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North Adams Council OKs July Spending, Debates City Hall Job

By Tammy Daniels
iBerkshires Staff
04:02AM / Wednesday, July 01, 2020
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday during a special meeting approved a nearly $4 million budget for July that includes $1.5 million for the School Department. 
The $3,831,954 continuing appropriation is the first as the city shifts to a month-by-month financial plan until the Legislature can pass a fiscal 2021 budget. 
The appropriation was adopted 7-2, with Councilors Marie T. Harpin and Robert Moulton Jr. voting against after a debate over a City Hall employee. 
The Finance Committee last week voted to recommend a so-called 1/12th budget based on information from the state Division of Local Services, which advised municipalities that they can could count on level funding for education and unrestricted government aid for at least July and August. This monthly budget can be done for up to three months. 
Gov. Charlie Baker on June 19 submitted a $5.25 billion supplemental spending bill. The House and Senate have yet to fully craft a new budget after discarding the original spending plan because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
"I think it's important to just note that there is no requirement that a continuing budget for any of those funds be equal to 1/12th of the previous fiscal year," Mayor Thomas Bernard said on Tuesday night. "Each continuing budget and provides for all expenses that may be incurred for that particular month so it's a 1/12 in terms of time, not a 1/12 in terms of constant dollars. So that's the approach that we're taking."
He pointed out that the Retirement Board has agreed to a six-month payment plan of $512,978 a month, waiving interest, and that there would be no payments for the Hoosac Water Quality District or for elections, interest and snow and ice. These are examples, he said, of costs that would not normally be incurred in July. The city is paying its general insurance bill in full of $311,667 to receive a 3 percent discount. The monthly budget also takes into account the anticipated level-funded Chapter 70 and unrestricted local aid.
Harpin thanked the mayor for providing information on appropriation prior to the meeting but took aim at one particular element: the shifting of an employee into a temporary role. 
Harpin questioned why the director of community events was now the compliance officer for grants and whether the position had been posted. 
"So this is something that's ... pretty important to make sure that our guidelines, within the federal government guidelines of equal opportunity employment, to hire people in that department," she said. "I know that there was over 200 people recently laid off in the city of North Adams at Crane. And I'm wondering, there's got to be some of them that are qualified for accounting positions within the city. So, I'm just really concerned that these people didn't have the opportunity to apply for a position within the city."
She questioned why there was a group including councilors working on plans to promote diversity yet the city was not doing that in hiring. 
Bernard said there are no events currently happening because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and that the director was shifted over to do other work.
"This is a temporary reassignment due to a vacancy in a position, in order to keep necessary work happening," he said. "It is a person who is qualified to do the work, who has been doing the work incredibly well. And, you know, I'm comfortable with it."
Laying off the director and hiring someone else for the compliance position would mean the city would be paying out unemployment to one person and wages to another, Bernard said. 
"There's a fiscal responsibility piece of this, there's an operations management during a during a state of emergency piece of this. And there is a qualification piece of this," he said.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer said with COVID-19 grants coming through Community Development Block Grants and other funding sources, "we need somebody that can work on that, and this person, as a temporary fill-in, to keep our city employees employed, I think is important."
Harpin said it might be important to keep employees employed, but "isn't it important to keep other citizens employed that are just as qualified, or who knows, more than qualified?" 
Moulton asked how long the position would be temporary and if it would be posted as a permanent position. Bernard said the temporary nature of the post would depend on where the city was with other parts of the emergency. The city has had a hiring freeze for several months because of the pandemic. The office of tourism has no budget for July but the mayor said that could change in August or September (and depend in part on if the Fall Foliage Parade is held). The director is still being paid her wage and has not been bumped up to the compliance officer's salary.
But Harpin seemed frustrated with her fellow councilors' lack of interest in the way the post was filled. 
"I really do hope that this council understands what they're doing when they say that this is OK. It's OK for the mayor just to shuffle people around to jobs that are open and not post and not publicly advertise these positions to people that may be qualified and are unemployed," she said. "It's really, really upsetting that you would think that this is OK."
Harpin was also critical of an effort to revitalize Ashland Street that's been in the works for more than a year. A project of the NAMAzing Initiative (which did a revamp of Eagle Street that includes the popular parklet), Common Folk Artist Collective, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, and the city recently announced its crowdfunding campaign with Patronicity allowed it to commission a giant mural by artist Gaia on the high rise. 
She said during councilors' concerns she'd read that there were councilors in this group and it didn't appear that they were planning any community meetings or approvals by the board. 
"It's rather concerning a small group of people can go ahead and get permission ... to impact the city of North Adams in such a major way," she said.
Councilors Benjamin Lamb, a member of NAMAzing, and Jessica Sweeney of Common Folk are part of the organizing group. Lamb responded that the group has had discussions about the mural with the Housing Authority board, which owns and operates the six-story structure, and has distributed 180 surveys to residents of the building. 
"We will also be presenting it to the Public Arts Commission just so they are aware of the design features, even though it doesn't necessarily fall within their jurisdiction, as part of the greater landscape of art within the community," Lamb said, adding the art project isn't sealed yet. "There's a lot of work ahead of the group, and I just wanted to identify that as points of clarification."
When Moulton also began to weigh in, Councilor Jason LaForest called a point of order that the expression of concerns was turning into deliberation and that it should be put on the next meeting's agenda. Hopkins agreed. 
During concerns, Lamb said he would be asking the mayor and the Community Development Office to give a brief update on planned downtown activities at the next meeting on July 14. 
Harpin asked about putting picnic tables out at Windsor Lake and the mayor said the city did not have anyone to sanitize them regularly so he was waiting on guidance for the next phase of opening. 
The meeting also allowed public participation for the first time since March, and it went better than the School Committee's had earlier. Only one person spoke, Trevor Gilman, who asked that repairs and replacements of hydrants in the West End be considered in the budget. 
Tuesday was also the first time the council — at least some of it — was back in chambers since March. 
Hopkins, who has been in his seat at right along because the meeting is shown through Northern Berkshire Community Television via City Hall, was joined by Councilors Blackmer, Harpin, LaForest and Wayne Wilkinson, who had been strongly advocating for the return to City Hall. Councilors Keith Bona, Lamb, Moulton and Sweeney "Zoomed" in as did the mayor and Administrative Officer Michael Canales, from their offices in City Hall.  
"My final comment is that even though we don't have all our officers on board yet, it's nice to be back in Council Chambers even under these strange circumstances," Wilkinson said. 

Tags: fiscal 2021,   north adams_budget,   

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