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Bernard Sees 'Incredibly Challenging' Times for Budgets

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — City officials are in the midst of budget season but the figures — and the future — of the local economy are in holding pattern because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Mayor Thomas Bernard says there's a lot of uncertainty now with local revenues and whether the so-called cherry sheet numbers from the state are realistic in this new environment. 
"This is normally the time we'd be into the thick of budget season and we're certainly doing all of that background work and due diligence to get to a point where we can make a budget recommendation," he said last week. "But there's so many unknowns right now." 
Faced with economic disruption from the novel coronavirus, lawmakers are basically starting over on a fiscal 2021 budget while hampered by the inability to meet in person. A virtual round table is set for Tuesday morning after technical difficulties canceled last week's attempt. 
Bernard is hoping to get some clearer indications of how the Legislature will address the anticipated fall off in revenues and how that will affect cities and towns. 
"I think what we're seeing is going to be incredibly challenging," he said. "The revenue projections are nowhere near what we would expect in normal times." 
More than a half-million people have filed for unemployment and hospitality and restaurants have all but shutdown during the crisis. That means much less in rooms and meals taxes that city can build into its budget. 
Those monies had been increasing over the past few quarters but now the city will take an "unbelievably conservative estimate" on those revenue projections, said the mayor. 
Bernard said he has been meeting with department heads on their budgets and had spoken with Finance Committee Chairwoman Marie T. Harpin. But he's waiting to see what comes out of Beacon Hill. 
"Really, I want to see what we hear from the state first," he said. "But I am expecting that we probably will do what a lot of places are ... and do a 1/12 continuation budget."
The fiscal year ends on June 30 and municipalities and governmental bodies are supposed to have a budget in place by that date. Those that can't get a budget passed can continue month to month based on the previous year's spending plan for up to 90 days.
But it won't be level budget, Bernard warned, because increases in costs for next  year are already known, such as health insurance, and revenue projects will be lower. 
"I don't think this is a year where where I'm going to want to come forward with any kind of tax increase if I can possibly avoid it," the mayor said. "That's not a promise, but it's certainly what we're really looking at is how do we recognize that the city needs to provide services?"
In the meantime, the administration and public employees are adjusting to a new reality that has many working from home, public building buildings shuttered and everyone learning how to navigate virtual meetings. 
Projects are still moving forward, including the work on the park renovations at Brayton Hill.
"We started 2020, my team, particularly the folks in Community and Economic Development, we were really hitting our stride on a lot of projects," Bernard said. "But some of the stuff, it's hard to do remotely, some of it's going to be challenging to execute."
The city has received a $15,000 grant from the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative for doing work on the Cultural District. Bernard said it comes at good time to be helping a sector that's going to be struggling in the next months. 
What he has seen is North Adams and the Northern Berkshire community really standing up for each other. He regularly gets calls from people offering to help in some way — delivering equipment or offering storage space — for local efforts such as the Northern Berkshire COVID-19 Operations Center.
Bernard said he's appreciative of the contributions and even if they go on a list for now, circumstances can change very quickly and those offers may suddenly become a necessity.
And he sees that community collaboration continuing on larger scale between North County's communities as they emerge from the pandemic.
"The biggest thing and, you know, we talk a lot about it ... because we actually practice it ... But the level of heightened collaboration and the level of connection among the Northern Berkshire communities, I think it's going to come out and stay strong," he said. "And as we get into a recovery mode, I think we're going to get very serious about where are the opportunities for collaboration and service sharing and working together as a region. ...
"I feel like I'm white-boarding those things as part of the response plan." 
Bernard said he has a good relationship with Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch and Adams Town Administrator Jay Green and that they have had conversations about how they could work together. 
"We're going to have to face some hard decisions about how we deploy our resources that will be scarce and constrained even more over this recovery period," he said.
When that recovery period will begin is unknown. The state is in general shutdown for only essential services until May 4, although other states have now extended their closures in some cases into June. Bernard said it was critical to continue the social distancing, hand washing and stay-at-home policies to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease that has killed more than 20 in Berkshire County and more than 800 so far across the state. 
"The worst thing in the world, worse even than the sacrifices we're asking people to make right now, for one would be to endure all of this, to experience the sickness, the loss, the economic dislocation, and ease up too quickly and see this thing come charging back," the mayor said.

Tags: COVID-19,   north adams_budget,   

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