NORTH ADAMS — With budget season ahead, the city of North Adams is turning its attention to next year’s finances.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic and revenue decreases, Mayor Tom Bernard described the city’s budget position as “good.”
In a presentation to the finance committee Monday, he laid out major pitfalls and reasons for optimism. The big picture that Bernard presented comes ahead of a series of subcommittee meetings looking at each individual piece of the budget. Here are some of the take-aways ahead of that process.
1. A wave of departures signals that some city staff are being underpaid.
The resignations of City Administrative Officer Michael Canales, City Clerk Deborah Pedercini and City Assessor Ross Vivori in recent months suggest that the city has failed to properly compensate some roles, Bernard said.
“One of the reasons some of these positions have transitioned is because folks can take their skill set and go to a community where compensation is higher,” he told the subcommittee.
Bernard also said that some department heads and other staff members have been undercompensated for their work, since trims to staffing levels have shifted more responsibilities and overtime to current employees. The mayor proposed starting with a compensation and benefit study to figure out where the city is and is not competitive.
2. The city should see increased tax revenues from new construction and second homeowners.
A preliminary estimate by the assessor’s office pins increased tax revenues from new residential and commercial growth at about $275,000 to $300,000 next fiscal year. The sources include: completed work at the new Cumberland Farms; the new Clear Sky Cannabis store; the sale of the former Johnson School; the anticipated sale of Notre Dame church and school in early May; the new Wall Streeter apartments; and a new residence on Versailles Avenue.
Part of the growth can be attributed to second homes, Bernard added, since those properties are taxed at the “personal property” rate, which is substantially higher than the residential tax rate.
3. Federal money from the American Rescue Plan will begin to pour in.
The city expects to be eligible for more than $3.7 million from the bill signed into law by President Joe Biden. The money can be used to soften the blow of the pandemic, including financial impacts on local industries such as hospitality and tourism.
According to Bernard, the money also can be put toward infrastructure and may be implemented to help the city migrate its water and sewer services to an enterprise fund. That would separate water and sewer revenues and expenditures from the rest of the city budget, which would allow North Adams “to demonstrate to the public the true, total cost” of the service, among other benefits, as the state government has written.
4. The transfer station rate probably will go up.
A state review of the operation last year showed that staffing was an “area of concern,” Bernard said. Increased staffing, he pointed out, would increase the cost of running the transfer station.
“I think the recommendation [we make] is going to involve a higher rate this year, but I can’t say right now what that number’s going to look like.”
5. School enrollment will continue to trend down.
Enrollment projections for the city’s public schools are on a downward trajectory, according to numbers provided by the state during planning for the potential renovation or replacement of Greylock Elementary School.
“Those long-term projections are something we’re going to have to stay mindful of,” Bernard said.
The good news in the short term is that North Adams Public Schools has a relatively level budget request for next year, Bernard said, in part because of stimulus funding. Meanwhile, the assessed budget for McCann Technical School has risen from last year by about $170,000 “based on enrollment,” he said.
6. Progress on a new public safety building could depend on retrieving money in a state bond bill.
Given the pressing issues around the safety of the building that houses the police and fire departments, the city has put in an application for help with a preliminary site study from the District Local Technical Assistance program, Bernard told councilors.
With that preliminary analysis completed, Bernard said, the city could “advocate release of the state bond funding” for an in-depth look at two or three sites — referring to the $1.2 million passed by the Massachusetts State Senate in 2018 for a study of a new public safety facility.