Students Make Plea to Pass Override
Robert Cardimino, left, and music teacher Chris Caproni were talking outside Drury High School. Cardimino said at the meeting that if the teachers voted to return the one percent raise in their contract, he'd support the override.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Three Drury High School students spoke up for their education on Tuesday night, pleading with voters not to slash school programs to balance the budget.
"I want to leave knowing I can come back here and have a place to be proud of," said Andrew Varuzzo of North Adams, who will be attending Holy Cross in the fall. "I would hate to see this community, this school die a slow death because we could not pass this bill."
The senior and classmates Evan Schueckler and Luke Sisto addressed about a 100 people in the Drury High School auditorium at the second of six planned public sessions on a $1.2 million Proposition 2 1/2 override that city officials say is critical to saving services and school programs.
Schueckler, of Stamford, Vt., is going to Harvard, but hoped to return to the city "to do great things," but not if he wasn't assured his own children would get the same education he received.
Varuzzo said he planned to register to vote on Wednesday "solely for the purpose of voting yes for a Proposition 2 1/2."
Their statements were greeted with applause from an audience that seemed weighted by parents and educators. It was a far cry from last week's City Council meeting, when opponents of the proposal railed at Mayor Richard Alcombright to cut services and use the city's meager reserves to plug a $1 million hole in the fiscal 2012 budget.
"There were more people with different points of view," said the mayor after the 90-minute session. "It felt better to listen a little more.
All presentations begin at 7 p.m.
On Tuesday, the mayor repeated much of the presentation he made last week, noting the city has lost more than $3 million in annual state aid since the economic crisis in 2008 and has burned through most of its reserves.
The city had more than $1 million in free cash in 2008 but the account is now at about $165,000. Most of the funds in the land sale account have been used to offset cuts, although the city is hoping to replenish some of that with the sales of about 60 lots this month and some lands it owns outside its borders.
Alcombright said the much talked about $900,000 in school choice funds will be used to retain special education programs for the next two years, with a $100,000 held out as buffer for other special ed needs. But the failure of the override would mean deep cuts in staff and programs, including drama, music and arts.
At least 100 people attended Tuesday's session and more than a dozen, mostly educators, spoke in favor of the override. Drury Principal Amy Meehan wore an oversized T-shirt that said 'Support Our Students.'
"This are things that we discussed that could possibly be cut if the override doesn't pass," he said, adding that any of the programs slashed might not be reinstated for years. "Some people say I'm threatening .. this is no threat, this is reality."
Patricia Wall took the mayor to task for waiting too long to bring options to citizens. She said she would have supported a $600,000 override for the school system but that city should look at raising fees and other measures.
"Unfortunately, the ballots are all printed, this is it. It's black and white when we go to vote," she said. "There should have been more options; it was realy not fair to do it this way."
More than a dozen people spoke on the issue, most with links to the school system including Superintendent James Montepare. Former School Committee member Ronald Superneau recalled how Proposition 2 1/2, when it passed in 1980, had devastated the school system and how it had taken the city years to recover.
"I don't like taxes ... but I don't want to see any of this stuff gone," he said.
But Louis Chalifoux, who spoke against the override last week, said citizens are already being taxed every which way.
"The only tax that any of us have any control over is Proposition 2 1/2. Now why in the world would anybody vote to increase your own taxes when in fact you have the opportunity and the right to control the city's budget," he said to applause. "And that's the key — the buck stops here."
Robert Cardimino, another vociferous opponent of the override, found himself stating he'd support it after music teacher Christopher Caproni, former president of the teachers' union, pledged to vote to give back his one percent raise for next year at the union's Thursday meeting.
"If you do forgo your raises I will vote yes for this proposition," he said, then complained Caproni didn't live in North Adams.
Sisto, the final speaker and president of the Drury Drama Team, said the cuts would "slash the spirit of our school."
"We students are an investment in the future," he said. "Are we not worth $20 a month? For all property owners, are we not worth that extra $20 a month?"
|Tags: budget, override|
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|
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."
|Tags: budget, override|