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North Adams Passes Budget, But Not Without Controversy

The seal of the the city of North Adams, Massachusetts
North Adams

The city council in North Adams, Massachusetts voted to approve its fiscal year 2020 budget Tuesday night, but one cut prompted protest.

City Council President Keith Bona says the $41 million budget was for the most part level funded from previous years.

“It was a pretty easy budget overall to look at and not see any major cuts," he told WAMC. "And it was small stuff – so for example, we saw that the budget for pothole repairs went down $10,000, and we felt that it was necessary that that at least stay the same so we increased that back up. And it was small items like that, but there was nothing of any large contention to really get into big fights over.”

Except for one thing – Mayor Tom Bernard’s decision to eliminate $14,000 for lifeguards at the public beach at Windsor Lake.

Bona says while the Windsor Lake budget stayed the same, the manner in which it was rearranged for 2020 and presented to the council made the cut effectively invisible.

“There is not a line item that specifically says ‘lifeguards,’ it says ‘Windsor Lake Staff,’ so it was something that was not noticed or mentioned during the finance committee up until the very last meeting, and that’s why this sort of became a big deal, because it was a surprise to the councilors,” said the council president.

“It does need to be understood that the decision not to hire lifeguards on the part of the administration this year was not a budgetary concern, it was an operational decision made by the administration and affirmed by the mayor," said City Councilor Jason LaForest. “The majority of councilors and quite a few residents disagree with that decision, so at the tail end of the budget process when this information came to light, the council did try to use several legislative tools to convince the mayor to appropriate the small amount of money required for lifeguard coverage at Windsor Lake.”

It wasn’t enough to convince the mayor to restore the funding before the final vote, but the promise of continued talks on the issue allowed for the approval to go forward.

“The Public Safety Committee – of which I am chair – will be taking up this issue," said LaForest. "Interesting, the Department of Public Health in Massachusetts requires lifeguards at municipal pools but does not at municipal beaches. That’s left to local legislative bodies to determine. So we will be reviewing the need for a city ordinance relative to providing those lifeguards.”

Bona says better communication from the Bernard administration would have made the episode unnecessary.

“Some of the things that I’ve seen come up over the past year and a half that have been issues, they have become issues because I feel the administration just needs to spend some more time ahead of time talking with councilors, either it be one on one, more at our committee meetings – but councilors should not be surprised with last minute budget issues, they shouldn’t be surprised by reading headlines or hearing conversation in the news or on social media before we hear it directly from the administration,” he told WAMC.

For his part, Bernard says he’s happy with the final budget.

“It funds our operation, it is fiscally responsible, it’s respectful to the taxpayers, it addresses the work that we need to do, it provides level service funding for our schools, which is absolutely a priority for me, and it was a good process,” said the mayor. He says he appreciates the council’s criticism of the lifeguard cut, but stands behind it.

“We really looked at the history of our operation, we did a condition assessment, we spoke with the Windsor Lake Commission, we had consultation with the Y, and it felt like we could make that move and still have a safe, stable operation,” said Bernard.

He defended his ability to communicate with the council, describing it as “very good” while acknowledging the council doesn’t always agree. Bernard said that the budget vote had ultimately yielded a solution to the operational question of staffing lifeguards.

“The discussion last night suggested that the council appropriate from the reserve budget line the funding for the lifeguards and we will move forward to work with the YMCA to ask them to find us a group of lifeguards for the summer,” he told WAMC.

The new fiscal year starts July 1st.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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