Council Will Review Mayoral Term, Public Safety Post
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council will research the possibility of making the mayor a four-year term.
The mayoral assignment was one of several handed down, including investigating the public safety office structure to determine if commissioner is needed, by just re-elected President Ronald Boucher as the council set out its own goals for the year.
"I've always felt this way, even before Mayor [Richard] Alcombright took office," said Boucher afterward. "I think that a mayor's position, two years, it's tough to get adjusted to the position and then the second year, you're running for your job again."
Alcombright said a four-year term would give a mayor the breathing space to deal with issues without having worrying about campaigning. "I think what it does is it takes the leader out of government for a pretty good period of time."
He was surprised to learn that only 11 of the state's 46 mayors have four-year terms. "I think a four-year term would be great right now because you wouldn't have to be dealing with what you're dealing with ... and thinking about the possibility if someone is going to run against you."
Alcombright assumed that was just the case for his predecessor, John Barrett III, who was fending off a challenge will maintaining his office. Barrett, however, had plenty of experience as the state's longest-serving mayor and few challengers during his tenure.
Boucher said that was a reason to extend the term. "It's tough, really tough, especially being a new mayor," he said. "Replacing someone with a lot of years of experience, you're going in learning and then the second year out [campaigning].
State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, was presented with gifts from colleagues after resigning Tuesday from the City Council.
Voters would decide if the change should be made by ballot; it wouldn't go into effect until the next election.
The annual organization of the council took place on Tuesday night and ended with the mayor giving his "state of the city" address.
Lisa Blackmer was re-elected vice president and the seat positions were drawn by Councilors Gailanne Cariddi and Alan Marden.
Boucher charged the General Government Committee, headed by Councilor Keith Bona, with looking into mayoral question and the Public Safety Committee, led by Councilor Alan Marden, to make recommendations regarding the position of public safety commissioner.
Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco, who was due to retire, had his tenure extended two years by home-rule petition to give the city time to decide if it needs the position.
"I think we need to look at that," said Boucher. "A city this size, is there a need? It's nothing against Commissioner Morocco and what he's done ... It's, I think, moving forward if we can support that kind of position."
The Community Development Committee, chaired by Blackmer, will develop a marketing and event plan in conjunction with Develop North Adams, and the Public Services Committee, chaired Councilor David Bond, will investigate ways to wring revenue from the transfer station and the benefits of joining the Northern Berkshire Solid Waste District.
As for the Finance Committee: "You've got enough on your plate," said Boucher.
Boucher also reinstituted liaisons to various boards and organizations and asked councilors to attend their meetings.
"It's not only for us it's the people who watch these meetings, the people that put you in these seats, to show them we are involved we can make a difference."
The council accepted effective immediately the resignation of Gailanne Cariddi, who was sworn in last week at the State House as the representative for the 1st Berkshire District. The 22-year council veteran was presented with flowers and a gift and warm parting words on her service to the city.
"You not only served the council well you served it with particular distinction as a member of several committees and as president on six occasions," said longtime colleague Marden. "You are uniquely our unofficial codifier, laboring tirelessly and continuously to put our wishes and actions in proper form."
Bloom, who was elected to the council in the same year as Cariddi, said "I think we were very lucky to have you. I was proud to serve with you and I wish you the best of luck."
A replacement for Cariddi will be appointed by the council.
In other business, the council:
- Approved bonding for the city's finance officers
- Adopted and passed to second reading an amended vendor ordinance.
- Referred to the city solicitor a request from Charles Fox and Gordon Leete, partners in Curran Highway Development LLC, to eliminate the I-1 zoning that covers the rear portion of their 2.91 acres (the former K-K Home Mart) on Curran Highway. The partners said the property has two zones, I-1 and CC-1, with CC-1 being the dominant zone and covering its frontage. "It would eliminate a zoning designation no longer appropriate," they stated in a letter to the council.
Mayor Planning for City's Future
The normally sparse City Council chambers were filled on Tuesday night for the council's organization and the mayor's first 'state of the city' address.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city must become a major player in the area's economic development planning and find ways to market itself while keeping a sharp eye on spending.
Those are the goals outlined by Mayor Richard Alcombright as he enters the final year of his two-year term and prepares for another run.
"We cannot continue to sell ourselves short by saying we can't afford this or we can't afford that," the mayor said Tuesday night during his "state of the city" address in the City Council chambers. "There are communities all over this country that are doing unique and interesting things to grow."
Alcombright's finishing a bruising first year that saw the city raise taxes and institute a sewer fee to cover a $1 million budget gap. He settled with the public unions over underfunding the health insurance trust that he said "might have been the largest and most grossly underreported fiscal fiasco North Adams has ever encountered."
He took over, he said, a city with "one of the lowest cash reserves in the commonwealth, significant housing and blight issues, a disengaged business community, a detached North Bekshires county."
Alcombright had to trim people off insurance lists and took city out of self-insurance; hired police, firefighters, assessor, treasurer and a new public services commissioner while making cuts in departments; fielded complaints over traffic disruptions for a streetscape project he hadn't planned and found that not only was Crane & Co. pulling out its North Adams division, two state offices were planning to close as well.
"Last year, many speculated I was not tough enough to be mayor of this fine city," he told the City Council, family, friends and city employees seated in the audience, as well as viewers at home. "And I would argue in one short year I've earned my stripes."
The address was given at the end of the City Council's annual organization, that also saw the resignation of Councilor Gailanne Cariddi as she takes her post as the district's new state representative.
The future budget isn't looking much better, Alcombright said, as North Adams faces a structural deficit that could balloon to $2 million. "The reality is we're taxed to the max and we don't have the ability to raise revenue much beyond what we already have. I will be looking at every department, every service to see what we can cut and I will continue to look at ways to create efficiencies. ... I am certain I will be once again faced with tough and unpopular decisions."
Alcombright said the city had to become a 'major player' in the region's economic planning.
It's been challenging but not all bad: The streetscape project is nearly complete; updating has begun at the Historic Valley Campground; Juvenile Court and state transitional assistance will be staying in some form; the Armory project is moving ahead; architects are drawing up preliminary plans for school options; and a Community Ecomonic Advisory Board and Youth Commission have been appointed.
More importantly, said Alcombright, is the energy and optimism that flooded the city. It's resulted in the creation of Develop North Adams, which has spearheaded the expansion of popular events, put benches downtown and pursued marketing ideas for the local merchants. On Monday, the city announced the Partnership for North Adams, a cooperative venture of cultural, educational and community leaders to draw investment to the area.
The mayor's also "dusting off" development plans that have been sitting on shelves for decades. The long-range goal is to revive the planning process and bring the city into alignment with the county's regional planning commission.
"I saw this as an opportunity for the regional planning commission to look at all of our plans and come up with the new document that would be the catalyst for the city to re-engage in the planning process, with our residents and our North County neighbors."
The first step will be a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning and Zoning boards in February; the public will have input later in a series of "visioning" sessions.
The city is also pursuing a grant to develop a marketing campaign to brand it as a destination. Plans for one of the city's jewels, the Mohawk Theater, could be announced as early as this quarter.
As for the budget, the mayor said the same process would be followed as last year, with his finance team and the council's Finance Committee working together.
"Despite all the challenges I've very,very much enjoyed my first year as mayor I'm very proud of the fact I've been able to excite and energize and motiviate and open up many of the democratic processes for so many in the city," said Alcombright. "It has been said that one cannot run a city by consensus, I would suggest with strong leadership one can."
The full text of the mayor's speech can be found here.
|Tags: planning, investment|
West End Market's Time Running Out
Joanne DeRose makes the acquaintance of her colleagues on the Planning Board. DeRose was appointed to replace the late Edna Rudnick.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board is awaiting a legal opinion before it continues a permit for the West End Market at 437 West Main St.
Barry Garton purchased the historic market four years ago from Charles Huberdeau, who operated a secondhand and antiques shop there, with the intention of relocating his coffeehouse Brewhaha from Marshall Street. But time and money has forced him to change his plans.
"The extent of the renovation was such that we just decided to do everything that needed to be done," said Garton. "Basically, the money that I borrowed to move there, to shut down and to buy new equipment, all got eaten up by the renovations."
Garton now wants to lease the space but is running into a two-year permit deadline that could see the commercial site revert to residential.
"I'm a little at a loss to be honest with you," Building Inspector William Meranti told the planners. "I think that in all fairness to Mr. Garton, he has been working on it and it has not been abandoned ... for that period of time."
According to the city ordinance, the variance runs out after a property has been unused or abandoned for two years. There's no spot zoning to grandfather it so it reverts to residential.
Chairman Michael Leary said it was obvious a significant amount of work has gone into the building but the board couldn't extend a permit without having the legal authority to do so, particularly not knowing who might be taking over the property or when it might happen.
He cited the 2006 permit as stating "this permit shall lapse on Oct. 16, 2006, if substantial use has not started at that time."
"It doesn't say substantial construction, it doesn't say substantial work, its says substantial use," said Leary "... the question is how does the city define substantial use?"
If the permit lapsed in 2008, the question is moot. If the permit is good throughout the "work period," even if it's four years, then the two-year deadline begins now. That would give Barton time to find a leasee for the spot.
David Babcock's last meeting was Monday. After serving on the board for more than two decades, Babcock is retiring.
"I see an art gallery or an office of some kind but the storefront would remain the same," he said, because the intent had been to maintain the historic porcelain front with the West End Market name.
Planner Wayne Wilkinson described the opinion as a "test case."
"There's a bunch of commercial buildings in North Adams that are in the exact same situation," he said. "They haven't been used in two years; their obvious only use is a commercial use."
He pointed to the former NAPA store on State Road as one example that's sitting vacant because it can no longer be used for commercial purposes because it's reverted to residential after two years being vacant. "We need to change the ordinance or come up with a new idea," he said.
The board continued the matter until its next meeting pending an opinion from the city solicitor.
The board also welcomed a new member and bid farewell to an old one.
Joanne DeRose attended her first meeting as the mayor's appointment to fill the seat held by the late Edna Rudnick. DeRose is an account executive at National Grid and member of the city Democratic Committee and the North Adams Rotary Club. Rudnick died last fall.
David Babcock ended his term on the board at 22 years, three months after asking the mayor not to reappoint him. Babcock is retiring from BerkshireWorks on Sept. 9. Leary personally thanked him for the years of service he's given the city of North Adams.
Wilkinson and Paul Senecal were selected as the nominating committee for the Feb. 14 election of officers.
|Tags: ordinance, Planning Board, variance|
North Adams Prepping For Budget Season
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Finance Committee is wondering how the city might learn from the state's takeover of other municipalities.
The city is struggling with rising costs and nearly depleted reserves. Yet Lawrence, which accepted state oversight to borrow $24 million, has a robust $5.9 million in cash overlay; Springfield, which just exited receivership, has $109 million — some 19 percent of its budget.
In comparison, North Adams has a cash overlay of $726,000; about .0014 percent its budget, said Mayor Richard Alcombright.
"Obviously, Springfield benefited from receivership and Lawrence is plugging along," said committee member Alan Marden. "What can we learn from what was done there?"
The mayor said he hoped to discuss that with the Department of Revenue, but the city may already be following that lead.
"If this group and the council and the staff hadn't worked to be so pro active last year ... we might have gone that way," said Alcombright. "I think it was the fact we kept addressing things."
Still, the city has some tough times ahead and is facing a structural deficit of $1.2 million that could jump to $1.4 million to $1.6 million, depending on the state budget.
The mayor is urging the Finance Committee and staff to undertake discussions now to be prepared for cost-cutting measures and some out-of-the-box thinking to get through the next year.
One of the topics that has come up is regionalization of services, a la the city's recent partnership with Adams and Williamstown to share a veterans agent. Committee member David Bond wants to go further, suggesting that Adams and North Adams reintegrate once again to create a more streamlined system and save money.
"Those discussions sometimes take months, sometimes take years, but let's start talking about this stuff," Alcombright said.
In comparison with other municipalities, the city is lagging. It ranks last in the state in equalized property valuation (total value divided by number of residents) and last in the state for single-family home valuation (at $135,000), according to the DOR.
Its average residential tax bill ($14/$1,000) is the third-lowest in the county, but it's commercial rate appears to be the highest ($31.49).
Pittsfield, for example, has a residential rate of $14.20 and an average home assessment of $190,000, and a commercial rate of $29.41. Committee Chairman Michael Bloom, however, pointed out at the lower valuations in North Adams means a business owner would be paying much less even with the higher rate.
Alcombright said city has the seventh-lowest per capita income in the state ($16,381); and 18 percent of residents live below the poverty line, compared to 11 percent in Pittsfield and 9 percent statewide.
"What hurts us, what holds us back is a true sustainable, growing ecomony that doesn't churn a housing market or commercial property market," said the mayor, who added that that the city had to keep in mind the economic struggles of its citizens as it moves forward.
(On Monday morning, the city announced a partnership to try to spark private investment.)
In looking over the fiscal 2011 budget at the halfway mark, the city is about on track with about a third of expected revenue received and at the 49 percent mark in expenditures.
The landfill account is lighter than normal. The mayor said Public Services Commissioner Timothy Lescarbeau reported the number of trips, or loads, to the transfer station have not dipped but the weight of loads has. "People seem to be throwing less away," Lescarbeau had told him. The mayor added, "I would be more concerned if the trips were down because then you know the drivers are maybe going off to Pittsfield."
City officials had been concerned with the first-quarter returns on the meals tax, which came in at barely over $12,000. That could have been indicative of what the restaurants had actually paid to date, said the mayor, rather than what was owed.
Business Manager Nancy Ziter said the meals tax for the second quarter brought in $36,600, pegging it as more than $49,000 for the year to date. The rooms tax for the second quarter brought in $70,000, bringing the total so far to $151,000.
The mayor also discussed some of the finding in the audit done by Scanlon & Associates. Among the report's suggestion was the implementation of a full order and requisition system; tracking accounts receivable for veterans' disbursements (which are reimbursed 75 percent in the next year); write off languishing excise taxes while maintaining a mechanism for repayment; accounting for postretirments costs; developing a policies and procedures manual; establish internal audit system; and risk-assessment monitoring (related to cash receipts such as the landfill).
"There's nothing in here that any of us saw as a big deal," said the mayor. "It was more procedural, tidying up, cleaning up."
The auditors will give a presentation to the Finance Committee in the coming weeks.
Councilors President Ronald Boucher, Lisa Blackmer and Marie Harpin were aso in attendance.
North Adams Airport Marks Runway Completion
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Alfred F. "Budd" Dougherty's long had a vision of where the airport should be — and now he's got a sign to show it.
The road to Harriman & West Airport will be named Budd Dougherty Drive in honor of the longtime member and chairman of the Airport Commission. Dougherty, appointed to the board by former Mayor Richard Lamb, was presented with the sign on Wednesday to mark completion of the long-delayed runway reconstruction project.
The nearly $6 million mostly federally funded project had been in the planning stages since at least 1985; it was mid-90s before serious effort began and only this year that the more than 4,000-foot relocated and re-engineered runway was completed, bringing the airport up to current Federal Aviation Administration safety codes. It wasn't soon enough for Dougherty, however, who retired from the board in 2008 after 30 years.
Brian Smith, left, of Gale & Associates, Mayor Richard Alcombright, city Administrative Officer Jay Green and Naughton spoke about the runway completion with a Beechcraft as a backdrop. The weather was too wet to be on the runway.
"I worked with Budd for 10 years," said Brian Smith of Gale & Associates, the consultant hired nearly 15 years ago for the project, who joked, "he kept saying he wasn't going to retire until the runway was done ... but he finally gave up on us."
Occasionally drowned out by the roar of engines being tested outside the hanger of Turbo Prop East Inc., local officials thanked all those involved and stressed not only the dedication of Dougherty but the importance of what Mayor Richard Alcombright has described as one of the jewels of the city.
"We thought it would be appropriate after so many years of starts and stops, designs and changes and ups and downs, we finally have a beautiful runway out here and to commemorate the fact that this project has come to completion and fruition," said Jeffery Naughton, the commission's current chairman.
It hasn't been easy. The effort to upgrade the 60-year-old airport became bogged down in controversary shortly after Phase 1 began in 2000. The location of the runway and its safety areas sparked contention between the city and Williamstown — whose trees were slated for cutting to accommodate the changes. The result was several years of talks, redesigns and lawsuits.
"For several years in a not-so-friendly environment, you stood for what you thought was right and kept the legs under this project," said Alcombright of Dougherty. "You put yourself in some very unenviable positions to see that this wonderful expansion and improvement poject was completed.
"You knew as many of us do how important this airport is to the city and to the greater Northern Berkshire community."
Airport Manager Mathew Champney said people overlook the fact that the facility brings in money to the region both from the businesses already located there and the people who fly in for work or pleasure.
"The [Williamstown] Theater Festival, for instance, these people are going to the theater, they're spending money at the theater, they're going to dinner, they're paying money in their fees to the city, and their taking on gas."
Once the safety areas are completed in the spring, Champney said the runway will be able to accommodate larger aircraft, "which I think is going to increase the larger traffic, which I think will benefit this community."
Both Champney and Dougherty said the community doesn't grasp what a resource the airport is — and can be. Champney speculated that it was difficult to break through people's conceptions; Dougherty wished North Adams businesses would use it more.
"When I first became involved here, the airprot was producing a great deal of money for the city of North Adams because we do charge for all the work that's done here and all the planes that come here," said Dougherty. "Because of what's going on economically, it has certainly lowered down but it has served the businesses in North Adams and Williamstown ... I'm certainly disappointed Williams College doesn't use it more."
Michael Sarrouf, an airline pilot who started flying with his father out of North Adams and later worked for longtime pilot and former airport manager Peter Esposito, said Harriman & West was a great place to learn to fly.
"They always said if you learn to fly out of North Adams, you can go anywhere because this isn't the easiest airport to fly out of at times but it's great for training," he said. "It's an outstanding airport for sharpening your skills."
All three agreed some kind of outreach was needed to bring more attention to the upgraded facility. "We need to find a way to market the airport more to people in New York and other places to get them in here," said Sarrouf.
After many thank-yous, including to former Mayor John Barrett III, U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, and the many agencies, officials, consultants, community, neighbors and those who use the airport, for their commitment and input, support and tolerance, Dougherty had a small gift of his own.
The former chairman pulled out 50th anniversary hats, mementos that had become tied to tragedy when the airshow celebrating the airport's golden year a decade ago ended when two planes hit, killing their pilots. It seemed the start of cloudy days for the airport.
"I saved these and have one for each member of the Airport Commission," said Dougherty, rewinding the prop a bit, "and one for Jay [Green].
Now, with the completion of the runway, the airport is looking toward safer flying and bluer skies.