Greg Roach's Berkshires Blog
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
  Close of Day
It seems councilor Clark Billings will indeed be resigning.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
I wonder if Clark is a Dylan Thomas fan? It would explain a lot.

(also, why wasn't tonight's meeting broadcast on ch 17?)
  Downing on Housing
I had forgotten that Senator Ben's policy expertise while on John Olver's staff was housing, but I did not realize that he received his Master's Degree last year from Tufts University’s Department of Urban and Environment Policy & Planning - Not a bad set of bona fides when it comes to the discussion of low-income housing in Berkshire County.

My concern about the potential of a "cookie cutter" approach in the Expiring Use public housing bill was not needed. It seems that Beacon Hill has gotten this one right, so far.

Most importantly the bill allows for local control should the developer of low-income housing decide to sell off the projects that have met the time limit stipulated in their government subsidized mortgages. In North Adams we have a few such scenarios potentially coming down the pike in the next decade:

The Expiring Use bill gives municipalities and the state housing authority the right of first refusal to purchase these properties should their owners decide to cash out. This is good. And if the glutted real estate market in North Adams holds true, it probably won't even be an issue around here.

In the same email from Senator Ben, I discovered that he and I have some very similar ideas about promoting home ownership in places like North Adams and Pittsfield. Evidently Sen Downing has filed a bill that promotes rehabbing homes in historic districts (like most of central North Adams) by providing tax incentives to owner-occupants.

I know a city council candidate who proposes something very similar......

I look forward to learning more about the state's efforts.
Monday, July 27, 2009
  Unaffordable Affordable Housing
While there are definitely areas of Berkshire County that need more affordable housing, or at least maintaining the status quo, North Adams is not one of them. We have well over the 10% state recommended guidelines (13% in 2000 and probably closer to 20% now) as well as woefully deteriorated set of "projects" that either need an infusion of private capital or need to be torn down.

I have become a fan of "mixed income" housing where a certain percentage of units in projects are reserved for those with middle class incomes. The benefits of this approach have a tremendous impact on neighborhoods and schools. Deconcentrating poverty is where the efforts in places like North Adams should be focused.

With all that in mind, I hope that Ben's bill** does not take a cookie cutter approach to "preserving" a system that is not serving our city and community well.
With the clock ticking on more than 23,000 affordable housing units -- including units in Pittsfield, North Adams, Dalton, Lee, and Great Barrington -- the state Senate passed a bill this week that would attempt to keep these apartments within the public sphere.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing explained that more than one quarter of the state’s 90,000 affordable housing units are in danger of "expiring use." These buildings, some of which were built by private developers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, were built with 25- to 40-year contracts mandating affordable rent. In addition to structural financing, several units have had their rents subsidized by Section 8.
I'd love to hear what our State Senator has to say.

Ben - Consider my comments to be an open forum.

(I am turning off comment moderation for this thread to spur discussion. Play nice. I will delete inappropriate comments.)

**UPDATE - Senator Downing writes to clarify that he did not write the bill, but he supports it. Given his very busy schedule today, he hopes have more specific information tomorrow.

UPDATE II: More information in the post above.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
  More Topix Drama
One of the sub plots to this year's election is whether Clark Billings will resign, stay on as an absentee, or get pushed out of his seat before his term expires at the end of the year. It seems that at least one councilor has asked him to go:

Who needs a beach and trashy novel when you've got this type silliness to read.
Friday, July 24, 2009
If I am not mistaken, today is the day that mediation begins between the city and its unions who have filed a complaint regarding the percentage of health insurance premiums the city has paid. It seems likely that mediation will lead to more formal proceedings with state labor board and then to binding arbitration.

For the record, arbitration costs $1500 per day. And when you add in the legal fees that the whole process will require, it is going to cost many thousands of dollars to the taxpayers of North Adams.

Based upon my amateur interpretation of the raw data from the city, the employees have a very strong case. If the contracts say that the premium split is 70/30, then that number should be based on the real numbers, not an insurance consultant's recommendation. A percentage of the money that the city did not pay in to the fund because of lower than projected claims should have been rebated to employees through premium holidays or the money should STILL be in the fund to offset future claims.

Neither of these things happened.

It bothers me greatly that, when given an opportunity to save the city money when the employees put forth a good faith effort to resolve this in a cost-effective way, the council and the mayor balked.

Now, the door appears shut on that option.

After reviewing the documents and wading through morass that is Massachusetts Insurance Law I have a few more questions I would like answered:

If we want to prevent this from happening in the future, we need to understand what has actually happened.
The Topix Cowards are in rare form today:
And they wonder why people choose not to serve publicly.
  Politcal Speech and First Amendment
The dust-up over sandwich boards in downtown North Adams has some people concerned that the real intention is to stifle political speech. Some suggest that the planning board's actions are directly related to Cup and Saucer's sidewalk support of Dick Alcombright's campaign for mayor.

I would tell the city to tread very, very carefully. While "commercial speech" is treated somewhat differently than individual speech under the first amendment, I've watched similar cases play out and the city almost always loses:
From the Supreme Court

“a content-based restriction on political speech in a public forum . . . must be subjected to the most exacting scrutiny. Thus, we have required the State to show that the regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”
Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 321 (1988).
This also applies to the city's time restrictions on political lawn signs. Time and time again such ordinances have been struck down because they do not serve the state interest. Just sayin'....

(Thanks to CB for the research.)
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
  Simple Question
How much taxpayer subsidized Section 8 Housing in North Adams is "enough?"
  If a Shoe Drops in North Adams, Does it Make a Sound?
The Teacher's Union answers one of my questions. Former city administrative officer (currently employed by State Atty General), Kathy Eade, played a role in this. From a letter to the editor in today's paper:
Ms. Eade told me that one of the reasons she left her job at City Hall was because she believed city employees were paying more than their fair share of the health insurance costs and that the mayor knew it.

... she had reviewed a spreadsheet that had been prepared at City Hall, which revealed that for several years, city employees were paying more than their 30 percent share of health insurance costs.

Under Mass Public Information law, we asked for the spreadsheet that Ms. Eade had seen. The city denied our request...
With all due respect to my friends at The Transcript, this is a viable story. It is not some minor drama that needs only to be summarized after it plays out.

I've done some digging myself, and will have more thoughts on this later tonight or tomorrow.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
  This I Like
From The Transcript:
NORTH ADAMS -- The city’s public schools’ summer program has been ranked among the 10 best in the country by the prestigious National Center for Summer Learning at the Johns Hopkins University.

"We applied for a grant award that comes from them, and although we did not get the grant, we were notified that we were named as a top 10 program," Summer Program Coordinator Noella Carlow said Thursday. "Our program is excellent, and we are doing some wonderful things."
Now, about those other 10 months....
Thursday, July 16, 2009
  Draw Your Own Conclusions
The North Adams Teachers Association has released the numbers regarding who pays what into the city's insurance trust fund.

The crux of the argument is that if the city had paid into the trust fund based upon Blue Cross' premium numbers, the numbers which the employees' share had been based, there would almost $2 million more in the fund. Or, conversely, it can be argued that the employees were overcharged by $600,000.

I think it looks like they have a pretty good case. I'd love to hear the city's interpretation of these numbers.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
  A Damn Good Argument for National Healthcare
Tonight the North Adams City Council rejected Dick Alcombright's proposal to have the council's finance committee examine the claims by the city's teachers, fire and police unions that the city is not paying its contractual share of the employee health insurance premiums.

The proposal was made even more interesting by the unions' announcement that they would suspend their legal action against the city if the council provided a transparent review process. This could save the city thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Alas, the Mayor convinced a majority of the councilors that the expensive "process" of mediation and legal grievance should be allowed to play out. At the same time he excoriated the councilors for voting for the budget that included the plan that Mr. Alcombright, Councilors Boucher and Moulton voted to examine, 'if they didn't understand it.'

To me, that is a major disconnect. I think the council shirked its oversight duties tonight, and also passed on an opportunity to save the city money.

Here is the boiled down version of the controversy:

The city of North Adams is self insured. What this means is that the city pays Blue Cross to administer the health insurance plan, but the city and the employees pay into a city controlled trust fund to pay claims.

In essence, the city is its own insurance company. Like any company, sometimes things go better than projected, sometimes worse. The "premiums" that employees pay 30% of are based upon actuarial calculations by Blue Cross of what the claims against the trust fund will likely be. The city's portion of the "premium" is paid in actual claims rather than a projected number.

The union's figures supposedly demonstrate that for the past several years the city has paid out less than they expected, but the savings were never passed on to the employees. They also claim that the law requires a commission of the parties involved (employees and city) to periodically evaluate the plan, but this commission has not had a role in the process.

When the Mayor was asked directly whether the city pays 70% of the premium, he answered, "Yes.... Eventually."

That answer makes me very, very curious. I want to see the numbers.
Monday, July 13, 2009
With the mini-scandal of the city's underpayment of it's contracted share of employee health insurance premiums brewing, I can't decide whether it would be more interesting to be in council chambers or to watch the meeting on TV. If I go to the meeting I would have to put on a clean shirt after work. If I stay at home, I can enjoy a beer with the entertainment.

Sam Adams versus Mayor Barrett. It's a classic match up.
  Wasted Money
From the sounds of things, it looks like there very well may be primary election in September for the city council race this fall. From a candidate's perspective, this has both its benefits and drawbacks. Basically it gives a candidate two opportunities to make a case, but it also costs more money for things like signs and such. In my case, it probably helps get my name out there more than it otherwise would. I welcome that opportunity.

However, from a taxpayer's point of view, this would be a royal waste of money if we hold a primary election simply to eliminate no more than a handful of candidates. The fact is that there are nine at-large seats and the top nine vote-getters in September will likely be the top nine, possibly save one or two, in November.

I understand the idea of such an election to narrow a field down to two candidates for one seat, i.e. the mayor's race, but that scenario doesn't seem to apply this year.

What's the point of narrowing down the council race? How much does such an election cost the city?
Wednesday, July 08, 2009
  Stimulus Money
A couple of local organizations get a small cut of the Stimulus Funds via the National Endowment for the Arts:
Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School
Adams, MA
CATEGORY: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act


Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc.
North Adams, MA
CATEGORY: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
Darn socialists!
  Simple Question
Does the city actually pay 70% of the health insurance premiums, as they are required to do under their contract with employees, every month?

Pretty easy to ask and verify.

Which reporter will ask this question on the record and ask for the relevant paperwork?
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
  An Opportunity for some Journalism
The unfolding story about North Adams' self-insurance trust fund presents an interesting opportunity for our local paper. Can The Transcript devote the time and resources to actually understanding the issue - which includes tricky subjects like state insurance law, labor law, municipal accounting, etc.... - or will the reporting simply be "he said, she said" quotes.

I know the paper has very limited resources these days, but this is the kind of story that can and will increase readership if residents believe that they can actually learn something. The reporters at the paper are smart cookies. They can figure it out if given the time to do some independent analysis.

At the risk of overstepping, let me suggest a few things:
1) Ask the unions for their numbers and analysis. Sit down with someone and have them go through their allegations in detail.
2) Ask the city and its officials for their numbers and analysis.
3) Call the state insurance commission and ask for a quick tutorial on municipal self insurance trust funds.
4) Investigate the allegations that this issue is why Mary Katherine Eade resigned from her position a couple years back.
5) Explain the difference between the private audit that the city performs on its books and the public audit that the unions are requesting.
6) Most importantly, take the time needed to understand the whole picture. If that means that a few mundane stories do not get written this week, so be it. This one is a biggy!
Good luck with this. Tight budgets, election year politics, opaque and boring subject matter, etc.... will not make it easy.
A blog of random thoughts and reactions emanating from the bank of a mountain stream in the farthest reaches of the bluest of blue states.

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greg at gregoryroach dot com

"Livability, not just affordability." - Dick Alcombright

My ongoing campaign for North Adams City Council

iBerkshires' Online Event Calendar

Because a Chart is Worth 1000 Words

Congressional Budget Office data

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