Mayor Presents Case for Prop 2 1/2 Override
Louis Chalifoux calls on councilors to adjust budget expectations to residents' resources. 'You work for us; we don't work for you.'
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright laid out a Plan B strategy on Tuesday night of layoffs, furloughs and "devastating" line item cuts that would affect almost every service in the city and wipe $1 million from the budget.
Using the City Council meeting for the first of six planned presentations to convince voters to pass a Proposition 2 1/2 override, the mayor listed some $500,000 in reductions and some 30 full- and part-time job cuts already made from the city and school budgets for next year.
He warned that if the override didn't pass, the city would have to institute two-week unpaid furloughs for nonunion workers, eliminate another 15 positions (including eight teachers) and cut programs such as drama and the Juvenile Resource Center, and implement fees for preschool and athletics. (The full list of reductions totaling $1.13 million are in the mayor's presentation below.)
The city has seen its costs rise even as its state aid has shrunk from 53 percent of its revenues to 45 percent, said Alcombright, or $3.2 million less than four years ago.
"We held this problem at bay with our reserves; our reserves are gone," said Alcombright, summing up with "we need to fix this before we can go forward."
But if the crowd packed into City Hall was any indication, the mayor will have a tough time convincing voters to raise taxes to plug the $1 million hole in the fiscal 2012 budget. A police officer was stationed in the chambers at the council president's request, prompting regular critic Robert Cardimino to accuse the administration of intimidation — especially when he wasn't allowed to bring a sign stating his opposition to the override into the room.
Calls to use what little is left in the city's reserves sparked applause in the council chambers while explanations of the 1 percent raises for city workers met with groans.
Louis Chalifoux urged the City Council to do more research, saying the city had lost population and half of what was left weren't homeowners, putting more of a burden on those who were. "The mayor and the council should go back to work and take look at the resources we have and put together a program based upon that."
The city should assess the larger nonprofits like North Adams Regional Hospital and get payment in lieu of taxes from them, he said, and Alcombright should go to Boston plead for funds.
Others spoke of neighbors who couldn't afford bus fare or medical prescriptions; Ron Gardner said his water bill had already doubled because of recent hikes and the city's services were terrible.
"The people in this city who pay taxes have no incentive to be here anymore," he said. "My personal taxes have almost doubled ... now if this passes, that's an extra $400 a year on my taxes."
Alcombright countered that even with the override passing, North Adams would remain one of the five lowest-taxed communities in the commonwealth.
"It's like paying your mortgage with your savings account, sooner or later you have to find more income or sell the house," he said. "I'm telling you right now I'm doing this because I don't want to sell the house."
Spending down the half-million left in reserves would not restore the millions spent balancing budgets the last few years, he said. "My goal is to build reserves, not to reduce reserves." There's little expectation of more aid from the state this year because Beacon Hill is concentrating on replenishing the "rainy day" it's had to use to get through the recession, said Alcombright.
The mayor and his predecessor John Barrett III continued to play out the 2009 campaign over spending policies. Barrett, who spoke against setting the vote on the override, appeared within minutes of Councilor David Bond saying his administration "mismanaged" the medical insurance trust fund, leaving the city to pay out an $800,000 settlement to clean it up.
Tuesday, May 31, Drury High School
All presentations begin at 7 p.m.
Barrett vigorously defended himself but the debate between he and Alcombright swiftly turned to "no, I didn't; yes, you did" over various actions taken during Barrett's tenure.
The former mayor said Alcombright hadn't been tough enough with the unions and that it was "unconscionable" to talk about cuts in the school programs when he'd handed the teachers raises.
"If you took all steps to reduce the spending as much as possible I'd be the first to say let's have a Prop 2 1/2 override," claimed Barrett. "However, what I don't understand is why you can give out pay raises and then say, 'let's increase it.'"
Alcombright countered that it was easy to balance a budget when Barrett had millions in reserve at the time. "It's not so easy to cut, but it was very easy to spend these monies down," he said, calling it a "philosophical difference."
"I'm not going to argue but we cannot continue to fund with reserves."
A Kemp Avenue resident said people had to think outside the box.
"It's become way too personalized, you need to think bigger," she said. "I'm on a fixed income, I'm a homeowner, I'm a taxpayer, but I'm willing to pay for someone else's kid to get a good education because that's the most important thing."
In other business, the council passed a compensation plan for a 1 percent retroactive raise (about $9,000 total) for Department of Public Works employees but not without reiterating some of their objections from two weeks ago. The plan passed the second reading 8-1 with Councilor Marie Harpin voting against.
"It's very hard for me to vote for increases when we're laying off people in the city and we're asking the people of the city to vote for an override," she said.
|Tags: budget, override, raises|
Overtime, Snowstorms Put Budget In Red
Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco explains why the public safety salaries are running above budget.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city is running a deficit in several of its line items — including police and fire — because of unexpected costs.
Four accounts are significantly over budget or close to being emptied. Police and fire have accounts that have expended more than 80 percent of their balances because of overtime; the snow and ice account is more than $84,000 in the red and the veterans account is expected to be $170,000 over.
The update was the first of what Mayor Richard Alcombright said will be regular budget control reports to the Finance Committee.
"We were budgeting for the exact dollar salary ... we kept the budget accurate and projected overtime but we didn't project for four [officers] to go to the academy and we didn't project for five firefighters on long-term disability," the mayor told the committee on Tuesday. "That's something to keep in mind as we begin budgeting for next year."
Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco said the department paid extra officer salaries for about 48 weeks to cover four officers at the academy plus two long-term disabilities on the force. Morocco said it was unusual for four officers to attend the academy in one year. It was caused by the number of retirements and departures and the fact the state scheduled the academies back to back. Another officer has retired as of March 1 and that means his replacement will attend the next academy.
Morocco did note that some revenues, such as the $15,000 reimbursed by the Solid Sound Festival last summer for overtime, do not show up against his budget but in the general receipts.
Nevertheless, "we're looking at a very sizable shortfall here but I think you're going to see there are a lot of smaller things that we — turnbacks — use," said the mayor. "There are some places we will not spend up to our budget."
The snow and ice account, the only account municipalities can overspend, will get some relief from federal reimbursements for the Jan. 12 snowstorm. The mayor said he expected to get $47,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency toward the $58,000 spent in man-hours, material and equipment to battle the massive Nor'easter.
The veterans services account is already $47,000 over and is expected to spend another $31,000 a month for the next four months. Seventy-five percent of those funds will be reimbursed by the federal government but not until the next fiscal year.
Alcombright said the uptick reflects the large number of veterans who have served in the Middle East and Afghanistan. "We're serving a lot of veterans through this district office," he said. "This money goes back into the community; it pays for rent, it buys groceries, it does all these things. It's a program that needs to be there."
The mayor said city is also keeping an eye on Department of Public Works salaries, which were elevated becuase of the amount of overtime to fight the near-constant snowstorms, and the health insurance account, which is currently projected to be about $100,000 over, "but we're hoping it will fall in line."
Also in deficit: the mayor's office because he didn't realize he had to budget $2,000 in dues to the National Mayor's Association. He promised to do it right next year.
Overall, the city is running about where it should be three-quarters of the way through the fiscal year, said Alcombright, with half its expected revenues received and most accounts having spent between 60 percent and 70 percent of their budgeted amounts. The fiscal year ends June 30.
Among the good signs are some $90,000 collected in back water fees; a projected increase in school tuition and about $50,000 more in transfer station revenues; more back excise taxes collected; savings of up to $50,000 from taking over the water filtration plant; and bundling of utility costs for all departments which could mean another $70,000 in savings.
The city is also preparing to sell off a number of properties later this summer, including two 64-acre lots off West Shaft Road. A solicitation for bids from auctioneers is being prepared for publication.
The sewer fee is expected to show a deficit its first year because a first-quarter payment couldn't instituted in time.
"It ain't pretty but I think it's doable," said the mayor. "We're going to continue to watch revenues very closely."
Alcombright also provided the committee and those in attendance with the city's responses to recommendations from the state management review and the audit done by Scanlon & Associates. Many of the issues were in the process of being developed or implemented; others, such as adopting current budget procedures as ordinances, were found to be too complex to adopt before the fiscal year begins. They will continue to be worked on.
He said the city was also following the Governmental Accounting and Standards Board, or GASB, rules by accounting for unfunded post-retirement benefits. The city is projected to have future liabilities of $92 million.
"If were to start funding it it would be $3 million a year," said Alcombright. "The accounting practice says you should be banking for this but it would bankrupt every city in the state."
|Tags: Finance Committee, budget|
Senator Brown Tours Public Safety Building
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The ceilings are leaking, the windows are drafty, the lockup woefully out of date — and those are just the most striking issues for the 55-year-old public safety building.
When it opened in 1955, it was considered state of the art. Firehouses scattered about the city were consolidated into the new structure on American Legion Drive along with a new police station.
But the building hasn't caught up with the times, and a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice about the structure's lack of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act has brought its woes to the forefront. There are tight hallways, rickety stairs, and too many nooks and crannies. It can't expand easily because it's locked between private property and public ways.
It's no secret city officials want a new location and a new building.
"You'll notice these cells as well as the cells on the other side, they were up to date and fully functional in 1954 but today they barely meet ...," Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morroco shrugged his shoulders on Wednesday as U.S. Sen. Scott Brown looked into the tiny holding cell. In another room, he poked at the duct tape covering the aluminum frame on the windows.
"The person who sits here ends up with snow on him," said the commissioner. "But it is a 1955 original frame."
Downstairs, water is leaking on gear, old piping runs below the ceiling. "We roll for everything, we go to car accidents," said Fire Director Stephen Meranti, who added the department responds to 1,200 to 1,400 calls a year. "We had two building fires in the past month ... "You can see what the condition of our building is."
"We actually were in line for a grant to get money to redo the windows but the problem is under the law, we invest so much money into the windows the ADA compliance [kicks in]," Alcombright told the senator. "So the couple hundred thousand to do the windows turns into a multimillion-dollar project. With that we might as well invest in a new facility."
Brown, a selectman in Wrentham before being elected to the state Legislature, said that town had also had to deal with building a new facility. "I went through this before with a couple towns," he said.
"Obviously, you have a building that's struggling to be functional and it comes down to people's health and well-being, too, and their own personal safety," said Brown, who toured the facility as part of his swing through the Berkshires this week. "At some point you're going to need to make some very tough decisions to provide the adequate tools and resources for your public safety personnel to do their job safely."
The senator offered sympathy but nothing concrete. It was up the city — and the voters — to determine the next step, he said. Once they have a plan, "it's imperative for us as a federal delegation to work together to try to find the resources to help.
"We're not going to be the only answer, we're going to be part of the answer, that's my hope."
Top, from left, a holding cell in the police station; Brown with Meranti; picking at a duct-taped window on the second floor. Below, construction is being completed on public restrooms (now the firefighters' break room) on the side of the building in 1955.
North Adams Campground Seeks Fee Hike
The old concession stand and bathrooms are being replaced by a newer structure closer to the beach. The future of the old building would be up to the city, said the commission.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Campground fees are likely rise next year as the city looks to improve and market Windsor Lake.
The Windsor Lake Recreation Commission on Tuesday voted 4-1 to recommend to the mayor about a 10 percent increase for all camping rates.
"What it comes down to is the rates haven't changed in years," said Chairman George Forgea. "These are low compared to other campgrounds around here. ... we're a few bucks below everybody."
Forgea had suggested raising the daily rates for the different sites at $2 and raising the seasonal rate by $55, to $1,600. There are about 40 seasonal campers, which would mean the campground would bring in $2,400 more a season.
"I don't want to drive anybody away," said Forgea. "I just know we can't continue the way we are."
The reinvigorated board has been tasked by Mayor Richard Alcombright to review options for upgrading and marketing the 100-site Historic Valley Park and the public areas of Windsor Lake, better known as Fish Pond. The City Council in October authorized the borrowing of $150,000 at the urging of the mayor and the commission to build a new concession stand at the lake and revamp the outdated bathrooms in the campground. Both structures are more than 40 years old.
Member Nancy Bullett asked why the arbitrary $2 hike per day but $55 for the season. She suggested that the amount be fair across the board, either 15 percent or 10 percent.
Forgea said it was likely the rates would climb higher in the future, but added he was "concerned about that much of an increase with no visible improvements." Far more work needs to be done in the campground, including an expensive electrical upgrade.
Commission member William St. Pierre said he didn't think $2 more would drive anyone away but raising them higher might. Member Robert Upton, however, wondered if too low an increase to start would make the inevitable larger hike to help recoup the cost of the improvements seem even bigger.
"I think for consistency you should do it across the board," said Bullett.
A 10 percent increase, rounded up, would set the full-season rate at $1,700; wilderness sites at $14, up from $12; tent sites at $23, up from $21; water and electric sites at $29, up from $26; and lakeside sites at $33, up from $30.
A monthly rate of $465 for the water and electric sites would jump to $515, still a considerable savings considering it would be $780 if paid by the night.
The commission left standing a pay-six-get-seven-nights deal around since the 1970s and visitor rates of $3 per person a day and $6 for overnights. They suggested adding a senior citizen rate of free daily visits and $3 overnights.
The commission voted to send the recommendations to the mayor; St. Pierre voted no believing the seasonal rate was too high and would discourage campers from the already underbooked park. "We'll lose that revenue."
Member Paul Corriveau disagreed. "We seem to be worried about losing seasonals but this campground has gotten the reputation for not being the place to go. I'm sure the word is out that the seasonals are taking up space.
"Once the word gets out that we're renovating the campground ... I like to think that we're going to see more people come forward."
The panel also said it would begin cracking done on littering, trash left behind and unregistered camping vehicles. A new, updated brochure should be ready be spring, a website is being developed and the institution of a credit card registration system will aid in getting deposits. The campground is also now listed with the Massachusetts Camping Association.
The commission will also be sending recommendations for the post of campground manager after reviewing some 20 applications for the seasonal post. Most of the applicants live in the region but some are applying from as far away as Pennsylvania.
Forgea said a motorhome group out of Boston has expressed interest in using the campground as the base for a three-day rally. A representative is coming out Thursday to look it over and Forgea planned to greet her with brochures of the region's attractions.
Commission members were pleased with the news. "This could really get the word out," said Corriveau.
|Tags: campground, lake|
Human Services Panel Accepting Grant Applications
The city's Human Services Commission is initiating its grant application process for applications to be submitted by Dec. 31, 2010.
The nonprofit agencies are invited to apply for grants of up to $500. Some $7,500 in grants will be disbursed. To be eligible, the agency must be a nonprofit organization that serves the residents of North Adams.
All approved applications will be submitted to the office of the mayor by Jan. 31, 2011, for final approval and appropriation.
To obtain a grant application, e-mail commission Chairwoman Suzy Helme at email@example.com. Grant applications will also be available in hard copy at the city clerk's office at City Hall.
Grant applications are due no later than noon on Dec. 31, and must be delivered to the Human Services chairman via e-mail or mailed to City of North Adams, Human Services Commission Chairwoman Suzy Helme, 504 Church St., North Adams, MA 01247.
For further information, interested parties can contact Helme at 413-652-1814 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.