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
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.
First, thank you to the Greylock Glass for the opportunity. It’s always good to be able to speak to the people as directly as possible and this is one way to do that. I moved to North Adams in 1982. I graduated college from Middlebury College in Vermont, and knew that I wanted to stay in New England. I started working for the radio station in North Adams that was then owned and operated by the Thurston family. I had it in my head that I was only going to stay there for a couple of years and then move on to a bigger market, but like so many other transplants to North Adams and North Berkshire, I learned very quickly that this is a wonderful place to live. Although I did leave briefly to live in China and do some freelancing.
I returned. I got married and raised a family of four children who have all since gone through the North Adams public school system and graduated college and are all now successful adults. Along the way, I learned that I really wanted to give back to the community. There are a lot of great reasons to live here and a lot of great reasons to want to make it a better place to live, and for more than 25 years now I have been doing as much as I can through volunteer service on not for profit boards and now as a city councilor for on term to give back as much as I can.
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?
A little over two years ago I ran for the first time, and as I joke with people, that was the first time I had asked anyone to vote for me since high school when I ran for student council. The idea of running for City Council had occurred to me a couple of times in earlier election cycles, and neither of those times were the right time for me. Two years ago I found that now was the time in my life to be able to commit the time and energy to doing this, so I threw my hat in the ring as kind of an experiment that worked, and I’ve had a great time being a City Councilor.
I think one of my favorite parts of being a city councilor is just talking to people and finding out what’s on their minds. I can’t tell you how many people will approach me with something and they start almost invariably by apologizing for taking up my time, and I always say that’s why I did this, because I want to hear from people and see if I can help. I’ve had some rewarding experiences, being able to help people and not always in a terribly visible way but they might have an issue that they’re not sure what to do with or a problem they don’t know how to solve and if they think I can help solve it they will ask, and if I can help solve it I absolutely will.
Why do I want to do it again? I think my philosophy centers on sensible government. We have a small city with a very limited budget, and having looked at this budget and not just as a city councilor but years earlier as a radio reporter, I’ve come to learn and believe that we really don’t have a lot of extra room in our budget, so we have to be very careful in how we spend our money. We also have to be very careful in how we raise our money because people don’t have a lot of room in their wallets either. The city council, because of our form of government, tends to be a reactive body. The mayor’s office brings a budget to us, and we can act within certain parameters on the budget, but we have to be really careful examining where the money is spent. Do we think parts of the budget are a good idea? Do we not think something is a good idea? Are we willing to say so when we disagree? I think this council that I’ve sat on has been good about that. I think, and I count myself among them, we have taken some votes that reflect a philosophy of careful spending.
What I tell voters is that I will never promise you that your taxes are ever going to go down because I don’t think I can promise that, but I can promise you this; I will vote to spend your money wisely. I want people to believe that when they pay their tax bills, that they are getting their money’s worth. And that’s how I try to operate as a city councilor. As far as when I sit on the council, I’m the quiet one. If you’re a Beatles fan, then I’m the George Harrison of the city council. I’m the quiet one. I’ve had a handful of people say to me that I don’t talk as much as the other councilors, and I say that when I have something to say you will hear me say it. If something has been said three times I’m not going to say it a fourth time.
I tell people this is a cool place to live, and it’s getting even cooler all the time. I challenge anyone that was here in the mid 80s to imagine when we would someday see North Adams as being the cool place to live. I’ve had 25 years to sit on boards and to see the impact of the economy and how boards operate. When you look at something like the Louison House, the very reason it was created was to answer some dire needs in the area, like homelessness, and they’ve done a terrific job of doing that. I’ve sat on boards multiple times where we’ve looked at budgets and wondered how we were going to make this work and I bring that experience to the city council.
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 have spent a lot of my volunteer time looking at economic development and finding ways how this city can do it better and it’s almost a trite response, but the answer is “how we bring more jobs and more people to North Adams?” When I was the spokesman for the hospital one of the things we discovered is that it was not as easy as we think it should be to get somebody to come live here. We don’t always have the same career opportunities one might find somewhere else. We need to work hard on that, and we need to make sure that this continues to be an affordable place to live. I think it’s a very affordable place to live right now. In fact, if you look at nearby communities you can live in North Adams and not spend a fortune doing it.
I look forward every year to seeing population numbers and we need to see our population numbers stabilize and ideally turn around and start to grow again. Like many people that live in North Adams, I can’t really imagine living anywhere else and we would love for other people to discover that. And this is directly connected to economic development, I think as we keep our economy strong and creative, and make it easy to do business in North Adams, I think we’ll find that more people want to move here. There is an old saying that sometimes the role of government should be to get out of the way, and this doesn’t make me a small government person necessarily, but I have certainly seen it in my years on the planning board where we should make it as easy as possible for someone to open a business in North Adams. There are always going to be steps. There’s always going to be a permitting process and there’s going to be a fee and inspections, but let’s make the process as streamlined as possible, take down as many barriers as you can. Wow, I can open a business in North Adams and it’s easier than in other places.
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?
Well it depends on how you wanted to define it. I think a lot of people think of gentrification as neighborhoods that become too expensive for their original residents to live in. I think it is certainly something we need to keep our eye on but right now North Adams is still a very affordable place to live. You can still buy a house here in the low 100s here that’s not falling down around you. That’s hard to find in a lot of communities. Our residential tax rate is pretty low. I can’t tell you to the dollar how much my tax bill is but I know it’s not as high as some of my friends that live in neighboring communities with similar houses. So yes, gentrification can have some negative impacts and we need to make sure that people can afford to live in their own community. On the other hand, there are certainly some other areas of our city that need investment. If you want to call that gentrification then I’m okay with that. I think we could use a little bit of that.
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 don’t believe there is a water quality problem in North Adams. I think if there was, we would have external agencies coming down on us to improve it. I love the taste of North Adams water. If there is a perception that the water quality needs to be improved, it may be a function of how news gets communicated these days and when one person has a rusty water problem then it tends to get magnified on social media. I can think of a person who has contacted me recently and has been in touch with the city, and I think those are few and far between, and when we hear about them we pay a little more attention to them because we hear about them in a different way then we used to. I can remember in the 1980s when there were real water problems, and I think the city has come a long way since then. I guess that the city, through its own initiatives and pressured from outside agencies, has done a lot to improve the water quality since then. My honest opinion is that some people taste the faint bit of chlorine from time to time. Personally I don’t have a problem with it but if someone else does I can understand that, but the water is absolutely safe to drink.
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?
I think we have some pretty serious questions ahead of us. If we look specifically at the need for a new Police and Fire building or public safety complex, that is forefront. I don’t think we can afford to kick that can down the road anymore, and if anyone was to walk through the building I think they might agree. When we have a roof that was leaking profusely as little as a few months ago, when you have firefighters sleeping on old left over hospital beds from the 1960s, when we are using old donated office equipment that was out of date in the 1980s, I think that we owe it to ourselves and the people that work for the city to provide them with a safe place to work, that’s up to code and a nice place to work.
If you look at the DPW building on Hodges Cross Road, it is a vast improvement from where they were. I think we probably get more out of people when they have a decent place to work out of and I think that’s important. Do we raise taxes? I’ll say it again. I’m never going to promise to cut taxes, and I think anyone who tells you that is probably making that up. That’s where the money comes from.
We, of course, have to be careful with every dollar that we spend, but as I’ve looked at the budget a few things strike me and one is there is almost no fat in the budget. Of course you have to leave a cushion here and there because unexpected things happen. Honestly, if you look at the salaries the city pays their direct employees, they could probably be higher. I know people that say we should hire more police officers and I say great. Let’s raise your taxes, and we’ll hire more police officers, and by the way, we should probably be paying them more because some leave to go earn more money in other communities. Does that mean that I’m going to automatically vote to raise taxes? We need to look carefully and that will go back to one of the original questions about what’s our chief issue and that is economic development.
Let’s get more new homes on the tax rolls. Let’s get more dilapidated housing upgraded and back on the tax rolls. Let’s bring businesses in to the city to be put on the tax rolls. When we last set the tax rate last, there was a lot of debate about do we keep it somewhere in the middle? Do we shift it more to the residents? Do we shift it more to the businesses? We already have a relatively high business tax rate, by thousands. If I remember correctly we opted to shift it more towards residential because we wanted to keep it away from this kind of psychological barrier of 40 dollars per thousand for the commercial tax rate. And I go right to this point — if you’re a business in North Adams, yes that’s the tax rate, and yes it looks higher than in other communities, but guess what? Your valuation is lower. I say stop looking at the per-thousand value tax rate and look at the bottom line. What are you actually paying in taxes? What is the check you’re writing per year? I’m willing to bet that you’ll find it is lower here than you would pay elsewhere.
One of the things I would like to say to the voter is to call us more often and talk to us more often. Again I think I said this at the outset, people apologize when we they come up to me in a public place and they want to bring up an issue. They might approach me in a restaurant, or I might be out with a friend, and they say I’m sorry to bother you, and I’ll say “no, please, sit down — let’s talk.” We can do our jobs better if you are telling us things. If it’s an issue that you’re unable to address and don’t know which way to turn then, ask us. We’ll figure it out. That’s what you elected us to do. This is why, I can tell you with great confidence, this is why all these people do this.
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