North Adams has depleted its reserves and raised a range of fees, and the city’s mayor plans to push for a $1.5 million property tax override in a bid to stave off fiscal ruin.
“We’re broke. We’re broke. We’re one cycle short of Detroit,” Mayor Richard Alcombright told state officials Wednesday morning.
The Department of Revenue’s director of accounts, Gerard Perry, advised the mayor to stop comparing his city to Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy protection last July, and said, “We will not allow it.”
On Wednesday, the Municipal Finance Oversight Board granted North Adams the ability to use the state’s bond rating for $31.4 million in borrowing to finance accessibility improvements required by the US Department of Justice, the city’s share of airport improvements, technology investments, and a middle school renovation.
After Massachusetts School Building Authority reimbursements, the total borrowed would be about $8.2 million, Alcombright said.
Alcombright said the city is hoping to replenish its reserves, which stand near zero, with a $750,000 one-time grant from the Legislature. The mayor said he has met with House and Senate budget writers on that issue.
“He’s not the only one; Haverhill gets $2 million a year, by the way, without restrictions,” Perry said at the meeting with State Auditor Suzanne Bump and other state officials.
On Wednesday, House Ways and Means Cionnuttee chairman Brian Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat, said the money for Haverhill is “a different issue” and complicated. A Dempsey aide said the money for Haverhill is related to a city-owned hospital.
Senator Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat who represents the city in the Berkshires, sponsored the provision of the Senate budget that would give North Adams a $750,000 grant to make up for revenue lost when the North Adams Regional Medical Center closed abruptly earlier this year.
“It’s like the wind’s popped out of you,” Alcombright said about the closing of the 129-year-old hospital, which employed more than 500.
The mayor said the reopening of emergency services has brought about 160 people back to work and “settled us down a little bit.”
Alcombright, a former banker who was elected to his father’s City Council seat in 2001 and who won the mayoralty in 2009, said that this is the first year in his dozen years of elected office that North Adams will have a balanced budget, without the need to draw on reserves and without any reserves to draw from.
“We’ve cut budgets,” he said. “We’ve raised taxes. We’ve raised fees. We’ve cut budgets. We’ve raised taxes. We’ve raised fees. And this is the first year in my memory that our budget is balanced,” Alcombright said, summing up the recent fiscal picture.
The City Council approved a budget Tuesday, Alcombright said, that relies on raising water and sewer rates and parking fees and increasing the penalty for late payments.
He said he plans to start campaigning for a property tax override this September or October, which will give him more time to lay the groundwork than he had before his failed 2011 bid to raise property taxes above the limit imposed by state law.
Alcombright said he started campaigning for an override in May 2011 for a vote the next month. North Adams defeated the 2011 override attempt 1,812 to 1,235, according to state records.
“It’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard sell.”
“He’s just in a bad situation, and it’s not his doing,” Perry said.
“Should the override fail, he will cut the budget. He’s committed to me he would cut the budget.”
Without the override, North Adams would face additional layoffs, which was the Plan B this year before the council approved his fee increases, Alcombright said. He said that even with the fee increases the city did not fill 11 school positions and six other positions in city government.