North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS -- Former Mayor John Barrett III is upset that Mayor Richard J. Alcombright is saying the root cause of the city’s fiscal crisis is based on several years of "mismanagement" and that Alcombright "inherited a mess" from the previous administration.
Barrett said Wednesday that the city’s fiscal crisis was caused by the loss of about $4 million in state aid beginning in 2003, not by his fiscal management. He said his philosophy was not to tax the people more to make up deficits.
During Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Alcombright said the city would have to raise property taxes by at least 10 percent, up to its levy limit, and he broached the possibility of needing to raise $1 million through a Proposition 21Ž2 override as one solution to balance his proposed $40 million fiscal 2011 budget.
Alcombright attributed the fiscal crisis partly to a 17 percent cut in state aid over the last few years and partly to Barrett’s use of $3.4 million to pay off recurring debt. He said that strategy drained the city’s reserve and free cash accounts.
Barrett said he used those accounts because the city was facing dire times, and the City Council, which included Alcombright at the time, approved of doing so.
"I have not said a word for 41Ž2 months and have tried to return very quietly to private life, but after seeing some of the comments made by the mayor and a few
"Clearly for 26 years I balanced the budget every year and finished in the black," he said. "I never had one finding against me in any audit performed by an outside auditing firm -- never had one finding by the state Department of Revenue, never had one finding by a state auditor."
Barrett said he and Alcombright obviously have different philosophies of fiscal management.
"The way in which we balanced the budget, we never once taxed the people to build up the city’s reserves," he said. "There’s a clear, fundamental difference in philosophy -- it’s not about mismanagement but a difference in philosophy. The reason why the city is in this fiscal crisis is the same reason that every other community in the state is facing a fiscal crisis -- a loss of state aid."
Alcombright agreed Wednesday that he has a different fiscal philosophy and that the loss in state aid contributed to the city’s financial woes.
"It’s a total difference in philosophies," he said during a telephone interview. "During the last three or four budget cycles, when I was a member of the council, I always asked why we didn’t increase the water rates and increase taxes just a little bit more as a way to retain our reserves and use them for other things. Last night, I did state that a lot of this was caused by cuts of 17 percent in state aid, but I believe a lot of this would have been avoidable if we had been a little more creative with our fees and taxes and maintained more of our reserves." He added, "I feel things have been mismanaged. I don’t think there is any fine line between being mismanaged and misappropriation -- a term I have not used. As for myself and [the other councilors], I can honestly say for the last five budget sessions that are most memorable in my mind, we always asked to see the city’s revenues but were never provided with them as part of the budget process.
"While it was part of our purview, we never knew if there was a deficit or a surplus. It was [Barrett’s] style of management that he would balance the budget through the year and utilize cash reserves to do it. It is that management style that put us in the cash position that we are in -- one of the worst in the state."
Barrett contends that the city doesn’t need to raise taxes to the levy limit or look to a Proposition 21Ž2 override and sewer fee to balance the fiscal 2011 budget.
"There’s still $2 million available in the reserve accounts and close to $900,000 he [Alcombright] can raise in taxes," he said. "What the city is facing can be solved without any Proposition 21Ž2 override, but it does mean a further tightening of the belt. This isn’t a new idea -- this crisis is something I talked about during the campaign and one of the reasons I wanted to stay in the position for two more years."
Alcombright said the city also has had to contend with fallout from underfunding its medical insurance trust fund, which he maintains could have cost the city millions in litigation fees if the local employee unions had sued.
"What he isn’t considering is that we have to raise taxes to the levy limit because of the medical insurance trust," Alcombright said. "It is what it is. It’s a different management style. I don’t know what he would have done this year -- nor have I asked him. I tried not to be a critic, but I’m also not going to stand there and let something I inherited fall on my shoulders. I don’t want to play politics with this. I want to move forward."
Barrett said Alcombright’s financial team includes many of his former employees -- business manager Nancy Ziter, assessor Christopher Lamarre and auditor David Fierro. He noted that during his 26 years in the corner office, the city invested over $100 million in its infrastructure, including new bridges, road rehabilitation, two new schools and a water filtration plant.
"[Alcombright] said I neglected the city’s infrastructure and caused this fiscal crisis? This is the first and last time I will comment on this, but I cannot allow him to try to get away with these statements, which are not true," Barrett said. "The bottom line is that every bit of this so-called mismanagement happened on his watch -- Alcombright approved those budgets, along with [city councilors] Ronald Boucher and Michael Bloom. I’m not going to be used as scapegoat to raise taxes."
During his one meeting with Alcombright, four days before the new mayor assumed office, Barrett said he offered his help in any future circumstances.
"All he has to do is call," Barrett said.
Alcombright said he may take him up on the offer in the future, but doesn’t believe this is the right time to do so.
"In the one time that we met during the transition, which occurred after we had four or five appointments rescheduled by his office, he did offer to be helpful," Alcombright said. "However, the more I got into this and met with my finance team and DOR, and the more I got to understand and saw the problems we were having, I didn’t want to go there.
"He and I are miles apart on our management styles. I’m handling a problem that I walked into and don’t feel as if I have to go back to him with any fiscal questions."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau,