Thanks for checking out our elections coverage. We try to cover at least one race a year in an in-depth, meaningful way, and 2019 finds us at it again. The only difference is that James Kennedy, artist and founder of the much-loved “Unsung Eats” column here at the Glass, has wrested control of the interview-ometer away from the editors this time around. In an act of tremendous ambition (or lunacy) he committed to interviewing ALL the candidates for North Adams City Council (assuming they all got back to him). We hope you enjoy this campaign season series, brought to you as a service to the democratic process and the peaceful transition of power.
Editor’s Note: This conversation has been abridged for space and clarity. No information provided by the candidate has been checked for accuracy.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Lisa Blackmer and I am a 33 year resident of the city of North Adams. I was born in Pittsfield, and I grew up in Williamsburg and moved to North Adams to raise my family here. I have two children and three granddaughters and I have been married for 32 years. My background is that I have been on the city council for ten years. I was appointed to the planning board as soon as my term was done, and this is what I have been doing.
In my ten years on the council, I was council president for two years and vice-president for four years. I was also president of the [Massachusetts] Municipal Association, a statewide agency that advocates on behalf of cities and towns. I served on their board and their policy committees for about 8 years. I have an MBA and my undergraduate degree from MCLA. I have a certificate in non-profit management and I also have a Masters Level certificate in municipal management and leadership from Suffolk University. I keep updated with my training and I am passionate about taking all of these connections, and all of these skills in helping to work in the government of the city and to keep the city moving forward.
One of the things that I love about this city is that we would have a fire or some tragedy and we’ve got people who have nothing and are struggling themselves; they will show up for their neighbors. Although we’re somewhat urban and we have some of the urban issues we have a lot of small town values in us.
We’ve got all the mills here and in Pittsfield, and Pittsfield lived and died with General Electric and likewise here with Sprague. My dad was laid off the day before his wedding so I come from a background where I understand people struggling. My parents struggled. My dad got hurt on the job so he went back to school while my mom raised the three of us. I know the struggles they had trying to make the mortgage payment or making sure the property taxes were paid so I don’t want to sound like I don’t understand, because I do.
2019 Elections — North Adams City Council,
Why did you decide to run for North Adams City Council and what is it that you think separates you from the other candidates?
I decided to run because I thought that we’ve some good things done in the last 12 years. I have a skill set. I am good at seeing issues from different sides. I have even been known to change my mind on a city council issue when more information presented itself, so I do listen to people. I also listen to the residents, my peers, my colleagues across the state, because why reinvent the wheel if someone has already proven something to work well?
I bring my background in municipal finance, municipal law and procurement and as I said I can approach the issues from all sides. I listen to different people when considering everyone’s viewpoint before I make a decision but also, as an elected city councilor, I am a staff person. I am the treasurer and tax collector in Buckland, so I kind of have done it all and I think that informs me. I think my background in budgeting and finance definitely helps, too, in understanding grants, how grants work and how the laws work. For example someone might ask, “How come we can’t do that?” and I can say that Mass General Law doesn’t allow us to do that. I think it also saves time sometimes when you have someone that understands the process and you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining something because I have a strong background already.
What do you regard as the most important issue facing North Adams today and do you have a particular issue that you will be running on?
I do not have a particular issue that I am running on. I think the big issue we face is the same issue that it’s been. It is increasing expenses with dwindling resources. We have a lot of capital improvements we need to make whether it’s in water and sewer or the roads. We need to invest in our community and you can’t make investments if you don’t have the money, and if we’re spending so much time meeting our current needs it is really hard to invest in the capital improvements we need to make. We need a Police station, but I also think that’s where people like the mayor and people like me can advocate for the city at the state level for funding or for grant programs. So I think that’s probably our biggest issue.
Some of the problems that impact our revenues are that in some of the blight that’s in some of our neighborhoods and the banks are not good neighbors. They foreclose on a property and do limited things with that property. So I’d like to see us strengthen that ordinance that we wrote and I’d like to see inspection services being more aggressive and maybe have some programs for housing rehab money. Maybe use our community development block grants and some of that money towards housing rehab so that people don’t just walk away from their houses. We don’t want to see that happen because what it does is it brings down the value of the other houses in the neighborhood and once those properties are devalued there is lower tax revenue.
We have a lot of houses in tax title and we haven’t collected because people have passed and people have walked away. So if we can get to them before this happens, invest some money in programs and be more aggressive then we won’t be putting the big red X on the door telling the fire department not to go in there. So probably the most important issue I see in North Adams today is increasing our tax base.
What is your opinion about the pros and cons of gentrification and what role do you see it playing today and in the future of North Adams?
I grew up in the Williamsburg / Northampton area and gentrification became a real problem in Northampton where the houses got to be more and more expensive and some people couldn’t afford to live there anymore. The apartments got more expensive and people that worked for the city had to move to the outskirts or Easthampton; so I have seen it happen.
Although there are a lot of jobs in the area, I think we have a mismatch of skills. I think if people have good jobs with good benefits then people can afford to rent apartments and it’s not taking up such a high percentage of their income and to do this. We need job training to make sure that our workforce is meeting the needs of the employers. You look at General Dynamics and they have 200 jobs posted, but again, there is a mismatch between what they’re looking for and the skill sets. If we can address the skill differential we can meet the demands of the jobs we want to bring here and to keep here.
I think McCann is great and more and more students seem to be going there for the hard skills like plumber, electrician and carpenter. Those trades are hard to find. I see people post on Facebook, “Does anyone know a plumber I can call or an electrician I can call?” And then what McCann is doing with the CAD, the computer aided design; these jobs are more and more in demand. If we can get them through McCann, sometimes they will go for a bachelor’s degree to move up in those companies. Addressing the skill differential is something we’ve talked about for ten years now. The jobs we want to bring here and the jobs we want to keep here are looking for a skilled workforce.
So, as far as gentrification I think gentrification is going on in some neighborhoods in our city and if you are renting it might be more of an issue for you than for the homeowner. I think if you are on the side of looking for housing it may feel that way. I’m not sure if it’s perception or if it’s reality. If your rent is taking up more than half your income and the rents are going up, is that gentrification, or is it the fact that we don’t have the jobs, and the salaries for those jobs that can support a living wage? Minimum wage is set to go up but that doesn’t even meet a living wage so I guess I would have to look more carefully. I’ve heard the stories but I think it has a lot to do with not having the jobs to support the expenses to live as opposed to people coming in and buying the houses and raising the rents.
Whether real or imagined, there is a perception that there is a water quality issue in North Adams. Do you believe there is a water quality problem, and if so, what solutions do you offer?
I know some people have complained. Personally, I know sometimes I’ll run the water and it smells like chlorine, and it’s like something hit and they had to dose it. I’ve visited the water treatment plant and I think our issue over there is more trying to keep up with the technology and replace controls as they age. We don’t have a funding source to replace them. Again, part of our capital plan; again, growing our tax base. We didn’t have a real drought this summer so that probably has something to do with it. A few years back we had a drought and that makes people nervous. I drink the tap water and I don’t see a real problem with it.
In order for many municipalities to balance their budgets, often times larger infrastructure projects and investments get kicked down the road rather than raise property taxes. What is your plan for a balanced budget?
Well, technically it’s not my budget. It is the mayor’s budget and the council tweaks it. I haven’t worked with this mayor on the budget, because I wasn’t on the council when he was mayor. I know we took about $800,000 off of our debt payments last year and I remember Mayor Alcombright saying that in this year so much would be coming off and we can use this money to invest. I probably would put most of this money back in and borrow the money to make some of the improvements we need to make to invest in our infrastructure. Particularly right now, interest rates are going down and it’s definitely something to look at. We’re also nowhere near our debt ceiling, so we are actually, some would say, under-invested.
So, I would try and have minimal increase in taxes but we need to make these investments, so I would rather see the tax rate steady. I don’t like to see big spikes up and down in our tax rate. I’d rather see a small steady increase rather than one big shock when somethings come up. I know that when the money came off our debt payments the mayor put the money into operating expenses. But I remember Mayor Alcombright talking about that $800,000 and saying when that line item came off we could put some of that money back into some new projects and some of that money into the operating budget. I also feel like we should come up with a debt number that we are comfortable with and that should be a consistent debt number, which would include both principal and interest. But keep that number consistent and invest so when a particular project is funded and paid for we can move on to another project but keep that line item consistent.
A while back we refinanced our debt when the interest rates dropped and we should look at this again. I don’t know what our status is. I don’t know what we have out there and at what rate, but we have a good bond rating and we need to look at this again. That’s what I would do but I’m not the mayor. I would have a line item. Our borrowing would be a certain percentage of our budget or a certain amount. Having been on the council for ten years and having this conversation every year, I was chair of the finance committee and I served on the finance committee for several years so I understand the budget. I know that in all of the towns I’ve worked in you struggle to build up your reserves while trying to fund infrastructure.
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