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Finance Committee members Chairman Michael Bloom, left, Alan Marden and David Bond read the amounts authorized in the budget for each department and category.

North Adams Council OK's $36M Budget, Water Rate Hike

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Tammy Daniels/iBerkshires
Robert Cardimino, once a fierce critic of former Mayor John Barrett III until burying the hatchet some years back, has reappeared at City Council meetings to skewer new Mayor Richard Alcombright.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday night adopted a $36 million budget that includes 10 percent hikes in property taxes and water rates.

"With further decreases in state aid, declining revenue and a low tax base, the city must make serious decisions that directly affect our ability to provide quality school, public safety and public services," said Councilor Michael Bloom, chairman of the Finance Committee. "We came to fully understand in simple terms that the city revenue does not equal the city expenses."

For the first time in years, the Finance Committee has gone line by line through not only through expenses but revenues as well, holding a series of public meetings each attended by all or most of the councilors.

The operating budget is up 1.1 percent; the school budget up 1.54 percent. To balance the budget, the city will have to dip into what's left of its fragile reserves to cover a $900,000 gap. The council approved a measure now before the Legislature that will allow North Adams to utilize most of the $1.3 million in the land sale account to pay down debt.

The budget also includes some $500,000 to fulfill obligations to the Medical Insurance Trust Fund this year and increases in Medex costs and assessments to the McCann Technical School. The city is looking at a 10 percent property tax increase, or about $200 more a year for the average single-family home.

"One of the things that's driving this number is we have to amortize this health insurance issue," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, referring to a settlement over the city's failure to fully fund the insurance account. "We have to tax to levy capacity but with or without the Medical Trust issue we would have had to do that."

The council also unanimously approved a 10 percent increase in the water rate (from $3.18 per hundred cubic foot to $3.50, or about $25 a year, to raise an estimated $150,000) effective July 1 and an ordinance that will allow the city to institute a sewer rate, expected to be 42 percent of the water rate. (The sewer fee was first raised a year ago by then Councilor Clark Billings.)

Mayor Alcombright defended decisions made to bring the budget into balance.
"I will caution this council that while the above measures seem harsh, any money we use to pay down interest and debt from the Land Sale Reserve account will reoccur in FY2012," Alcombright read from his budget cover letter to the council. "And while I personally detest the idea of utilizing these funds to balance the budget, I am not willing to engage in a Proposition 2 1/2 override that would send commercial rates through the roof. Our only hope of growth over time cannot be compromised with a commercial tax rate that is oppressive."

Frequent gadfly Robert Cardimino urged the council to reject the water rate hike, saying the budget was being balanced on the back of taxpayers. He also claimed that some city employees weren't working their full hours and ridiculed a line item for clothing allowances for highway workers and one for dog care.

Cardimino also said the school district had $800,000 in reserves and that a number of local businesses — Carbone, and Crane & Co.'s Stationary Division —were being driven out. (Carbone of Bennington, Vt., informed the city nearly two years ago when it bought the Ford dealership it would likely move it north; Crane is in the process of consolidating its divisions in Dalton and expects to retain many of the workers.)

The mayor said the school district didn't have that much in the account, that funds had had to be used to cover the state's cuts to so-called circuit breaker funds, and what was left could only be used for certain purposes in the schools. He also responded to Cardimino's attack two weeks ago on public officials getting health insurance coverage.

"Elected and appointed officials by law, by statute are eligible for health insurance in the cities and municipalities of Massachusetts," said the mayor, although the provision differs among cities. "We are looking at health insurance quite aggressively at this point in time."

He also took issue with Cardimino's dismissal of city workers as "grass-cutters."

"I'm very proud of our city employees and DPW, grass-cutters as you may call them," said Alcombright. "They do a fabulous job in this city with all the aging infrastructure we have. ...

"I applaud our city workers. I think they do a heck of a job and that's my 2 cents."

The council also instituted a new Youth Commission to provide an "ongoing forum between city government and local youth." The commission will have 15 members, 10 ages 13 to 22 and five adults with an understanding of the needs of city's youth. The unpaid commissioners will have three-year terms (staggered at first) and be appointed by the mayor with the approval of the City Council. The commission will be co-chaired by an adult and a youth.

According to the ordinance, the "Youth Commission will respond to requests for comment and recommendation on matters referred to the Commission by officers, departments, agencies, boards, commissions and advisory committees of the City of North Adams."

In other business, the council:
• Gave final approval to regulations concerning the maintenance of vacant buildings.
• Gave final approval to the compensation and classification plan for public employees.
• Adopted two state regulations addressing the city's option to pay more or less than 50 percent of retirees' health insurance and that when retirees turn 65 they can be transferred to Medex. The city has been using the regulations but had not formally adopted them, said the mayor.

The entire agenda and ordinance language can be found here.
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North Adams Council to Review Hydrant Ordinance Next Week

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday referred an ordinance change regarding fire hydrants to the General Government Committee over the originator's protests. 
City Councilor Jason LaForest had initially submitted the proposal for the creation of a "Fire Hydrant Division" with a request to refer to his Public Safety Committee but on Tuesday night instead asked it be fast-tracked to publication and a second reading. 
The rest of the council balked at taking a shortcut in the process, rejecting the motion and voting 8-1 to send the language to the General Government with only LaForest voting no. 
The ordinance relates to issues regarding non-functioning fire hydrants and how information is shared between the Water Department and police dispatch. Two recent fires highlighted problems with the hydrants; officials say about 130 of the 631 hydrants in the city are nonfunctioning in some way. The city has been working for a decade to address faulty hydrants of which nearly half had been dysfunctional back in 2011. 
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