North Adams mayor warns of deeper cuts if budget fails


Below, Mayor Richard Alcombright's PowerPoint as presented to members of the Finance Committee this week.

NORTH ADAMS -- More jobs will be lost, city paychecks will shrink, and public works and fire services will be further reduced -- unless his proposed fiscal 2015 budget is adopted, according to Mayor Richard Alcombright.

The mayor on Wednesday laid out the city's "worst case" fiscal scenario, urging members of the Finance Committee to support his current plan -- a proposed revenue package that already cuts six positions and raises water, sewer, and other fees to help balance the city's $37.74 million budget.

The proposed fiscal 2015 budget, which the mayor introduced to the City Council on Tuesday, is an increase of 3.42 percent over fiscal 2014, a jump the mayor blames largely on rising health insurance, public safety, and veteran's benefits costs. The city's insurance costs rose 8 percent this year, and eight city employees had spouses join their plan when North Adams Regional Hospital closed in March.

But if his plan is not approved, Alcombright said, another 14 1/2 full-time city positions will be eliminated in addition to those already proposed.

The cuts would include five workers at City Hall, two in the Police Department, four in the Fire Department, and 3 1/2 at the Department of Public Works, the mayor said. The city would operate on a four-day work week and all non-union employees -- including himself -- would see a 10 percent pay decrease.

The library's funding would take a 15 percent hit and residents would see a reduction in services, the mayor said, including mowing, sewer and snowplowing.

Alcombright's budget presentation on Tuesday was met with a mixed reception. Councilor Jennifer Breen said she couldn't support the revenue package as written because of its strain on lower-income residents, while other councilors expressed more initial support for the plan.

The proposal was referred to the Finance Committee, which is holding a series of public meetings on the issue.

In order to close a $620,000 deficit, the mayor's budget offers a $420,000 revenue package consisting of a 10 percent raise to water rates, an 8 percent raise in sewer fees, and an increase in parking violation and other fees. It also includes $200,000 in cuts consisting of a reduction in the DPW's operating budget and the reduction of one DPW worker and one police officer through attrition. Two other non-union employees would be laid off.

And while a proposed $750,000 aid package for the city awaits approval in the state Legislature, Alcombright said he will campaign for a Proposition 2 1/2 override next year

The mayor warned that the 10 percent pay cuts to non-union employees could give qualified department heads and employees like city Administrator Michael Canales a good reason to look elsewhere for employment

North Adams Fire Director Stephen Meranti staunchly opposes any further reduction his department, which is already understaffed according to standards set by the National Fire Protection Association.

The mayor's "worst-case" plan would abolish the fire department's minimum staffing requirement set under its collective bargaining agreement. Though a union representative was unavailable Thursday, Meranti said he would expect its members to challenge the cut of a minimum staffing requirement.

If the minimum staffing requirement is maintained but staffing is reduced, the overtime costs of filling in shifts would outweigh the savings benefit, Meranti said. When positions were unfilled in the early 2000s and the staff was below 20, the department spent roughly $370,000 in overtime -- nearly double what it spent on overtime in 2013, Meranti said, despite the higher wages earned by firefighters in 2013.

"The minimum staffing is the minimum for a reason," Meranti said. "It's the lowest we can go and safely provide protection for residents and our firefighters."

The Fire Department, which responds to about 1,200 calls per year, currently operates with six men per shift -- assuming no firefighter is sick or on vacation. Under the mayor's worst-case scenario, that number would be reduced to four. And under that scenario, the department would only be able to send out one truck per call instead of the usual two.

"We can't provide essential functions at the scene in the first 4 minutes of the fire," he said.

The department responded to 35 building fires last year -- a number that's misleading, Meranti said, because it doesn't include incidents when the department has responded quickly enough to prevent an full-on building fire. Typical response time for the department is about 4 minutes.

"There's so many calls that don't make the papers, and don't make the news, because we have what we have now," Meranti said.

Police Director Michael Cozzaglio and Director of Public Services Timothy Lescarbeau were unavailable to comment on Thursday.

Police Director Michael Cozzaglio said his department would face similar challenges. If the minimum staffing level is not reduced, Cozzaglio said a reduction of two police officers would cost the city more money in the long-run due to a significant increase in overtime.

"A reduction in staffing is dangerous and I just don't think it's going to be a cost savings," Cozzaglio said.

Cozzaglio also noted that, just as with the Fire Department, all reserve officers would be eliminated due to the layoffs due to stipulations in the collective bargaining agreement.

With a staff of 24 full-time officers, Cozzaglio warned that the reduction of staff and minimum staffing levels could endanger public and officer safety. He pointed to the recent homicide of Joshua Bressette, a 25-year-old North Adams resident, in the Bronx, N.Y.

"That started here in North Adams," Cozzaglio said.

Cozzaglio also said the Police Department is beginning to implement a plan to combat the city's heroin epidemic, the details of which he declined to discuss. He noted that the department responded to two drug overdoses, including one that was fatal, on Thursday alone.

FY 2015 City of North Adams Draft Budget by The Berkshire Eagle

To reach Adam Shanks:
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On Twitter: @EagleAdamShanks


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