Current Adams town administrator Jonathan Butler recently informed the Board of Selectpersons of his plans to leave the position by the end of next year. As it considers his replacement, Adams has an opportunity to reshape its future.
By all accounts, Butler has been a good manager. He hasn’t walked the town into any legal or financial boondoggles, and he leaves us in as good or better shape than he found us.
But there is no mistaking that serious problems lie in wait for Adams in 2015 and beyond. The biggest single problem, of course, is the same problem facing every other former New England mill town, where to find the money to fuel the tax base to pay the bills to run the place.
That problem, raising enough taxes to pay the bills, is a particularly gruesome nightmare for Berkshire County. And the reason it’s such a nightmare, of course, is that the property tax is the linchpin of our tax base. The relative success of using the property tax as a money source depends almost entirely on an economically and numerically robust population.
Berkshire County’s population is anything but. Out of 14 Massachusetts counties, the U.S. Census Bureau lists only three as showing declining population numbers from 2010 to 2013. Franklin County declined a statistically negligible 0.2 percent. Barnstable County to the east, probably owing to the fact that Cape Cod is full up, declined 0.4 percent.
These newest numbers should be our collective wake-up call. The population of America is well documented as growing toward large urban centers, and Massachusetts is no exception. A thumbnail comparison of our county vs. Suffolk County, home of the metro Boston area, illustrates this trend. Suffolk County grew about 4.6 percent from 2010 to 2013, which was driven by Boston’s almost identical growth rate of 4.1 percent. Berkshire County’s decline of 1.2 percent fell neatly in line with Pittsfield’s drop of 1.5 percent, with Williamstown, Adams and North Adams all lying within less than half a percentage point of that same number.
The population numbers throughout the western border of Massachusetts show a consistency that is too widespread to reflect anything but a countywide trend. Great Barrington in the county’s southernmost region has a nearly identical percentage of population loss as Clarksburg to the far north. It’s clear that the population of all of Berkshire County is in a slow, steady downward spiral.
It doesn’t take a master’s degree in municipal planning to recognize the immediate impact of this decline on our property-based tax system. Less people equals less homeowners equals less tax dollars.
Adams, therefore, faces some thorny issues in the years ahead. If population is going to continue to drop from 1 to 2 percent annually, what thinking will go in to protecting and enriching town revenue sources? Is the property tax the only way we can legitimately find the money to fund our non-state supplied portion of the budget?
Adams, along with every other city and town in the commonwealth, depends mightily on state aid to float the roughly 70 percent of its budget spent on education. Is it time for town leaders to begin serious discussion about consolidating both school and school transportation costs with other Northern Berkshire communities?
And, of course, the idea of consolidation can be applied to almost all of the expensive but necessary municipal services such as highway maintenance and public safety. The time may have come to start talking about North County public works, and North County police and fire protection.
Adams also has to be careful not to clutch at straws as budgets become increasingly demanding in the face of diminishing resources. For example, a developer is talking to town leaders about turning the old Waverly factory buildings into subsidized housing. That may be a good thing for the tax base, but the question of how to structure the nature of that development has to be answered fully if it’s going to represent the best path forward for all of Adams.
In its twin downtown main streets, Park and Summer, Adams faces long-term challenges. It’s never fair to blame elected officials for empty storefronts, but the fact remains that filling those storefronts should be the number one priority of every elected and full-time official and employee in Adams. Another immediate priority should be codifying and unifying the signage on both streets.
Adams is a beautiful town. Capitalizing on that natural beauty represents the best path forward. Between the Greylock Glen and the Rail Trail and the Visitors Center, the town is making good solid strides in that direction.
There is a real opportunity for Adams as it selects its next town administrator. It’s important that whoever is selected understands and can comprehensively discuss not only the hard financial realities which lie ahead, but also creative ways to move the town forward in spite of those difficulties.
Bill Donovan wrote columns for The North Adams Transcript.