North Adams Budget Slashed Again
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The mayor will present his "Plan B" budget to the City Council next week that includes nearly a half-million in cuts from the already passed fiscal 2012 budget.
That brings the fiscal 2012 budget to $35,074,495, down nearly $900,000 from last year's budget and $50,000 less than fiscal 2009.
"We know that the Prop 2 1/2 was defeated; by virtue of that, the voters challenged me, and us, to come back with a document that meets the needs of the city without an override," Mayor Richard Alcombright told the Finance Committee on Monday evening. "We've made significant progress but not without pain."
The committee will recommend a further fiscal 2012 reduction of $457,011 that includes $250,000 in cuts passed last week by the School Committee. That still leaves the city with a structural deficit of $423,739 that the mayor is hoping to close with an increase in anticipated state aid and by dipping into the city's depleted reserves.
The mayor had pushed for a Proposition 2 1/2 override of $1.2 million to balance the fiscal 2012 budget. Over the past three years, the city has lost $3.2 million in state aid and was carrying a structural deficit of more than $1 million heading into the fiscal year. The school department has cut some $4 million over past few years that included the closure of Conte Middle School.
But voters, already pinched by property tax hikes and sewer and water fees instituted last year, rejected the override last month, forcing city officials to find more cuts.
Still, property owners can expect an increase of up to 41 cents per $1,000 valuation as the city taxes to the full levy capacity. Alcombright said the increase comes to just under $60 more a year for a home valued at $150,000.
Included in the cuts is a reduction in seasonal workers for highway and parks and not filling one highway position; the transfer of $38,500 in police salaries to a Verizon 911 grant; a reduction of more than $20,000 in pensions approved by the Pension Board and based on recalculating the funding schedule; elimination of funds for the Historic, Human Services and Youth commissions; $5,000 from the tourism department and $10,000 from insurance.
That is on top of the 10.5 teaching positions and elimination of a curriculum director included in last week's school cuts.
Finance Committee members expressed concern over the cuts being made in the school system, with Chairman Michael Bloom questioning the loss of a kindergarten teacher and curriculum director.
"We cut 10.5 teachers, if you figure each teacher interacts with 20 kids, we have to do something differently with 200 children," said Superintendent James Montepare, who noted school choice funds are being used to cover underfunded salary and residential placement accounts. "But if you look at what we had to cut to get where we did, we had to cut bodies."
He said ideas had been floated about instituting fees for sports or for full-day kindergarten, for which parents are being charged anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 a year in other communities. But the task of collecting the money, and the fact that the city's high poverty level would make most students eligible for discounted rates, made the cost savings questionable, Montepare said, at this point.
"We have substantial enough reserves now to get into our budget cycle," said Alcombright, who is hoping the proverbial "pennies from heaven" will appear from the $65 million more allotted this year to cities and towns by the state. "Let's say they level fund us ... that could be another $175,000, another $200,000 that could reduce this deficit ... I think we're in a good place with this budget."
The city's reserves, once in the millions, now total about $530,000 not counting free cash — the funds left in accounts from fiscal 2011. Those funds cannot be touched until the state certifies the accounts this fall. The city will also be closing out the $800,000 medical insurance trust fund, which could bring another $50,000 or so.
Alcombright said his contacts with the state Department of Revenue have been positive and encouraging.
"We are doing all the right things," he said. "In December of 2009, the council — and I was one of them — moved $1.8 million from reserves to lower the budget, to pay debt; last year, we used $1.2 million in reserves to pay debt. This year, we're going to use $423,000 in reserves and we may not have to if we get additional state aid. ... We've made tremendous progress."
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'Plan B' School Budget Reduced By $250K
The School Committee on Wednesday voted to reduce the school budget by another $250,000.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee on Wednesday approved a pared-down fiscal 2012 budget that includes another $250,000 added to nearly a quarter million in cuts and the loss of a director of curriculum.
Superintendent of Schools James Montepare presented a budget of $15.29, nearly a half-million below last year's budget, at the noontime meeting.
The most recent cuts are on top of $233,000 in reductions in the budget approved by the City Council on on June 14, a give-back of a 1 percent salary raise by the teachers and the use of $360,000 in school-choice funds to ensure programming.
Superintendent James Montepare said the reductions include the elimination of a director of curriculum.
That budget was built on hope that a Proposition 2 1/2 override would be pass; it didn't and Mayor Richard Alcombright will have to present a "Plan B" budget to the council on July 26 that covers a $1.4 million deficit.
"[The school reductions] all comes out to about $1.3 million worth of cuts this year because when we start this process and put everything in, we topped out at about $16.54 million," said Montepare. "So to get to ground zero, we cut about $700,300."
The school system could only cut about $340,000 this round before running afoul of state-mandated minimum spending. "We're right on, we wouldn't want to go any closer," said Montepare of further reductions.
Some $36,000 has been cut out of the operational side, including automobile expenses for the superintendent and business manager and reducations in contracted services and maintenance.
The bigger hit was in salary reductions, with the elimination of the curriculum director ($66,752), a tech teacher at Drury ($58,182), Sullivan kindergarten teacher ($45,000), and a science post ($45,000) at Brayton. Added back in are a Drury High physical education teacher and a speech pathologist.
Committee member Mary Lou Acetta expressed concern about taking resources from Brayton School. "It's the largest population and a population that needs a lot of services."
Montepare said when the budget review started, "we really tried to make sure that all of the bases were covered, and I think we juggled some positions around to accommodate some of the higher-number classrooms."
Mayor Richard Alcombright, chairman of the School Committee, said the budget he will bring before the Finance Committee on Monday shows a lot of compromise.
The budget reflects the loss of 10.5 teaching positions, three administrative positions, four teaching assistant posts, a custodial job and a half-time tutor. Some of the posts are being left vacant because of retirements, some staff members are being moved into grant-funded positions or having hours reduced, and about six are losing their jobs.
At the same time, the schools "are bursting at the seams," said Montepare, despite a state study that forecast a drop in enrollment.
"I don't see it going down," he said. "They said we'd have 1,300 kids three years from now; we're at 1,600. We're not going to lose 300 kids in three years."
Committee member William G. Schrade Jr. noted that Montepare was taking on yet another role with the loss of a curriculum director; he's down three administrative positions.
"I appreciate everything you've done and support it ... but you're wearing about 17 different hats as superintendent," he said, adding the schools will have to start refilling those positions because "at some point you're going to want to retire."
Editor's Note: We had our amounts backward and have fixed them.
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City Council Uses Free Cash To Fix Overrun Account
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city drained its free cash account Tuesday to cover a shortfall in veterans' benefits.
The City Council approved transferring $163,833 from free cash to cover the overrun account and even more reserves are expected to be used next month to finish off the 2011 budget.
The transfer had to be completed before the end of the month before the state freezes that account.
The city saw a boost in the number of benefits the city has given to 48 different veterans. The state will reimburse the city 75 percent of the benefits but not until next fiscal year.
"A lot of it's outreach and a lot is the economy," Mayor Richard Alcombright said. "It's about $100,000 more than the year prior."
Alcombright pointed to the depressed economy to explain the sharp increase. Veterans' unemployment benefits are running out and they must now turn to the city, he said.
The deficit only covers the benefits for North Adams veterans, Alcombright said when asked about the shared agent with Williamstown and Adams. The city pays for the agent and the other towns pay the city proportionately, which enters the budget as revenue. Earlier this year, Williamstown also reported an increase in benefits given out.
"The only thing we see at city hall is North Adams cases," Alcombright said. "The benefits and salary gets split."
The move nearly drains the free cash account to finish off the fiscal year, which ends next week, he said.
Alcombright said he will return to the board next week to request further withdrawals from other reserve accounts to fix overruns in the snow and ice, Department of Public Works and public safety budget lines.
However, Alcombright also said that local receipts appear to have received a boost in the last 10 days, which could help offset using those reserve funds while the city plans for next year.
"Local receipts are better. They are not where I want them to be but they are better than I thought," Alcombright said. "I'm hopeful that some of the numbers may be negated."
Tuesday's meeting took only 30 minutes because councilors had very few updates on committees and organizations.
Councilor Al Marden reported that the Health and Safety Committee is continuing to work with the Police Department in phasing out the public safety commissioner position.
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North Adams Rejects Override Proposal
Supporters and opponents of the override were in a good mood on Tuesday.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Voters rejected a $1.2 million Proposition 2 1/2 override by 577 votes on Tuesday, sending city officials back to the drawing board to plug a $957,000 hole in the 2012 budget.
"This is a democracy, this is why people are able to make these choices, and we'll respect the choice," said a disappointed Mayor Richard Alcombright, who vowed to "look under every rock" for savings and revenue (yes, taxes will still go up). "I was hoping, hoping beyond hope I guess, for a different outcome."
His concern was that the city was continuing to "kick the can down the road" by not dealing with the loss of revenues. The same hurdles will be there next year, he said.
"We're not going to be able to fund things that we want to fund, we're not going to be able to continue things that we want to continue, and we know darn well the revenues aren't going to come back," the mayor said. "At best, next year we're level funded [by the state] which is still a 3 percent step back."
The mayor was busy answering two phones after the election results came in.
Outspoken opponent Robert Cardimino, on the other hand, was jubilant. "It sent a message to City Hall," he said.
The city has seen its state aid drop by more than $3 million and revenues decline even as costs have continued to rise. With no significant reserves left, the mayor proposed a Proposition 2 1/2 override that would have increased the city's levy limit to raise more taxes to match revenues to spending.
The override, on top of last year's 10 percent property tax increase, water rate increase and implementation of a sewer fee, had a segment of the population howling.
"I can't afford to lose my house," said Robert Martel, who was standing outside St. Elizabeth's Parish Center with a large "NO" sign. "My taxes have gone up $667."
The question has divided the city, with harsh words at public meetings and allegations of scare tactics. At least one landlord reportedly handed out fliers warning tenants their rent would be hiked if the override passed.
The results came quickly as the override was defeated by at least 70 votes in each of the four wards stationed at the parish center. Ward 4, at Greylock Elementary School, rejected it even more decisively by 200 votes.
The final tally was 1,812 against and 1,235 for, with 36 percent of registered voters casting ballots. The vote wasn't quite as harsh as in Cheshire, which defeated a $200,000 override 2 to 1 on Monday night, but it wasn't far off.
Election wardens were mixed on how the vote might be going; the diversity of the voting population made it difficult to get a forecast on the outcome.
Ken O'Brien, head warden at St. Elizabeth's, said the turnout had been steady throughout the day with voters ranging from the very young to the very old; a large number voters brought their children.
Over in Greylock, Warden Christine Petrie said the bulk of the votes — some 500 — had been cast by around noon, with a couple eager voters ready an hour before the polls opened at 9. "There was a woman here with a baby 4 days old and another woman who said she was 95."
By all accounts, there was little hesitation in checking off yes or no for the one question on the ballot. Some didn't even bother using the voting booths; "One man marked the ballot in his hand and walked right to the box," said Assistant Clerk Jane Wise.
"As a parent, I'm really concerned," said Drury High School Principal Amy Meehan, who has spoken in support of the override at some of the six information sessions held over the last few weeks. "I think that North Adams is a good place to raise children but I don't know what the city is going to do to close the shortfall.
Alcombright congratulated Robert Cardimino on the outcome, but Cardimino couldn't resist jabbing the mayor again with his claims of 'scare tactics.' We call unsportsmanlike conduct.
"Voter turnout was so low, I'm very disappointed ... this is going to be a longtime loss for all."
Alcombright said he was going to "take some very, very deep breaths and try to absorb where we are" and then meet with school administrators and department heads to craft another spending plan to present to the City Council by the second meeting in July. A list of cuts already presented to the public will be on the table.
"The biggest challenge now is the school getting down to minimize spending; that means we have to find a half-million or so in the city budget and that is near and next to impossible," he said. "... but we will and we'll make it work."
He was unshaken by a major setback in only his second year in office; he'd spent weeks trying to persuade voters to make a difficult choice that would directly affect their wallets.
"It's probably just more than people were willing to absorb," he said. "You try to minimize by saying the average would be $195 a year, but it's still 195 bucks out of somebody's wallet. ... Even a win would have been bittersweet: you passed your budget, you move forward, however, you're throwing this liability on thousands of people."
Please be aware that we have closed comments on past override stories to keep the conversation up to date.
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North Adams Voters to Decide Override Question
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Voters will decide on Tuesday whether the city's budget will be cut by $1 million or they'll shoulder the burden to keep school programs and services in place.
The Proposition 2 1/2 override has split the city, with opponents saying they can't afford any more taxes. Proponents say the city's been undertaxed for years and is due for an increase, albeit harsh, to keep functioning.
The polls will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for voters to decide on giving the city the authority to assess an addition $1.2 million. Wards 1, 2, 3 and 5 will vote at St. Elizabeth's Parish Center; Ward 4 will vote at Greylock Elementary School.
Over the past few years, North Adams has lost more than $3 million in state aid and burned through its reserves. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been slashed from the 2012 budget, including full and part-time posts in both the city and school system. The proposed $35.5 million spending plan approved by the City Council last week is short $957,762, even though it's $300,000 less than this year's budget.
If the override passes, it will permanently raise the levy limit to a higher benchmark from which future tax levies will be calculated. Since each year municipalities can raise another 2.5 percent from its assessed real estate and personal property, North Adams will have about another $340,000. Added to the override, the city would have the ability to raise up to $1.5 million.
Should the override be defeated, it will mean severe cuts, mostly on the already stressed city side. Because the school system is so close to state-mandated foundation level, it can only be cut by about $300,000.
Between the $15.4 million school budget and assessments to McCann Technical School ($890,000), nearly half the budget will be locked up in educational spending. A large part of the city budget is also locked into fixed costs, including $3.75 million in medical insurance, $1 million in wastewater services, a $1.3 million in debt payments and more than $2 million in pensions.
If the override goes down, the mayor will have to present the City Council with a spending plan in July.
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