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North Adams Council OKs Armory Funds, Refers Board Stipend
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
02:16AM / Wednesday, September 12, 2018
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The council approved extra funding to complete repairs to the stonework on the Porter Street side of the Armory. 
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday approved funds to complete exterior work on the Armory with little discussion but sent the issue of a stipend for the Retirement Board to the Finance Committee after nearly a half-hour of debate. 
The $90,000 to repair the stone stairs on the Porter Street side of the Armory was reappropriated from $176,600 approved last year for inspections of the dams at the Mount Williams and Notch reservoirs. Those total funds are being replaced by grant from the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs for the engineering study.
The Porter Street was an add-on to the request for proposals for repairs to the stonework on the parapets and the stairs on the Ashland Street side. That work had been done nearly a decade ago began falling apart after the short-term guarantee expired. 
Some $254,250 from the fiscal 2017 Community Development Block Grant is being used for this final phase of work. The low bid came in at about $322,000, with another $98,000 for the Porter Street add-on. Mayor Thomas Bernard said afterward that there was enough unexpended funds from prior grants to fund all but the $90,000 being requested. 
"It will do everything but the lower garage level but everything from the first floor up will be completed," the mayor said. 
The building has been under renovation for at least a decade, largely through CDBG funds, and has included renovating the interior, which now houses two alternative schools, the gymnasium, parking, an elevator and other improvements. Only the garage level has not been renovated. 
In answer to questions, the mayor said the inspection of the dams is underway but he couldn't speak to whether the funds being reappropriated might be used for any dam repairs. 
The council voted 8-1 to authorize the funds with Councilor Wayne Wilkinson voting nay. Afterward, Wilkinson said he was not opposed to renovating but felt his vote was a statement that it was "time to stop spending money on it."
Councilor Marie T. Harpin had brought forward a request to provide stipends to the members of the Retirement Board. 
The board, through its Administrator Beth A. Matson, is asking that the council adopt Massachusetts General Law Chapter 32 that allows the Retirement Board to set a stipend of no less than $3,000 and no more than $4,500 annually for each of its three members.
The council has asked the retirement system to poll its members on how they felt about the stipend. An anonymous survey was done over five weeks with a 46 percent response rate of which 83 percent indicated they were in favor of the providing the stipends. The survey results were released at the board's August board meeting. 
Although it had been indicated the stipend would be paid out of the investment revenue under the board's control and not from city coffers, the councilors were confused by some of the answers they were getting. There were concerns it would affect the city budget through the annual appropriation to the retirement system. 
"They're doing mostly volunteer work but I was for this because it didn't cost the city any money and they polled the members who were in favor," said Wilkinson, chairman of the Finance Committee. "I was told tonight that this does affect the city budget."
He asked the mayor his opinion and Bernard responded that he was agnostic on the matter. 
Councilor Eric Buddington also reiterated his concern about providing stipends for one board and not for the other many boards and commissions. 
Councilor Benjamin Lamb said it seemed that the funds would be coming out of the investments made by the Retirement Board — but also would become part of the budgetary appropriation. Yet the board would be the body that would be voting on its own stipend.
"That feels odd that we have to vote on other budgetary items ... and we would not be approving this," he said.
Harpin objected that there had been no trickery and the process had been completely transparent. 
"This is not directly hitting the city of North Adams' budget," she said. "There is an appropriation that hits the city budget determined by the board ... [the stipend] is not going to change the budget, it's being appropriated in the portfolio."
Matson also tried to explain but Councilor Jason LaForest said she'd answered one question and raised more in his mind, and expressed his concern about the size of the city's future retirement and post-employment benefits. 
"I'm not opposed completely I just have further questions," he said. "I realize $15,000 is not related but I would like clear answers to the questions that are on the table and I think that's in the best interest of everyone."
The council voted to refer to the Finance Committee and Harpin said she would contact the retirement system's actuary to see if he could attend and answer questions. Wilkinson said he would like it to get it back to the council in two weeks. 
"This has been an issue that's been hanging here too long and it's time to get it taken care of," he said.  
In other business, the mayor made proclamations on September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month with Kathy and Joseph Arabia and on supporting Start with Hello Week in the public schools with Superintendent Barbara Malkas, part of the Sandy Hook Promise to encourage connections and prevent bullying. 
The council also approved Joel Cross of North Adams and Korey Baskin of Readsboro, Vt., to drive for RJ Taxi.
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