'Worst-case scenario' budget in North Adams cuts winter plowing, library hours
NORTH ADAMS -- Snow-covered roads won't be plowed immediately and icy ones wouldn't be treated with sand if a revenue package isn't adopted as part of the next municipal budget, the head of North Adams' public services department is warning the Finance Committee.
This week, Commissioner of Public Services Timothy Lescarbeau also described millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades the city needs but is delaying, while North Adams Public Library Director Mindy Hackner said further cuts could cause the library to lose its certification and reduce its hours.
The Finance Committee's meeting on Wednesday was the third in a four-part series of meetings reviewing the mayor's proposed $37.74 million fiscal 2015 budget, which closes a $620,000 deficit with $200,000 in cuts and a $420,000 revenue package that raises water and sewer rates nearly 10 percent.
To date, the committee has heard from department heads for fire, police, library, public services, and others on how Mayor Richard Alcombright's proposed budget would impact their functions and how the "worst-case scenario" budget -- if the revenue package is not passed -- would impact them.
The hearings did come under fire Wednesday from one city councilor, critical that presentations from various department heads on the city's finances were turning into a "sell-job" for a future Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Lescarbeau used a slideshow to show degraded infrastructure, including decay on the Veterans Memorial Bridge, extensive blockage on the interior of city water pipes, a failing aqueduct, and flood chute walls that have collapsed.
"We have a critical infrastructure problem here, and I can't stress that enough," Lescarbeau said.
Under the mayor's proposed budget, the Department of Public Works would lose an employee. If the mayor's proposed revenue package isn't approved by City Council, it would lose three and a half more, according to the mayor.
The DPW will take steps to reduce its budget this year, according to Lescarbeau. For example, the department will no longer unplug clogged lateral sewer lines -- technically the property of the homeowner -- and shave about 20 percent of overtime costs, or $15,000. Lescarbeau estimates that the department helps homeowners with this service about 50 times a year.
"We're the only city that does it, we should get rid of that," Lescarbeau said.
During winter, the city will likely stop using sand to treat its 210 lane-miles of road, reducing material costs and associated street-sweeping costs in the spring. With less manpower, roads will be plowed less frequently.
"If we're going to cut and reduce the budget, these are things that we're going to have to do to keep afloat," Lescarbeau said.
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson said Lescarbeau's presentation was creating "doom and gloom," and said he didn't want the Finance Committee meetings to be "the beginning of a sell-job for a [Proposition] 2 1/2 override," which the mayor has said he will campaign for next year.
"What's that got to do with us here tonight?" Wilkinson asked. "We don't have the money in the budget here to take care of any of that. I don't understand why you're here tonight."
Lescarbeau said he was present to support the proposed revenue package to at least keep the department on a "level field."
"The citizens of this city need to decide what direction they want the city to go [in]," Lescarbeau said.
Library Director Mindy Hackner echoed many of Lescarbeau's funding concerns, saying that the city has already underfunded its library for at least seven years according to state formula. Under the mayor's "worst-case scenario," the library budget would take a 10 percent cut, likely close on Fridays, and lose four of its six part-time employees.
"In the face of all of this, morale decreases, while we're being asked to increase our services," Hackner said.
Since it's underfunded -- the library budget accounts for only 0.76 percent of the city's spending, well below the state average of 1.3 percent -- the state's Board of Library Commissioners must grant the library a waiver to retain its certification. That waiver is not guaranteed, and Hackner warned the council that "you're playing with fire." If the library lost certification, its patrons would lose access to inter-library loaning and databases, and the library would lose eligibility for state grants.
With its $296,751 budget in fiscal 2014, the library circulated 120,000 items to its 8,300 registered users. Its five full-time and 6 part-time employees serve between 200 and 300 people every day.
"We're a democratic institution, we're designed to meet the needs of your community, and we serve every member of the community from birth through death," Hackner said.
Wilkinson said he sympathized with Hackner's position. But after reading aloud the salaries of several library employees, he questioned the importance of the library relative to the police and fire departments.
"In the worst-case scenario, we're going to lose two police officers making the same amount of money that two librarians are making now," Wilkinson said. "I prefer to have the police officers."
Wilkinson also questioned the library's books and supplies budget of $45,000, and asked if the library could institute a one-year moratorium on new book purchases.
"We could reinstate a police officer," Wilkinson said. "I just want people to know what these things are costing. And these things are costing exactly what it's going to take to retain firefighters and police officers."
Other councilors and the mayor spoke in support of the library's level funding.
"You know when you go on a moratorium for a year it's not coming back," said Councilor Joshua Moran. "If we're talking about this, we might as well just shut it down now."
Alcombright called libraries the "heart and soul" of a community.
Hackner argued that the comparison to police and fire was unfair.
"It's a different kind of service," she said. "We don't put our lives on the lines, we don't put out fires, and we don't approach crazy people with guns. But we do something every day for the people in your community. You have citizens here who would be hurt if that library was closed an additional day."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.