North Adams mayor lays out $40M budget plan

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NORTH ADAMS — Another year, another "maintenance budget."

Mayor Thomas Bernard has introduced a $40.84 million draft city budget proposal that would increase city spending by less than 1 percent, as officials remain wary of the city's approach toward the tax levy ceiling — the maximum the city can raise by taxation under state law.

The fiscal 2020 spending proposal unveiled Wednesday relies on an increase of 1.71 percent in taxation to balance spending. Despite modest increases in spending, the levy ceiling continues to loom ahead and influence budget priorities. In fiscal 2016, the city's tax levy was $15.7 million, $2 million below the levy ceiling. In the proposed 2020 budget, the tax levy is just $564,487 below the levy ceiling.

"We're looking at the long-term tax levy challenges, which are no different than most communities around here," Bernard said. "It's something we all have to be mindful of, and we're really going to be focused on that over the next year."

In terms of percent, the increase of 0.37 percent in spending is smaller than the jump in spending of 1.9 percent that occurred during Bernard's budget cycle in office last year.

"We have a strong reserve position, and we're managing everything carefully," Bernard said.

The spending plan was discussed at a meeting of the City Council's Finance Committee on Wednesday, when Bernard provided councilors with a broad overview of the proposal.

Wednesday's public meeting was the first in a series to be held by the Finance Committee over the coming weeks. They are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in City Council chambers at City Hall every Wednesday through May 22, with each meeting covering a different portion of the city budget.

The Finance Committee is tasked with making a recommendation on the spending plan to the full City Council, which will take it up after the committee has finished its series of meetings.

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The council is expected to pass a budget before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

As the state continues to work through its own budget process and other variables, much of the city budget remains a work in progress based on a number of assumptions, Bernard noted.

The city's public school system accounts for $17.77 million, nearly half of the overall budget. The city held the school district to a 2 percent increase in its "level services" budget.

The city's pension obligations are increasing from $2.8 million to $2.95 million, while its expected medical insurance costs will rise from $4.65 million to $4.88 million.

The proposal projects a substantial decrease in costs associated with debt, from $1.67 million last year to $687,665 in fiscal 2020. As debt comes off the books, the 2020 fiscal year has long been eyed as an opportunity for substantial reinvestment in city infrastructure, but Bernard's budget is decidedly more conservative in its approach.

"The concern is that we're not making big capital investment moves, but some of the reasons for that is if you look at the growth of our state assessment, for example, I think it went up by about 10 percent, and a lot of that is related to things like charter school assessments," Bernard said. Had the increase been limited to 2 percent, he added, "we'd have another $200,000 of room to play with in the budget."

As the city's airport continues to grow — a new administration building is expected to come online later this year — the spending plan calls for the addition of a full-time employee to cover the airport's maintenance.

The city expects to pay for this position, in part, through revenue gained by leasing a space to a restaurant in the new administration building, the continued sale of aviation gasoline and ongoing lease agreements with tenants in a city-owned hangar.

"Between all of it, we think eventually, we want to make it cover the cost [of the employee]," said city Administrative Officer Michael Canales.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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