North Adams Council Passes $41M Budget for Fiscal 2021
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council approved a $41 million budget for fiscal 2021 on Tuesday along with using close to $300,000 in reserve funds despite concerns expressed by several councilors.
The total amount to be raised is $40,939,756, up $134,218, or 0.33 percent, from last year. Some $11,369.776 has already been spent over the past three months through continuing appropriations caused by delays in the state budget because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"This is now coming on really six months of a budget process," said Mayor Thomas Bernard. "We typically start talking about the budget with the Finance Committee in March, and this year we had our first conversation in late April because following the shutdown at the state and local levels, there was just so much uncertainty ... it made sense to pursue several months of continuation budgets, with the goal of bringing forward this budget now for you in October."
The budget on its own did not generate much discussion overall but the use of $320,427 in reserve funds
to offset the amount to be raised by taxes did.
Councilor Jason LaForest was the most outspoken against dipping into savings, saying there didn't appear to have been layoffs or other cuts in spending.
"North Adams seems to be running a city that it cannot afford to run. And at some point, that's going to catch us and I think beginning to take money out of these accounts that were not intended to make up operational deficits is going to get us into a lot of trouble," he said.
Councilor Keith Bona countered that department budgets were essentially level from last year, which effectively were cuts since costs have continued to rise.
But, he said, "I would not have pulled from the reserves. But we're in a unique year, and I'm going to be OK with the decision that is in front of us."
Councilor Marie T. Harpin said the decision to use so much in reserves made her nervous because even though this year is difficult, next year might be worse.
The use of reserves was to balance out the impact on taxpayers, said Bernard.
"It's really a question of where do we want to put the expenses on this side on the taxpayer or on these accounts that are available for our use," said the mayor.
LaForest said his concerns also related to whether the expenses were appropriate to the account from which they were being pulled, citing the transfer of $40,000 from the landfill account for paving as questionable, and why a six-year capital budget had not yet been put forward as required by the charter.
"We haven't seen this and I know this has not been the practice of the most recent administrations," he said. "But I did bring this up and I'm concerned that we're staring down the barrel of difficult financial times and we don't have a plan going into the coming decade."
Bernard said he was working on a capital plan in conjunction with a long-term fiscal plan. LaForest was correct, he said, in saying they would need set a course for the next decade and particularly going into next year.
"But I think it's important that we do settle this budget now so that we can effectively proceed into planning for FY 22 as quickly as possible," he said. "I have I have looked at this, the finance team has looked at this and you know we do feel comfortable that we're within allowable uses particularly given the exigent circumstances."
The debate at one point got heated, with Council President Paul Hopkins admonishing at one point to "let's bring the temperature down please."
The comment came after some sharp pokes that Finance Committee member Wayne Wilkinson made in reference to councilors asking questions that could have been answered if they'd attended the meetings.
"We're spending a lot of time here on stuff the Finance Committee has already gone through," he said, adding that Councilor Lisa Blackmer, chair of the committee, and Bona had spent hours going through the line items. "Now all of a sudden we're spending all kinds of time asking the same questions over."
He said he was offended that Harpin "bailed out on us" and was now wanted answers.
Harpin, who had stepped down as chair of the Finance Committee, said she felt as though she was being attacked and threatened for asking questions.
"I ran to be a city councilor so that I can represent the constituents and the people of North Adams to the best of my ability," she said. "And that's exactly what I have done in my three years here."
The recommendation of the Finance Committee isn't enough, added LaForest.
"We have questions, and we don't need individual councilors attacking other councilors for asking questions at the budget meeting when the city is going to keep on spending what it has always been spending and keep kicking the can down the road, because we've always done it," he said.
The budget passed as presented as did three of the four transfers from reserves. Councilor Benjamin Lamb agreed with LaForest that the appropriation from the transfer station account to capital expenditures would not be in compliance with city charter and moved to amend the order to reduce it by $40,000, which passed. The order also passed unanimously, the only transfer that LaForest voted in favor of.
Then LaForest motioned to add the $40,000 for paving potholes to an order unrelated to the budget authorizing $35,100 from the Stabilization Account to continue invasive plant abatement at Windsor Lake.
Bona questioned the council's ability to decide what account an appropriation can come from. Lamb thought it would be cleaner if the mayor submitted a separate order at the next council meeting. LaForest rescinded his motion and the order passed as presented unanimously.
Tags: fiscal 2021, north adams_budget,