Councilors Benjamin Lamb and Keith Bona sat in the audience during the discussion because of their relationships with the school proposals.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The potential sale of Sullivan School was punted back to the mayor's office on Tuesday.
Short two councilors and with not enough votes to pass, the seven councilors agreed to hold off until more information could be provided about the plans for an advanced manufacturing school to be located at the site.
Mayor Thomas Bernard, who had chosen the training school proposal over another prospect ($50,000 by Eric Rudd to turn it into artist studios), said the backers of the school had provided what had been asked for in the request for proposals.
The council had declared Sullivan, along with Johnson School, the Pownal, Vt., watershed land and several other proporties as surplus some time ago. Because the offer was lower than the assessed price, the mayor needed authority to negotiate from the council, as was done for the Pownal land and Johnson School.
Those proposing the school say they only got started in organizing a couple months ago after several years of discussion. But when the request went out for proposals for Sullivan School, they felt they couldn't pass up the chance. They offered $1 for the 50-year-old school but expected to invest up to $14 million in renovations and equipment.
Harpin and Wilkinson were joined by Councilor Jason LaForest in expressing concerns over timelines, financing and zoning, as part of the proposal had referenced maker spaces and there was talk last week of companies using the equipment. Councilors Eric Buddington, Joshua Moran and Paul Hopkins seemed more inclined to move forward.
Councilors Benjamin Lamb and President Keith Bona again stepped down because of relationships with both responses to the RFP and Councilor Rebbecca Cohen took the gavel for a second time.
"When I look at unloading these properties, to me, these properties cost us money as a city and I would like to see them kind of taken off our hands sooner than later," said Moran. "I do think we can take risk but at the same time a year or two down the road, it's getting into the same thing that we need to put another roof on it? We have water damage, and now we have a building again, that's falling apart."
Hopkins pointed out that council wouldn't even be reviewing the proposal if the assessed value -- some $2 million -- had been offered.
"I like to think that we can have faith in the process and I know that I have faith in the administration to do the work," he said. "I'm not sure that the City Council's job is to be getting into the weeds on the negotiations of a project once we have already said, yes, this is excess property, go ahead and get something going with it. And that's all I have to say right now."
Harpin and LaForest, however, questioned the need for the training center, saying they had taken a tour of McCann Technical School and been impressed by the programming for adults, including advanced manufacturing and welding. They were disappointed that BAMTEC members had not consulted with McCann. (McCann School Committee Chairman and former principal Gary Rivers was in attendance.)
"What we are focusing on is feedback that we got from local businesses and community and the fact that they were unaware of these programs and we were trying to fill that need," said BAMTEC Vice President Brad Dilger, who was allowed two minutes to speak by Cohen. "And we were in the process of going through all of the research that would go along with the post-RFP process. We were going through financing, we were going through development. So we didn't quite have everything ready. We were expecting to do that later on."
LaForest pressed about zoning changes to accommodate the school's possible extracurricular activities. He felt there had been promises made based on what had been said at last week's Finance Committee meeting.
Bernard said no promises or guarantees had been made but rather that RFP had said the city "will consider zoning changes if necessary."
"And as I understand the incorporation of BAMTEC, it is as an education organization. So it is consistent with current use," he said.
Should the school wish to address zoning, it would have to go through the Zoning Board of Appeals, the mayor continued. LaForest said if there was a consideration of changing the zoning, he would vote against the proposal.
Buddington, as well as the other councilors, also agreed that zoning was a concern. But he was not opposed to approving the sale on Tuesday.
"I am very comfortable leaving the the issues of time frame of the project and financing to be addressed by the mayor and the executive branch in the purchase and sale," he said. "I don't think we're really required to trust the mayor. But I feel as though recent, other purchases agreements have adequately addressed that. I feel as though we need to take risks as a city and be willing to give a project a couple of years to get things lined up."
When it became apparent that Buddington's initial motion to approve could conceivably kill the proposal because it could not get a two-thirds vote, he rescinded it and Harpin motioned to refer back to the mayor with answers on financing, maintenance and timelines.
In other business:
• The councilors referred to Finance Committee language related to bonding because they had trouble understanding what it meant. The language if adopted would utilize all premiums generated from selling bonds (used to cover borrowings for capital projects) be applied to the project for which the funds are being borrowed. The mayor had requested the language, now part of the Municipal Modernization Act, be applied to prior bonds so that the city's bonding procedures would be consistent.
The councilors wanted better understanding of the issue, especially after LaForest brought up the city's request last week to the state Municipal Finance Oversight Board to issue $3.2 million in bonds, which he thought was new spending and confused his colleagues more. The city does short-term borrowings when projects are approved which it later combines for bonding and can ask to use the state's bond rating for better interest rates.
• The council also affirmed the appointments of Rebecca Choquette and Anne Rodgers to the North Adams Human Services Commission for terms to expire Feb. 1, 2021, to fill the unexpired terms of Christine Naughton and Rachelle Smith, respectively.
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Letter: Standouts to Support Public Higher Education
Letter to the Editor
To the Editor:
During this time in which many of our day to day activities have been affected by Covid-19, one thing has not changed: the value of our public higher education institutions. Here in Berkshire County, MCLA and Berkshire Community College continue to serve our students, many of them local residents and the majority residents of this Commonwealth. While the modalities we are using to teach, counsel, advise, and provide all types services have widened to include more online and hybrid as well as in person delivery when it can be safely done, BCC and MCLA are open to our students. We remain the most affordable and accessible institutions in the county. Together with our colleagues at the University of Massachusetts campuses, we continue to educate our citizens.
It is for these reasons that we wish to express our opinion that public higher education campuses deserve level funding at the very least. Our students deserve and should have access to the range of programs, courses, and support services of all kinds; during this pandemic, students have more needs to be met, not fewer. Public higher education has suffered through many years of underfunding. Although the work done at public institutions of higher education is often praised, such lip service doesn’t pay the salaries and other fixed costs on our campuses. Praise has never funded a scholarship or kept tuition and fees from the increases necessary when state aid is insufficient. If ever there was a time to turn praise into line items of the budget, this is that time.
Our public colleges and universities provide the workers that are needed in our communities. From nurses to teachers, from scientists to computer specialists, from professors to hospitality workers, from writers to public servants of all kinds, how many of us were educated at least in part at our public colleges? Workforce development and adult basic education also takes place on our campuses. We provide those who cannot or choose not to leave the area with quality education that is relatively affordable. Those employed by the colleges are able to invest in the community as well, buying homes, raising families, and supporting local businesses.
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