma Benedetti was honored on Friday morning for her many years of making the city beautiful with the planting of a lilac tree at the entrance of Windsor Lake.
The longtime tree commissioner and retired art teacher was joined by family, friends and city officials (and a very busy woodpecker) as the Tree Commission celebrated Arbor Day in the city. Drury High School freshmen Catherine Record, Allison Meehan and Morgan Michaels provided musical selections under the guidance of music teacher Christopher Caproni.
The former chairman of the commission has helped to honor others on Arbor Day, but commission member Erica Uchman described her as "the most deserving honoree."
Fellow Commissioner Christine Petri spoke of Benedetti's other activities, including teaching art to so many residents who had been educated in the North Adams school system.
"For 35 years, she was not only on the Tree Commission but also the Garden Club and is currently on the board of the Friends of the Library," said Petri.
Uchman said she and Benedetti had worked on many projects over the years and while she had been surprised to learn Benedetti's age, she joked she wouldn't reveal it now. (Benedetti graduated from then North Adams State Teachers College in 1937.)
Reading from a large card she'd made for her friend, Uchman said, "serving with you quite a few years gave me the opportunity to find out what a special lady you are ... I admire so much how you devoted yourself to be the ideal chairperson; how you pursued all responsibilities as diverse as they could be ...
"In my book, you will always be the lovely, contributing, so-devoted chairperson of the North Adams Tree Commission."
Benedetti, after posing for some "shovel photos" by the already- planted tree, said she'd worked with some very dedicated people over the years. "We've planted over 200 trees," she said and, as a member of the Garden Club, helped install the garden on Union Street at the entrance to the city.
Her walks take her up by Fish Pond so she'll see the now-budded lilac coming into bloom.
"I wanted something flowering," said Benedetti. "So this was a good choice."
Mayor Richard Alcombright read a proclamation declaring May 13 as Arbor Day in the city and that called for residents to "support the effort to protect our trees and woodlands."
"Thank you so much for your service and dedication over the years," he said to Benedetti. "You set a true example of volunteerism and what is really meaningful in our community. It's really what makes a community like ours succeed."
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Solar Power Partnership Wants to Expand Usage
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The installation of a solar array at the landfill will heat up opportunities for residents, businesses and the city to take greater advantage of sun power.
Blue Wave Capital, with partners Consolidated Edison, installer Alteris Renewables and engineering firm Tighe & Bond, was selected by the city to install a 2 megawatt array at the landfill. The installation, one of the largest per capita in the state, is expected to generate between 25 and 30 percent of the city's power.
"This seems to be the perfect partnership," Mayor Richard Alcombright told the City Council on Tuesday. "I don't think we find a stronger financing partner than ConEd."
ConEd is financing the project and will lease the landfill and own the array, selling the power back to the city at a locked-in, lower rate over the next two decades. The city could have the option of buying the array after six years.
"Three out of every four years, electricity prices have gone up," said John DeVillars, manager of Blue Wave Capital, in presenting the project to the council. "It will be a very precise price ... it's a hedge against what every energy economist predicts will be substantial increases."
Alcombright and DeVillars said they were looking at other municipal locations, such as the airport, former wastewater plant and Drury High School, as possibilities for arrays.
DeVillars said once the municipal side was done, Blue Wave would work with the city in outreach to the community on solar use. Alteris Renewables, the region's largest solar panel installer, has a "zero down" program for residences and businesses. Working with SunRun, a provider of residential solar electricity, homeowners could apply for solar installations for minimal or even zero investment.
Further, DeVillars said for every five homeowners who sign on for a panel, the partnership would donate one for a community or municipal facility.
"This hasn't really been tried yet in the way we envision this," he said. "We hope we could use it as a community organizing tool."
For example, parishioners could band together to target a church or hall for solar; a neighborhood could select community center or city building.
In response to a question from Councilor Alan Marden, DeVillars said the installation would create short-term jobs as Alteris is committed to subcontracting with local companies to install the arrays.
DeVillars expected the array to be up and running by the end of the year to take advantage of state and federal tax incentives.
In other business:
• Discussed changes to a vendor bylaw were postponed until July 12. The issue was raised last summer but stalled in the General Government Committee.
"I don't think there's an easy answer to this; currently, what's in the books is working, there's some flexibility there," said committee Chairman Keith Bona. "We can still talk about it in General Government more ... .
The mayor suggested it be postponed to "see how things go through the Wilco weekend."
• An order on renaming a section of Summer Street for former resident and horticulturist Lue Gim Gong was filed at the motion of Councilor Michael Bloom. Bloom said there did not appear to be support on the council or in the community for the change but urged historian Paul Marino, who raised the idea, to work with the Historial Commission on a more appropriate memorial.
• The council adopted the state's anti-idling law at the behest of the Board of Health and on the recommendation of the Public Safety Committee. The "adoption" merely indicates support for the law, which is in effect statewide.
• Approved an economic development opportunity area for the North Adams Transcript site on American Legion Drive and minor changes suggested by MassDevelopment to the tax incentive financing agreement with Scarafoni Associates that will allow the property to be purchased and renovated for the Brien Center.
• Approved restructuring of bond debt.
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Councilors Unhappy With Union Pay Raise
City Council President Ronald Boucher left the dias to question the mayor on the DPW contract.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright took flack on Tuesday night for giving the Department of Public Works union a 1 percent raise while preparing for a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Alcombright said the DPW was one of several of the city's seven public unions that had reached agreements on three-year contracts; negotiations were halted on the rest.
The City Council was asked to approve a compensation schedule retroactive to the beginning of fiscal 2011 to reflect the agreement. The cost, said the mayor, was around $9,000 this fiscal year, from reserve, and had been built into next year's budget.
Councilor Marie Harpin objected to the raises, which will be 1 percent next year and 2 percent the year after.
I'm very concerned about this mayor," said Harpin. "We're in a very financial bind in the city."
The mayor said settling the contracts now will ensure the city knows how much it will spend on wages over the next two years and allow it to budget accordingly.
"I think we've come to a fair settlement and a fair arrangement," said the mayor. "We don't want to be where we were last year settling two years of contracts ... I've had a year and half of surprises and I'm done with surprises."
He said the teachers had also agreed to a contract, which would be explained by the superintendent at the school budget review. The money would come this year and next from federal stimulus funds designated for job retention.
"The political argument is don't give anybody a raise," said the mayor, but he continued that the practical side is that wages are now fixed costs and the city avoids a possible lengthy and expensive arbitration that might have cost it the same or more in wages in the end.
"We really negotiated hard and well with these unions and I think we're in a good place."
Mayor Richard Alcombright explained his reasoning on union contracts.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer said she knew that city employees worked hard but state workers had had wages frozen and been forced to take furloughs.
"I have a hard time voting for this when I have to I [and] think we would have a much easier time selling an override if we didn't give a raise," she said, worrying the raise would "set a precedent."
Councilor Michael Bloom thought it a good precedent. "It sends a positive message to unions that we will settle ... at this point to have one union behind us is the right thing to do."
Council President Ronald Boucher switched places with Blackmer, the council's vice president, to address the mayor from the floor. He asked if the compensation plan could be delayed until after the override vote in June to have more information.
Alcombright said the override wouldn't affect the fiscal 2011 compensation plan — the money was already in there and the contract "signed, sealed and delivered."
He chided the council and audience for focusing on $9,000 when he'd saved tens of thousands over the past year, including $80,000 in taking over the water treatment plant, and cut the budget more than $235,000.
"I have 10 years worth of increases ... typically from 1 1/2 to 2 3/4 [percent] range" negotiated by the past administration on union contracts, he said, including during the recession under former Gov. Mitt Romney. Alcombright said the city had started at zero but, based on advice from labor attorney Fred Dupere, came to the 1 percent agreement.
The city has been struggling to cover a $1.2 million deficit for the coming year. Over the past four years, it's seen more than $3 million in local aid cuts and run through its reserve to balance budgets.
On Friday, the mayor will ask the council to approve a ballot question for a Proposition 2 1/2 override. He said he would be prepared prior to the vote to explain the consequences of $1.2 million in cuts — Plan B.
The council passed the compensation plan to a second reading and publication with Harpin voting the sole naye.
Blackmer predicted it would cause difficulty with the upcoming override vote.
"It's just that the economy is so hard," she said. "What I've heard is, 'well if you're giving raises I'm not voting for it' ... I'm just telling you what I'm hearing on the street."
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Curran Highway Zoning Change Set Aside
Bart Raser of Carr Hardware tells of the Planning Board of his plans to relocate the business to Route 2.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A proposal to rezone a section of land along the Hoosic River was put on the backburner on Monday night over concerns it would limit business opportunities on State Street.
Charles Fox, owner of the former K-K Home Mart property at 420 Curran Highway had applied to have the parcel under one zoning. It is currently split east/west as commercial (CC1) and industrial. Building Inspector William Meranti had suggested in March the strip of industrial zoning along the river be rezoned as CC1 from the Noel Field Athletic Complex to Foundry Road to prevent spot zoning.
"The purpose is to move that CC line back to the river so additional uses that are allowed in that zone can be allowed in the entire property," Meranti told a joint public hearing of the Planning Board and City Council.
Fox said he was looking to develop the property more along the lines of a human service hub, considering among its current tenants are a Berkshire Family and Individual Resources' program and United Cerebral Palsy.
"We thought it might possibly include a residential component," said Fox. He referred to studio living space for those "not historically artists" who may be unable to move into the Eclipse Mill. "I believe we could apply with a residential permit but in the case of a CC zone, we could do that by right."
However, Paul Cummings, representing McGill Properties Inc., said changing the industrial zone would have a negative affect on its property, specifically the building behind the radio station that had been leased by Verizon.
|Charles Fox wants his Curran Highway property rezoned to all commercial to allow more opportunities for mixed commercial and residential. A section of it is now zoned industrial. The board suggested he return with a legal option.
"We really have no interest in a zoning change ... period," he said. "It would reduce the value of our property. We aren't interested in residential. We have not been marketing it in that sense, we have been marketing it for commercial and industrial."
The loss of industrial zoning would limit the building's possible uses for light or heavy manufacturing, packaging, distribution and truck delivery, or contracting and building trades, Cummings continued.
David Moresi of Moresi & Associates, who is currently managing the building, said he would no longer be interested in purchasing the property because he wouldn't be able to base his electrical division and other contracting there.
"I feel the change would be counterproductive," he said. "Our industrial zoned areas are very, very valuable to us. We're always talking about getting manufacturing in the area ... changing these parcels will make it hard to bring that in here."
"We don't have a problem changing Charlie's property, but don't touch ours," said Cummings.
Fox said his attorneys believed that since part of his property fell within the CC1 zone, it could be extended east to the river without being spot zoning.
Board Chairman Michael Leary said he didn't think the board should vote on a recommendation for the City Council to act on; Fox asked if the application could be withdrawn or tabled. The board agreed to set it aside and invited Fox to submit a legal basis for changing the zoning only on his property.
"I think we would need a legal opinion on what that change would require," said Leary.
In other business:
• The board swiftly approved an application by Carr Hardware to relocate to the former Scarafoni Ford building on State Road. "I think it's an outstanding use for that property," said Leary.
• An application by Dana Ritcher to operate a garage on Ashland Street in an I-1 zone was continued pending the written intent of Ritcher to withdraw his application.
• Renee and Mark Lapier, owners of Big Shirl's Diner, were approved for dinner hours of 5 to 9 and added morning of 6 to 2 on Mondays.
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