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North Adams Mayoral Hopefuls Debate Schools, City Investments

With the vote set for next week, the two candidates for mayor of North Adams, Massachusetts sparred over education, state funding and city investments during a debate Monday night. 

More than 500 people packed into the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Church Street Center to watch political newcomer Tom Bernard and City Councilor Bob Moulton Jr. battle for the state’s smallest city’s corner office. Moulton lost to retiring Mayor Richard Alcombright in 2013.

The Berkshire Eagle moderated.

The candidates kept the debate respectful; the only time things heated up was over improvements to the public school system.

"Tom was on the school council and he voted to allow the kids to wear hoodies, hats, wear pants down below their waist, let girls come in with revealing clothing," Moulton says. “I mean, that's gangster dressing. We've got to have some kind of code, and I’d like to keep the school standards as high as possible."

"I’m looking at standards that are about students attending class, persisting and succeeding," Bernard said. "And to reduce my position on them to ‘gangster’ talk is really, frankly, offensive."

Bernard, a resident of North Adams and the director of Special Projects at Smith College in Northampton, wants to make the city more attractive and affordable for families through city partnerships.

“I think that we can talk about places to do more but we have to start by acknowledging the things that our anchor institutions already do,” Bernard says.

Bernard says he would hire a city economic development chief.

“Who would go and make the case to those industries and bring companies into the community,” Bernard says.

“I think that’s the mayor’s job,” Moulton says.

Moulton says he is tough on crime, especially to combat the opioid crisis. He also wants to chip away at rising property taxes.

“North Adams can have whatever they want to pay for,” Moulton says.

Moulton calls grants from the state “free money” for the city.

“So let’s clarify one point: Grants are not ‘free money,’” Bernard says. “It’s competitive funding intended for a specific purpose.”

Bernard says North Adams relies on grant funding. He’d like to see future Community Development Block Grant funds go toward removing blight.

The candidates both want to see the revitalization of downtown’s Mohawk Theatre. Bernard favors developing a long-term plan to determine feasibility, while Moulton wants to see a private investor step up to the plate, and soon.

“Anything like that that brings outside investment in, I’m all for it and I’d like to see it happen,” Moulton says.

On the issue of water quality, Bernard says it’s irresponsible to compare the city’s recent failure to report and maintain its water supply’s pH level to the water crises in Hoosick Falls, New York or Flint, Michigan.

“When you read the warning, it says: OK, unless you have a compromised immune system; unless you’re elderly; unless you’re a small child, a baby; unless you’re pregnant – I mean, that to me is not safe,” Moulton says. “If you went to a restaurant and they gave you a hamburger and they put that warning next to it, would you take notice? I mean I would.”

Moulton says a private system is a possible solution. Bernard says that’s too costly, and the city would lack control.

The candidates say they’re satisfied with the work Berkshire Health Systems has done to reestablish emergency services, and more, at the former North Adams Regional Hospital, which it acquired after it closed in March 2014. The candidates agreed inpatient beds would make the facility better for the region.

Both candidates say running the city would be no easy task. They are concerned about the rising city levy limit and took note of the layoffs Pittsfield needed this year to cut costs.

“You got to watch your spending,” Moulton says. “Just go look at what you’ve been paying and what we are getting. I mean there is a big disconnect between the haves and the have nots in North Adams.”

Bernard wants to make government more transparent to show residents how flexible the city’s budget is.

“One of the things that I really like is the city of Northampton has a visual budget tool. So you take this – it’s a web-based resource – you plug in property tax assessment and it really basically gives you a break down by budget line or by area of where your money is going,” Bernard says.

The non-partisan election is November 7th.

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