North Adams and the FY 2012 Budget
It figures that it would take something as wonky as a municipal budget to get me to sit down an write something longer than a Facebook status. I guess it boils down to the fact that I find the conversations surrounding the fiscal situation in North Adams to be grossly over-simplistic and generally full of rumor and ill will towards civil servants.
Tonight I sat through a three hour line-item budget presentation by Mayor Alcombright to the finance committee of the city council. In the gallery were a few civilians like myself, a handful of city councilors, the department heads of the city workforce, and, of course, the local tea party contingent (all three of them).
It was stunning to see the cuts being made, a smaller school budget, the flat salaries, the defunded programs, the eliminated positions, intentionally underfunding the pension fund, etc... and then realizing that this was the best case scenario
. This was the budget that would be implemented if the Proposition 2 1/2 property tax override is passed next month.
I can only imagine what the "Plan B" budget will look like if the override fails.
What bothers me the most about this whole process are the political posturing and misrepresentations that keep cropping up about how we got here in the first place. It's not hard to understand and can be boiled down to a few simple facts:
1) North Adams, being one of the poorer cities in the state, relies on the State of Massachusetts to provide huge amounts of aid to the city and to the schools. In the past three years, those funds have dramatically shriveled.
2) Instead of trying to make up the revenue lost from the state coffers, the city has been in deficit spending mode for the past three budgets, spending down almost all the reserves and free cash, rather than gradually raising the levy to a point where we could pay our own bills over several years.
3) Because of this deficit spending, the city woke up last year and raised taxes and implemented a sewer fee to try and make up part of the difference. Because of this inability to see just how deep and long the hole would be, the city's hikes have only made a dent in the deficit.
4) Now we are so far out of balance that we cannot sustain the basic services of a city without raising taxes higher than the law allows without an override vote.
It's pretty simple. We were not spending extravagantly, but we were spending more than we were taking in, seemingly hoping that the state would magically find the money to send more aid to cities and towns. Obviously that is not what happened.
So here we are.
I've long maintained, since well before my last run for city council, that North Adams must support more of its own financial needs. We absolutely must enlarge the tax base through growth and by increasing revenue. Failure to do this will lead to a very bleak scenario that will cripple the city for several years. That time has come. If the override fails and we slash services to balance the budget, any hope of a North Adams Renaissance can be pushed back by another decade.
The fact is that we have far more at stake than property taxes (which even with override will be among the lowest in the state). We want jobs and people to move to North Adams, but, frankly, businesses and people don't move to places that are cutting education, reducing hours at the library, not enforcing laws and codes, etc...
A commenter out on iBerkshires made the comparison of 'Mississippi is to the US as North Adams is to Massachusetts.' Personally I think that is unfair.... for now. If we slash and burn, Mississippi might just be a complement.