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Sullivan School Proposal Heads Back to Mayor Bernard
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
02:40AM / Wednesday, November 27, 2019
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City Councilors Marie T. Harpin, Jason LaForest and Wayne Wilkinson have strong reservations about the proposal for a workforce training center largely because of the lack of detailed plans.

Councilor Rebbecca Cohen is acting president.

Council President Keith Bona's parting gift to Cohen, Joshua Moran and Eric Buddington.



Councilors Benjamin Lamb and Keith Bona sat in the audience during the discussion because of their relationships with the school proposals.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The potential sale of Sullivan School was punted back to the mayor's office on Tuesday.
 
Short two councilors and with not enough votes to pass, the seven councilors agreed to hold off until more information could be provided about the plans for an advanced manufacturing school to be located at the site. 
 
The referral was advised by Finance Committee members Marie T. Harpin and Wayne Wilkinson, who had raised questions the members of Berkshire Advanced Manufacturing Training and Education Center, or BAMTEC, couldn't answer at their meeting last week. 
 
Mayor Thomas Bernard, who had chosen the training school proposal over another prospect ($50,000 by Eric Rudd to turn it into artist studios), said the backers of the school had provided what had been asked for in the request for proposals.
 
"We are dealing with the RFP as it was provided and the information that was requested as it was in the Johnson School proposal, as it was in the Pownal proposals that were adopted," he said. "So we're talking about effectively consistent RFP and consistent requirements. However, I'm happy to go back and provide a response."
 
The council had declared Sullivan, along with Johnson School, the Pownal, Vt., watershed land and several other proporties as surplus some time ago. Because the offer was lower than the assessed price, the mayor needed authority to negotiate from the council, as was done for the Pownal land and Johnson School. 
 
Those proposing the school say they only got started in organizing a couple months ago after several years of discussion. But when the request went out for proposals for Sullivan School, they felt they couldn't pass up the chance. They offered $1 for the 50-year-old school but expected to invest up to $14 million in renovations and equipment. 
 
Harpin and Wilkinson were joined by Councilor Jason LaForest in expressing concerns over timelines, financing and zoning, as part of the proposal had referenced maker spaces and there was talk last week of companies using the equipment. Councilors Eric Buddington, Joshua Moran and Paul Hopkins seemed more inclined to move forward.
 
Councilors Benjamin Lamb and President Keith Bona again stepped down because of relationships with both responses to the RFP and Councilor Rebbecca Cohen took the gavel for a second time. 
 
"When I look at unloading these properties, to me, these properties cost us money as a city and I would like to see them kind of taken off our hands sooner than later," said Moran. "I do think we can take risk but at the same time a year or two down the road, it's getting into the same thing that we need to put another roof on it? We have water damage, and now we have a building again, that's falling apart."
 
Hopkins pointed out that council wouldn't even be reviewing the proposal if the assessed value -- some $2 million -- had been offered. 
 
"I like to think that we can have faith in the process and I know that I have faith in the administration to do the work," he said. "I'm not sure that the City Council's job is to be getting into the weeds on the negotiations of a project once we have already said, yes, this is excess property, go ahead and get something going with it. And that's all I have to say right now."
 
Harpin and LaForest, however, questioned the need for the training center, saying they had taken a tour of McCann Technical School and been impressed by the programming for adults, including advanced manufacturing and welding. They were disappointed that BAMTEC members had not consulted with McCann. (McCann School Committee Chairman and former principal Gary Rivers was in attendance.)
 
"What we are focusing on is feedback that we got from local businesses and community and the fact that they were unaware of these programs and we were trying to fill that need," said BAMTEC Vice President Brad Dilger, who was allowed two minutes to speak by Cohen. "And we were in the process of going through all of the research that would go along with the post-RFP process. We were going through financing, we were going through development. So we didn't quite have everything ready. We were expecting to do that later on."
 
LaForest pressed about zoning changes to accommodate the school's possible extracurricular activities. He felt there had been promises made based on what had been said at last week's Finance Committee meeting. 
 
Bernard said no promises or guarantees had been made but rather that RFP had said the city "will consider zoning changes if necessary."
 
"And as I understand the incorporation of BAMTEC, it is as an education organization. So it is consistent with current use," he said.
 
Should the school wish to address zoning, it would have to go through the Zoning Board of Appeals, the mayor continued. LaForest said if there was a consideration of changing the zoning, he would vote against the proposal. 
 
Buddington, as well as the other councilors, also agreed that zoning was a concern. But he was not opposed to approving the sale on Tuesday. 
 
"I am very comfortable leaving the the issues of time frame of the project and financing to be addressed by the mayor and the executive branch in the purchase and sale," he said. "I don't think we're really required to trust the mayor. But I feel as though recent, other purchases agreements have adequately addressed that. I feel as though we need to take risks as a city and be willing to give a project a couple of years to get things lined up."
 
When it became apparent that Buddington's initial motion to approve could conceivably kill the proposal because it could not get a two-thirds vote, he rescinded it and Harpin motioned to refer back to the mayor with answers on financing, maintenance and timelines. 
 
In other business:
 
The councilors referred to Finance Committee language related to bonding because they had trouble understanding what it meant. The language if adopted would utilize all premiums generated from selling bonds (used to cover borrowings for capital projects) be applied to the project for which the funds are being borrowed. The mayor had requested the language, now part of the Municipal Modernization Act, be applied to prior bonds so that the city's bonding procedures would be consistent. 
 
The councilors wanted better understanding of the issue, especially after LaForest brought up the city's request last week to the state Municipal Finance Oversight Board to issue $3.2 million in bonds, which he thought was new spending and confused his colleagues more. The city does short-term borrowings when projects are approved which it later combines for bonding and can ask to use the state's bond rating for better interest rates. 
 
• The council also affirmed the appointments of Rebecca Choquette and Anne Rodgers to the North Adams Human Services Commission for terms to expire Feb. 1, 2021, to fill the unexpired terms of Christine Naughton and Rachelle Smith, respectively.
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