Bill Donovan: Mayor rebrands North Adams
Over the past several months, Mayor Richard Alcombright of North Adams has spent a great deal of time lobbying the Patrick administration and Legislature to get a financial bailout package from the state's taxpayers. In his plea for money, Alcombright blames everyone but himself for the financial mess that now exists in North Adams.
He claims that North Adams has lost more than $3 million in state aid since 2009. True, but it all happened prior to his assuming office. Since Alcombright became mayor, state aid has increased, and the city has not lost a penny in local aid. He blames former Mayor John Barrett for depleting all the reserves. The figures obtained from the Department of Revenue reports show that Barrett left Alcombright more than $3.5 million in reserves and $1.2 million in excess tax levy capacity. Alcombright even blames the voters for his financial mess because they didn't approve his $1.2 million override in 2011 (just months earlier residents were hit with a 50 percent increase in water and sewer rates). This month, users will see another 18 percent increase in their water and sewer rates.
The mayor can blame whoever he wants for the financial mess in North Adams, but the blame lies with his inability to control his spending. North Adams' outside auditor, Thomas Scanlon, summed it up best last year when he told the City Council Finance Committee that "the city cannot keep spending to the brink." You don't give $800,000 in pay raises after the voters said no to a Prop 2 1/2 override. You don't increase the city's share of health insurance premiums to 75 percent at a time when most communities and business reduced their contributions.
In four years, the city's health insurance costs have risen by more than a million dollars annually. You don't cut cops and teachers while at the same time pay 75 percent of the health insurance premium of part-time elected officials at a cost of $15,000 per family plan.
Alcombright gave a $350,000 tax break to Crane at the same time as he increased the tax rate for homeowners by 4.5 percent. While the mayor tells officials in Boston that North Adams is broke, next year's budget includes pay increases for employees. One employee received a $5,400 re-grade with no additional duties! Others received annual raises of more than $3,000, and two City Hall employees received $5,000 annual increases last year. In March, Alcombright settled contracts with bargaining units that included retroactive pay along with a 25 percent increase in their clothing allowance.
In April, Alcombright sent a letter to the legislators seeking support for legislation which would allow North Adams to use money from the sale of land to balance the budget, telling them, "Loss of population, a glut of aging real estate, aging infrastructure, increases in poverty, and social-economic ills that result, combined with a ‘true' urban dynamic, have placed increasing strains on the city's reserves and ability to sustain its budget." I'll bet this will bring a lot of people and businesses to North Adams! One could ask what he has been doing for the past four years. A few weeks ago, appearing before the State Municipal Finance Oversight Board, Alcombright proclaimed; "We're broke, we're broke. We're one cycle short of Detroit." You can't make this stuff up!
Alcombright's comments didn't receive any coverage in the local media [until an Eagle editorial of July 3,] and few in North Adams and Berkshire County were aware of his statements. The rest of Massachusetts and beyond saw them, since his "We're one cycle short of Detroit" comment appeared in articles in The Boston Globe and Springfield Republican, and on New England Public Radio as well as the State House News Service. Department of Revenue Director of Accounts, Gerard Perry, ordered Alcombright to stop making the Detroit comparison, adding that the Department of Revenue wouldn't let it happen. The fact is that Perry and other Department of Revenue officials can share in the blame for the financial mess in North Adams. If they had read the annual audits, they would have seen the red flags being raised by outside auditor Thomas Scanlon three years ago.
I was a member of the North Adams City Council when Sprague Electric Company left the city, and I remember how tough things were as we attempted to rebuild the city's economy. The city had no money, and times were tough, but Mayor Barrett always projected the city in a positive light. People started to believe in North Adams, as two new schools were constructed, a water filtration plant was built, and Mass MoCA opened. These projects happened with financial help from the state. Barrett rebuilt the city's economy, and anyone who said a bad word about North Adams would hear from him! He created a positive image of North Adams, one which would encourage people to come to North Adams. Now Mayor Alcombright's statement, "We're one cycle short of Detroit" has done irreparable harm to North Adams. Let's hope the governor removes the word "unrestricted" from the grant.
Mayor Alcombright has often said that he wanted to re-brand North Adams, and it appears that he has been successful. Under his leadership, North Adams went from being "One of the Five Hidden Jewels of New England," according to Yankee Magazine, to "We're one cycle short of Detroit."
Bill Donovan wrote columns for The North Adams Transcript.
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