On Tuesday, registered voters in North Adams will be asked to consider the first Proposition 21Ž2 override in the city’s history. As expected, the measure has created a great deal of controversy. Its backers say that passage of the override is necessary to balance the city’s finances, and maintain city services at current levels. Its opponents point out that North Adams is not a wealthy community, that the city needs to rein in spending anyway, and that they’ve been taxed enough. Along the way, there has been debate between current Mayor Richard J. Alcombright and former Mayor John Barrett III about how bad the city’s finances really are. Signs both for and against the override have been placed on people’s lawns.
This discussion is both good and healthy. In some municipalities, local politics are treated with either disinterest, suspicion, or ennui by many residents. Some politicians count on that to ram the measures that they want through the appropriate boards into law. Judging by the debate over this measure, that’s not the case in North Adams. The ongoing debate shows that people really care about the future of their city, no matter what side that they are on. That’s what democracy is supposed to be all about.
But let’s get to the bottom line. No matter which side you’re on, it’s clear that the city’s finances are not in good shape. Revenues and expenditures have to balance in order for North Adams to move forward. Judging from the debate, it appears that the current and former mayors have different ways of looking at the balance sheet. This is understandable when you consider that the former mayor served the city for 26 years, while the office’s current occupant, who comes from a banking background, is completing the second year of his first term.
This debate shouldn’t be about who is/was a better financial manager for the city. That’s missing the point. What’s clear is that no matter how you look at the numbers, the old method of using the city’s cash reserves to lower the tax rate won’t work this year. There is currently only $163,000 in the city’s free cash account, according to Alcombright. To make matters worse, the state has cut $3.2 million in aid to the city over the last four budget cycles. Yes, North Adams is a poor city, and yes people have been taxed enough. But the city needs the increased levy capacity if it ever hopes to grow. No municipality can function long term when its revenue and expenses are out of kilter. Private individuals and commercial enterprises can reduce their budgets when revenues get tight. But the public sector doesn’t operate that way. Every municipality has fixed costs that have to be filled no matter how low the revenue stream goes. Even when state aid is slashed those bills have to be paid.
A lot of numbers have been tossed around, and it’s been reported that a whole series of draconian cuts will occur, especially within the school system, if the override doesn’t pass. Opponents of the override have criticized the proponents for using scare tactics to justify their position. We’re not exactly sure what would happen should the override fail to pass, but it’s obvious that funding is going to have to be cut somewhere, no matter what the numbers say.
Under the current conditions, and as a one time measure, a Proposition 21Ž2 override is the right way to go. The Transcript supports the passage of the Proposition 21Ž2 override in North Adams.