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|
Morocco Retiring to Ease Budget Crunch
Finance Committee members Alan Marden, Chairman Michael Bloom and David Bond reviewed the fiscal 2012 budget with Mayor Richard Alcombright and department heads. Also in attendance were Councilors Marie Harpin, David Lamarre, Michael Boland, Lisa Blackmer and President Ronald Boucher.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco will retire at the end of the fiscal year to "take pressure of the budget" it was announced at Wednesday's Finance Committee meeting.
The disclosure came during discussion of the Public Safety Department's budget in which the commissioner's salary was slashed to $21,000.
"He knows the plight we're in ... he will be retiring at the end of the fiscal year," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, who added that the commissioner had approached him about retiring within the last week or so. "I want to keep the commissioner on for at least six months to work on the transition, then he can offload the things he does to other people."
Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco will stay on for six months to help the department transition. He said it would be difficult for the fire and police directors to take over his duties.
The Department of Public Works union is also cognizant of the tough times, said Alcombright. "They voted as a body to forgo their fiscal 2012 raise."
Union members were slated to get 1 percent (they received a 1 percent retroactive raise for this year), which the mayor figured would be a savings of around $7,500.
"These are people who unfortunately do not make a lot of money," Alcombright said. "They do a lot for the city. It makes a difference if the average guy made $300 a year [with the raise]; if the 2 1/2 override passes, they're probably going to get hit with $250."
The mayor halted contract negotiations with some of the other unions; he said the teachers, who have settled, have indicated they may reconsider their contract as well.
The City Council submitted a home-rule petition to the Legislature last year to extend Morocco's tenure two years past his mandated retirement age. At the time, city officials were considering whether to dispense with a commissioner. Keeping Morocco on was to give them a two-year buffer to research the matter, although little progress has been made in that direction.
Alcombright said the Morocco's leaving did not indicate a change in the public safety structure and the commissioner's position would remain active until the city determined what to do. The mayor said he didn't think the savings of eliminating the position would be significant.
"You're going to go away from the commissioner but nobody knows what I do," said Morocco. "I've brought in $5 million in grants; someone has to maintain those."
The police and fire director jobs would have to change, he said. "Call them what you want, they still have a job to do so to say they're going to their job and do what I'd do managing grants and budgets and stuff ... ."
Morocco's partial departure reduces Public Safety's administrative budget by $63,000. The rest of the departments are for the most part level-funded and there are no increases for department heads with the expectation of the assessor, whose salary reflects the position's change from four days a week to five.
The mayor defended hiring a new tourism director, saying it would be a source of revenue.
The administrative officer position is funded for a half-year, with hopes it can be filled by next January. An assistant information systems director has been added at $50,000 but an assistant inspector of buildings will be left vacant as will two posts in the library — the assistant director and an office clerk.
The Finance Committee recommended slashing stipends from city boards, including the City Council, on Wednesday but voted 2-1 to keep the tourism director position after nearly a half-hour of discussion.
Committee member Alan Marden called for all volunteer boards to have their stipends slashed and the City Council to accept $1 each this year, a $27,000 cut, "just for one year to send a message."
Alcombright said some of the stipends may be required by state law. "They may be mandated but there's no reason they have to accept it," said Marden.
The mayor vigorously defended keeping the tourism director position and department, a cost of about $51,000 total, in the budget.
"I think this is a vital position for the city of North Adams," he said, comparing it to the Megan Wilden's work in Pittsfield's Cultural Office. "I think that this position has the ability to generate revenue, I think this position with the right person has the ability to generate grants, that it has the ability to reach out and in a sense be the face of the city.
"I really think this is a very, very important part of us moving forward."
Councilor David lamarre wondered if it would be better to wait a year to offer a higher salary and attract better candidates for the vacant post; Alcombright said the eight people to be interviewed, including "five who are spectacular," had been told the $34,000 salary and indicated it was acceptable.
Councilor Marie Harpin asked if the Develop North Adams and the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, or staff at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art could coordinate city events. The mayor and Finance Committee members Chairman Michael Bloom and David Bond said it would be difficult and unlikely.
"If they were to bring in a half-million, the $34,000 would be money well-spent," said Bloom.
Bloom and Bond voted to recommend the position; Marden voted against, adding "this is the hardest vote for me."
A public hearing on the $15.6 million school budget will be held Tuesday, June 7, and presented to the Finance Committee the next day. The city budget will be presented at next week's City Council meeting.
The draft budget is below and can be found on the sidebar. The document was created horizontally but, unfortunately, appears vertically on Scribd. We will try to find a way to post it so it's easier to read.
|Tags: budget, Finance Committee, tourism, public safety|
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|
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."
|Tags: budget, unions, contracts|
North Adams Prepping For Override
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright has canceled all contract negotiations and is preparing a ballot question for a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Alcombright said deals had been struck with some of the city's seven public unions but all would be put on hold until the budget is dealt with. The city is facing a budget gap of $1.2 million for fiscal 2012, caused in large part by falling state aid and rising costs.
An override would add about $237 a year to the tax bill on the average home, which in North Adams is assessed at $138,500.
"Unless we can really find some different way to attack this, I will probably call a special council meeting to bring in a ballot question for an override," the mayor told the Finance Committee on Thursday.
He said he planned to present a ballot question to the committee at this meeting ahead of next week's City Council meeting but was "looking into some things that could be interesting." He declined to elaborate but it became apparent as the conversation continued that what the mayor was looking into was selling off some properties.
Committee member David Bond thought putting properties up for sale, even if they didn't find buyers, would send a message that commercial opportunities were available.
However, the mayor said he didn't want to use sales to cover the shortfall since it wouldn't fix the city's finances in the long term. The land sale reserves had already been used to cover three years of budget gaps, but the city still had a deficit and now no cash to cover capital projects.
"If I sold $4 million in real estate today we would still be a $1.2 million in the hole," he said. "We have to fix today so we can work tomorrow."
Even if the properties could be sold and the funds used to pay down the tax rate, said the mayor, the override would still be needed now to balance the budget.
Alcombright and Bond went round and round about the conundrum that cutting services now to save costs would make the city less attractive to the very businesses and people they were hoping could drive growth and expand the tax base.
Resident Wayne Goodell asked the mayor if he had asked the public unions to take a cut in pay or increase their share of insurance costs.
The mayor said he had not discussed pay cuts but had raised the insurance issue. He noted that the Legislature is considering a bill that would loosen restrictions on municipalities negotiating over insurance options. The deal struck with the public unions on insurance last year might delay implementing such a measure until 2013, he said.
Alcombright said nearly a half-million dollars has been reduced from the original deficit of $1.8 million but it was getting difficult to find more places to cut either in the city or schools without affecting services or getting minimal return.
He used the example of laying off four firefighters: The city would be responsible for 28 weeks of unemployment and, since so many firefighters had seniority and five weeks vacation, the amount of overtime to cover shifts would eat away at any savings.
Even so, the mayor said he met last week with city workers to inform them of the possible consequences if the override fails.
City Council President Ronald Boucher said he did not think there was support for an override and asked what Plan B is should it go down. The mayor said once the override is placed on the ballot, he would give presentations on what would happen if it failed — Plan B.
"Numbers don't lie. I stare at these for hours; it's very disheartening," said Alcombright.