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.
I am a local businessman and a family man, but I am an empty-nester, and both of my kids are adults now. One is in college, and one is working for the sheriff’s department. When I started out on the city council, my first child was not even a year old, and as I grew, and my family has grown, and I have sat on council, I have experienced what it was like to be a young family person and having my kids go through the schools. Now I am closer to middle age and maybe at some point I will serve on the council as a senior citizen. But right now as I develop, I see the needs of different demographics.
Being a business person, I have had businesses in the city since I was in my twenties, and I’ve seen the needs of the small business community throughout the years. While MASS MoCA is developing and other businesses come in, it does sort of change how traffic flow affects the area, especially my having a downtown business. I think of how the city could be helping more with small businesses, but at the same time I do believe most businesses need to stand on their own and work with each other more so than how I think city government can help them out.
I’ve taught at the colleges; I’ve taught computer graphics and I still help out people when it comes to graphic design. This is a big part of what I do daily. I also manage apartments so I know what it’s like to be a real estate owner and meeting the needs of the tenants, so when I vote on the council, a lot of the issues — like taxes and water bills that affect me personally — give me some insight. I think it’s important for the council to be diverse in many ways, whether that is in financial situations where you can have a council that understands the needs of all the people, or at least if they’re connected with family where their elderly relatives could be affected. It is important for them to know that if we are voting on something that affects senior citizens, that the younger people on the council have elderly people that are close to them. So diverse as in ages, but also I think it would be good to have council with different backgrounds and experience too, bringing pieces from all walks of life and philosophies.
When I think of the things that sparked me into public service, I think of the United Neighborhood Organization. It was myself, Shirley Davis, and David Dunn. I was one of the founders of UNO many years ago and it’s exciting to see how that’s grown and is still around today. It was my involvement with the Neighborhood that made me take the next step of running for city government. Some people run for city government, and I think they feel that there is a lot that they can do, but I will be quite honest with you — some of these health and human services organizations and some of these groups actually can do more visible things out there, and get better results, than we can sitting on city council. I served for eight years and was off for eight years, and during those eight years I was off I got very involved with the Elks and I saw what that organization was able to do in the community.
In one sense, it is easier because you’re not following any government rules, and you look at some of the things that like Ben Lamb does or like the hot dog eating contest; I was able to raise something like 2,400 dollars for the Berkshire Food Project and that’s just not something you can do with the city council. The people that are out there volunteering in a lot of these organizations are doing more than we can do with the council. Our main job on council is to be the checks and balances of the budget and to create and work on your local laws. Those are the two main things.
2019 Elections — North Adams City Council,
Be sure to read all the interviews that James Kennedy conducted with the candidates as they’re published:
Lisa Blackmer • Keith Bona • Robert Cardimino • Roger Eurbin • Marie Harpin • Paul Hopkins • Jason LaForest • Benjamin Lamb • Robert Moulton, Jr. • Pete Oleskiewicz • Bryan Sapienza • Ronald Sheldon • Jessica Sweeney
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 don’t know when I am going to stop running. I will at some point. I ran for 8 years and took 8 years off and this is going to be my fifth term. While I do believe in term limits, I believe it in the sense more when it comes to your sole decision-makers such as mayor or governor. If the council right now were all councilors that have served as long as I have, I would probably be stepping down to let some fresh blood in. One of the reasons I stepped down the first time after 8 years was because so many of the councilors had served 20-plus years and there was no new energy. I thought we needed some new energy, and right now we have a very young council, but I think there is a benefit to having some older knowledge on the council. And I don’t want to say experience because I believe our councilors are very experienced. They all have experience in what they have studied and worked in, but there is something to be said about when the council is addressing something that we may have addressed years ago and remembering what the council voted on. I still like to call up Councilor Mardin once in a while. He was sort of my mentor back then, serving on the council for nearly 30 years, and I would like to think that maybe I am a kind of mentor to some younger people.
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 don’t have a particular issue that I’m running on. I tend to be thought of as the pro-business advocate on the council, especially small business, because I think I understand what they have to go through. With my role in business, I do business with a lot of other small businesses and I hear a lot about their struggles and what they’ve had to go through when dealing with the city. I think there is still room for streamlining and making it easier for new businesses to open here. I think some of these things are in our ordinances, and we can change, but I think some of it is state law that we can’t change. Another thing I’d like to see is tax incentives for people who come in, whether it is homeowners or investors, and buy up these dilapidated homes and do property improvements but state law makes it very difficult for us to do that when it comes to taxes. I would say that right now there are at least 3 dozen homes in our city that should be knocked down. Is it better to knock them down or is it better to give someone a tax incentive to fix them up? I would rather see them back on the tax roll.
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 meet with people every day, and you probably see my posts on the Good News page of people moving here, and there’s a lot that I don’t post, but I talk with all of these people. A good percentage of them are second home owners and second home owners are not counted as residents and I think the latest census shows our population is still dropping, and when it comes to state funding we lose some funding because that funding is based on population. This also affects school populations and that affects state funding as well. House values are slowly going up because more are being fixed up and it’s not going as fast as some would like but, at the same time, you want to make sure it is still affordable for the people that have lived here for 50 years, or all their life. I don’t see North Adams as becoming unaffordable for a number of years. What I see is regular people looking to buy an affordable house and fix it up to raise their family in. These condos we have on Holden Street or in the Eclipse Mill; these are 300 to 400 thousand dollar units and I think with those kinds of areas people aren’t going to be too upset because those areas are a huge, plus because they sat underused for years.
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 do not believe there is a problem. I drink the water from my tap every day and once in a while it might taste a little strange but that’s what they have to put in the system to clean the system. They do regular testing and they do regular reporting. Every time it’s off by a tenth of a decimal we have to send a letter out to the residents and that may be part of the perception issue. Another part I think is that people see news reports about places like Flint in Michigan, or even Hoosic Falls, and they get concerned. Our reservoir is up on a mountain and the water treatment plant handles anything else. I think as long as we’re doing the appropriate testing and our equipment is up to date regarding the computer equipment there we’ll be fine. We do have other water infrastructure issues like the underground pipes that take our sewage and bring our water. They’re older and in some cases crumbling. Our pipes are not crystal clear and underground infrastructure is a nationwide issue because so many cities laid their pipes around the same time period.
In order for many municipalities to balance their budgets, oftentimes larger infrastructure projects and investments get kicked down the road rather than raise property taxes. What is your plan for a balanced budget?
We’ve been balancing the budget, and I believe I am the only councilor sitting right now that really had to make some tough decisions when Alcombright first got in. His second year we had zero reserves and he was criticized for raising taxes. He wanted to do Prop 2 ½ and it failed, but we managed through it. We also had to make lots of cuts and you can’t make cuts without it having an effect on services. Departments that had three people; some of them went down to one person, positions were merged, programs were trimmed down if not eliminated, and it wasn’t pretty. So it was a combination of taxes and cuts and a lot of that had to do with the cuts the state had made in funding. At the time our city budget had about 60% funding from the state and now we are in the low 40s as funding coming from the state. I think just in the period Alcombright served we received about 15 million dollars less in state funding. Just like our home budgets, we don’t have to add even one thing to our budgets and yet every year our cost of living goes up. The city expenses go up between 500 and 800 thousand dollars a year without adding a thing. If we are not going to increase our taxes by 800 thousand per year then we have to make 800 thousand in cuts. Two things have to happen: either our property tax base rises from an influx of new development, or the state has to realize that some cities are going to hit their ceiling cap before us, and they are some bigger cities, and it might make the legislators realize they have to do something about better funding of our cities and towns. If suddenly we see our properties jumping up in value then it moves our own ceiling cap further away but right now they are not jumping up fast enough to counteract the cuts the state has made.
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