North Adams Continues Bleak Budget Outlook
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday night approved a $1.18 million reduction in the city budget to be offset by use of the land-sale account.
The transfer will balance this year's budget but Mayor Richard Alcombright warned there were "serious decisions" to be made for next fiscal year because the city has a $1.2 million structural deficit that will be exacerbated by possible state cuts of up to 12 percent.
"It's going to mean ugly, painful cuts for next year," said the mayor. "In the best case scenario, we're hearing 5 percent cuts in state aid next year; reality is, a couple of candidates in the election this year were talking about 8 to 12 percent."
The city had requested special legislation earlier this year to allow it to take nearly $900,000 from the land-sale reserves (most from the sale of watershed lands in Vermont) to pay off the Medical Insurance Trust debt to balance the budget. North Adams has been struggling with a budget deficit caused by declining revenues and state aid; much of the city's free cash has been used over the past few years to staunch the bleeding from the loss of education and municipal aid.
"Three years ago you had close to $4 million in reserves and the last two fiscal years particularly, about $2.8 million of that was used to reduce the budget and to balance the budget," Alcombright told councilors. The mayor had asked to use the watershed money to limit dependence on the disappearing free cash. He said about $45,000 to $50,000 was left in the land-sale account. "The increase in taxes, water and sewer was necessary to balance the budget along with the use of the land-sale account."
Frequent commenter Robert Cardimino said he hadn't heard of the legislation and wanted to know why taxes were raised if the city had $1 million to spend. Alcombright countered that the council and the Finance Committee had discussed the use of the land-sale account numerous times and that it had been part of his Power Point presentation to citizens in May.
"All this was done months ago," he said. "All I'm asking for now is we go through the formality of moving this $1.2 million so we can set our tax rate in two weeks."
The mayor asked the Finance Committee to meet Monday, Nov. 22, at 5 p.m. at City Hall to review the tax rates being proposed. Committee Chairman Michael Bloom asked how the city looked going into the next fiscal year.
"There is no crutch to fall back on; there is no million dollars to pull out," he said.
Alcombright said it would be tough because the city had already raised fees and is taxing to its levy limit. In addition to state candidates, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Massachusetts Municipal Association were forecasting cuts of at least 8 to 10 percent across the board.
"A 10 percent cut on our general aid and school aid would be about $1.4 million," said Alcombright. "That coupled with a $1.2 million deficit ... do the math."
He suggested the Finance Committee begin meeting almost immediately after the tax rate is set to begin reviewing next year's budget. On the plus side, he expected the city to get back $400,000 to $500,000 this year from Blue Cross Blue Shield; if those numbers continue, it could mean the city reducing its debt obligation regarding the Medical Insurance Trust fund in two or three years, less than half the time allowed.
The council passed the reduction unanimously by voice vote, although Councilor Marie Harpin questioned whether the mayor could confirm the home-rule petition allowing the account's use had been passed.
"I think when we do these home-rule petitions, that we should have something," said Councilor Marie Harpin. "We should really have something in front of us knowing it's approved."
"We've done other home-rule petitions and I've never seen the administration send it out to councilors to review," said Bloom. "I trust the mayor's word."
Council President Ronald Boucher asked if the mayor would provide copies of the final legislation from now on and Alcombright agreed.
In other business, the council postponed an ordinance change that increases the permit fee for waste haulers from $85 to $100 annually for each vehicle. Health Inspector Manuel Serrano told the council that the permit applies to any commercial hauler who transports waste through the city, whether they use the city landfill or not.
However, the language in the ordinance continued to contribute to confusion last meeting about the amendment because it referred to a "commercial business" to be permitted at $85 and additional vehicles as costing $45. Serrano said the Board of Health's intent was to charge $100 per vehicle and that most haulers used one truck; larger ventures, such as Allied Waste, permitted only those trucks that would enter the city. The ordinance will be taken up again in the first meeting in December with appropriate language changes.
The mayor said he will be interviewing six or seven candidates for city assessor; one is from Southern Vermont and the rest from Northern Berkshire. He also said most of the road and bridge work will be completed this fall, with the exception of the Hadley Overpass, where repairs below the deck will continue.
|Tags: budget, land sale, deficit, insurance|
Council Asked to OK Land Sale Funds
The City Council has a light agenda on Tuesday night, mostly dealing with the city's budget. The agenda and last meeting's minutes can be found below
It will be asked to reduce the city's fiscal 2011 budget by $1,182,000 through the use of land sale funds as allowed by special legislation. The funds from the account will be used to pay down debt to balance the budget.
"I do not take this reduction and subsequent transfer lightly," wrote Mayor Richard Alcombright in a letter accompanying the order, "as it will once again further deplete our reserves and sets the table for a very unsure FY12 budget preparation season."
NA_CityCouncil_11092010The mayor said the action must be taken so that the city can set its tax rate. The council will be asked to set the annual public hearing on the tax classification for real and commercial property for its Nov. 23 meeting.
The council is also expected to finalize an ordinance change requested by the Board of Health that increased waste-hauler licenses from $85 a year to $100. Councilors, however, had questions as to whether the change applied to entire company or to each truck. Health Inspector Manuel Serrano was to provide clarification.
In recent good news, the city is expected to gain some $36,000 in new tax revenue for former religous properties. The North Adams Transcript reported last week that the former St. Francis of Assisi Church, the city's oldest Catholic church, and Our Lady of Mercy on State Road have had their tax-exempt status lifted by the state Department of Revenue. The churches were closed more than two years ago as part of a consolidation of parishes within the Springfield Diocese.
The paper reported that St. Francis and its rectory, both in the downtown, were assessed at $1.1 million and taxed at the commercial rate of $32,000; Our Lady of Mercy was assessed at $314,000 and taxed at $3,900. Both properties are for sale.
City Council Looks at Zoning, Borrowing Issues
The City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 12, will be asked to authorize the borrowing of $650,000 to complete the airport project and $150,000 to renovate and construction bathrooms and a concession stand at Windsor Lake and its campground.
The Finance Committee heard both issues at its meeting Thursday. The committee has recommended adoption of the borrowing order for the airport and, while not formally endorsing the lake spending, reacted favorably to it. The lake spending had not been presented to the council nor referred to the committee to act on.
The council will also be asked to call a joint public hearing of the council and Planning Board at the behest of Planning Board Chairman Michael Leary. The city is pursuing a state Green Community designation that will require "by-right zoning" for certain green businesses. Leary said the city has by-right in three zones but still requires a special permit if a site plan approval is needed. New language would clarify a site plan review is not part of a special permit process.
Christopher Lamarre quit as chairman of the Board of Assessors to become the chief assessor in Great Barrington last month. In a letter to the council, Mayor Alcombright said that the qualifications for assessor made the position difficult to fill.
He is asking that the residency requirement for the full-time, chief assessor be removed. "It will always be my preference to hire a resident, if qualified," he wrote. The residency requirement would not change for the two part-time assessors.
|Tags: assessor, campground, lake, zoning, borrowing|
North Adams Panel Takes Up Vendor Rules
David Lewis said limiting the number of vendor licenses was valid. 'We don't want to put anyone out of business.'
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The General Government Committee's looking to update the city's peddling ordinance but will first have to answer a few questions.
The matter was passed to the City Council subcommittee earlier this summer after a hot dog cart sparked complaints from some local businesses and after a boost in vendor applications for the Solid Sound Festival. The panel members Chairwoman Gailanne Cariddi, Lisa Blackmer and Keith Bona met Monday in the City Council chambers with Health Inspector Manuel Serrano.
Mayor Richard Alcombright, while supporting the vendors efforts and enthusiasm, was concerned that the definitions of hawkers and peddlers as outlined in the city's current ordinance were not clear and forwarded to the committee a bylaw adopted by Adams earlier this year.
"I think one of the main concerns or issues is public safety," said Serrano. "Street vendors whether they're selling food or products, it has to be safe to do so."
Serrano said any food vendors have to be licensed by the Board of Health and have SafeSERV certification; others need a license, including anyone who has more than three tag sales a year at the same address. Those with state licenses still need to register with the police.
"For instance, the [Fall Foliage Festival] Parade, all hawkers, peddlers have to register," he said. "We'll issue them badges so the public knows they're registered with us."
Blackmer said there was a concern of vendors operating outside established venues. "You don't want to hurt existing business but you don't want to discourage entrepreneurship," she said, adding that the more happening in the downtown the better. "But you have to make sure there's enough of the pie."
Vendors should perhaps get permission from other competing businesses, said Bona, before setting up in the downtown.
Serrano said it was up to the city to decide whether it wanted to limit the number of vendor licenses or where such vendors could operate.
Committee members listen as Health Inspector Manuel Serrano explains how the city licenses different vendors.
The exception, all agreed, was in the case of special events during which food and other vendors would be encouraged to set up. Serrano questioned whether that would include SteepleCat games or youth activities, and how broadly such a policy would be written.
David Lewis, who operates the hot dog cart Guys and Dogs on Saturdays with Vincent Melito, objected to the panel members desire to safeguard businesses.
"When I was in my several businesses, I wish that someone would have regulated my competition," he said, adding that he and Melito had gone out of their way not to intrude on other eateries. "We did it for foot traffic. ... We thought it would be a nice segue from Mass MoCA to the Hub."
Jennifer Barbeau, who's organizing Saturday's annual Fall Foliage Arts & Crafts Fair, also stressed that not having a storefront doesn't mean the operator isn't contributing to the city. Barbeau, who operates two businesses out of her home, also wanted the panel to keep in mind that crafters aren't necessarily in the same league as reguler vendors.
Bona agreed, saying that many are more hobbyists than businesspeople.
Cariddi said the panel would take into consideration the comments from those in attendance, which also included Gail and Phil Sellers, Councilors Ronald Boucher and Marie Harpin, Rhea Lewis and tourism director Rod Bunt.
The panel members will consider definitions for vendors and special events, and consider a range of vendor limits. The next meeting will be Tuesday, Oct. 5, at 5:30 in the council chambers.
|Tags: vendors, ordinances, licenses|
Health Insurance, Airport Project on Council Agenda
Mayor Richard Alcombright will address the health coverage of elected officials at this week's City Council meeting and request the approval of a municipal health-insurance agreement with MIIA.
The issue raised some controversy earlier this year when it was discovered a number of officials had taken advantage of the city's benefit health package — at a time when taxes and fees were being hiked to cover a significant budget shortfall.
The benefits have been in place for some time and reportedly fall under state Chapter 32B, which also covers employees, retirees and spouses of retired or insured workers. Alcombright said he would bring a policy to the council that would go into effect on Jan. 1.
(We tried to search 32B for the pertinent language but the Legislature's new website for the General Laws is much more difficult to navigate and time-consuming to load. We give it a thumbs down for user-friendliness.)
He'd said several months ago that he wanted to review the policy and, if it were to be discontinued, give those covered enough time to make arrangements for alternative health insurance coverage.
The mayor is also bringing a request to borrow $650,000 for the Harriman & West Airport improvement project, which includes a half-million to cover an overrun. The state and city are each responsible for 2.5 percent matches on the $5 million project; the feds were picking up the balance.
However, the mayor writes that only $150,000 of the borrowing will fulfill the match. "The $500,000 is quite honestly an overrun and represents the completion on the Runway Safety Area (RSA) which has been problematic since 2009. There is a new design for the RSA and we are hopeful on two front: first, that $500,000 will complete the RSA and second, that the FAA may infuse additional funds to help defray these additional costs," he wrote.
Also on the agenda for the council's decision is an ordinance to place delinquent sewer fees with the real estate tax bills; several ordinance amendments for second readings; the appointment of Joanne Hurlbut to the Historical Commission for a three-year term; and the discussion of tag sale and other signs left hanging around the city.
The entire agenda can be found below:
|Tags: airport, health insurance, officials|