North Adams Institutes Controversial Sewer Fee
Robert Cardimino presented Council President Ronald Boucher with signatures from 130 people opposed to the sewer fee — along with a big rock.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday night passed a controversial sewer fee by a vote of 8-1 that's expected to bring $663,000 in new revenue to help plug a $1.1 million hole in the fiscal 2011 budget.
Council gadfly and sewer fee opponent Robert Cardimino responded by gifting the council and mayor with a big rock: "Try getting blood out of that."
The fee will equal 42 percent of the water rate, or $1.47 per 100 cubic feet of water. The average homeowner can expect a fee of about $27 a quarter; combined with the 10 percent increase in the water rate, it's about an extra $132 a year. Those who use city water but not the sewer will be billed $25 a quarter.
The fee hike didn't go down easily and came only after months of debate. Councilor Marie Harpin was the lone no vote, saying it would affect the city's elderly and least fortunate.
"I did vote for 10 percent increase in real estate taxes and I also voted for the 10 percent increase in the water rate ... but I can't at all in good conscience vote for this 42 percent increase," said Harpin, who agreed times were tough, "but this is hurting the taxpayers and the city of North Adams is not really the answer. There's got to be other ways to raise revenue. What are we going to do next year, raise that 42 percent to 52 percent or 62 percent?"
Michael Bloom, chairman of the Finance Committee, said his panel had been over the budget and "explored every option."
"Our reserves are down to about zero and there's really no source for new revenue," he said. "These [fees] will help pay for our budget. Otherwise, we're talking about a Proposition 2 1/2 override, which I don't think has a shot to pass. ... At this time, it makes more sense to adopt more fees of this nature ... rather than wait to a later date and have worse problems."
Mayor Richard Alcombright said it was 'sorrowful' that citizens would have to absorb the increases.
The city has been struggling through a fiscal crisis — there's few places left to cut without significantly affecting services and cash reserves have been seriously depleted. Most of the $1.3 million in the land sale account will be wiped out to balance this year's budget; much of the city's liquid assets have already been used up to overcome some $2.5 million in state cuts and declining revenue the year before. The city also has to make good on two years of underfunding the Medical Insurance Trust account.
The state had already warned municipalities to brace for a 4 percent reduction in local and school aid. Mayor Richard Alcombright said the state budget signed last week took another $109,000 away from North Adams.
Councilor Gailanne Cariddi voted against the ordinance giving the city the ability to institute a fee but, reluctantly, changed her position to vote for the actual fee, greatly disappointing Cardimino who held a sign saying "Vote No on Sewer Fee."
"Some of my objections have been dealt with here," she said, and in conversation with mayor earlier in the day, about dealing with homeowners who didn't use city water, or sewer, and problems with inflow and infiltration of lines. She called for greater education on water conservation to help residents control their water usage and lower their bills.
"I really don't think we should have it but I do not want to hurt the city," she said.
Alcombright said he had advocated a Proposition 2 1/2 override, which would have gone further to solve the city's fiscal crisis, until facing the fact it would raise the commercial tax rate to $36 per $1,000 valuation.
Real estate agent and local landlord Christine Girard said the sewer fee was more welcome than raising commercial rates. "This is not easy for anybody," she said. "What I like is that everybody in town will have to pay for this ... I want businesses to come here; if you do the override, nobody will come here."
She likened the monthly tab of $25 or so to "riding through MacDonald's."
"This is a real touchy, sensitive subject," said council President Ronald Boucher, since former Councilor Clark Billings introduced it. "At all the political forums during election time, I was one who came out and said, 'hey, I'm opposed to a sewer fee,' but the real eye-opener is when you sit down in these meetings with Finance Committee and you look at the numbers and the scary thought is this: in this budget we just passed, we had a 10 percent real estate increase, a 10 percent water increase, an anticipated sewer fee and we're still short almost $900,000 to level fund our budget."
"I can't see any other way to go."
The fee goes into effect immediately; businesses will see the increase in their August bills and residential homeowners in their quarterly bill in October.
In other business, the council:
► Approved the mayor's appointments to various boards: Denise Richardello to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Commission; Jacob Elder, Paul W. Marino and William Mahoney to the Historical Commission; Peter Mirante to the Parks and Recreation Committee; Donald Keegan to the Planning Board; and Rosemari Dickinson to the License Commission. Richardello will replace MCLA President Mary K. Grant who resigned because the demands on her time.
► Approved and passed to second reading the Traffic Commission's recommendations to prohibit parking on the both sides of Canal Street and install stop signs at Grant Street and Angeli Street and Angeli Street and Greylock Avenue.
The councilors also touched the Planning Board's decision Monday against Carr Hardware's yellow trim (thus Councilor Keith Bona's sympathetic fashion choices). This will be covered in a separate story.
Correction: We incorrectly stated Christine Girard's relationship to Steepleview Realty; she is an independent agent for the firm. We apologize for the error.
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