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North Adams City Council Candidates: Kate Merrigan
07:21AM / Saturday, November 02, 2013
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I am 34 years old, a lifelong North Adams resident, and the full-time UNITY Youth Development Program coordinator at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. I have a bachelor's degree in American Studies. I have substantial experience with mediation/conflict resolution, substance abuse prevention, community organizing, meeting facilitation, committee work, and event planning. I have felt called to two things in both my personal and professional life: youth work and improving the quality of life in North Adams. I am interested in serving on the City Council so that I can have an opportunity to advance the well-being of our community, connect as many people as possible with our city government, and help others love North Adams as much as I do.
 
1) What do you consider the city's greatest asset?
I briefly considered describing the ways in which I view MCLA or Mass MoCA as our great assets and that is absolutely true. However, the answer in my heart is our residents. Our people. The diverse, wacky, loving, sometimes angry, often funny, bright, hard-working, struggling, amazing people who live here. In the time I spent working at the Appalachian Bean in college, I really got to see the diversity of our community and it filled my heart and made me want to commit my adult life to North Adams. 
 
2) What do you consider the city's greatest challenge?
Certainly poverty, crime, and economic development (all of which are intertwined) top the list when we look at what our greatest challenges are. However, one great challenge that I've been noticing as I'm campaigning is the amount of anger and the feelings of divisiveness in our community. We need to make big changes in order to move forward and flourish; we currently spend far too much energy fighting with each other and not enough time working together collaboratively to resolve issues. We have a lot of healing to do if we want to make the kind of changes we need to make in order to address issues like poverty, crime, and economic development. 
 
3) How do you perceive the taxation question: Do you think they are too high/too low/just right? If the city has a spending problem, what should it cut? Should the commercial rate ($32.95, second highest after Pittsfield) be raised again?
I don't believe that the city has a spending problem. We have a revenue problem, considering both our $3 million reduction in state aid a few years back, the small number of larger taxable businesses, and the low average property value assessment of so many of our residential homes. I had an opportunity last month to go over our budget with Mayor Alcombright and left that conversation confident that our current spending is reasonable. While I understand taxes are a burden on many people, they are necessary to maintain municipal services and are not at all unusual. Taxes go up. Our situation is not unusual. What we need to make it more palatable is a larger tax base and higher average family income — economic development is key in expanding our tax base, an raising the commercial tax rate any further might stifle economic development. That said, I do not claim to be an expert on tax policy and am interested in learning more about this from others who are experts and by studying best practices in other communities. 
 
4) Education: The design for the Conte renovation project is nearly complete. What do you think of the project? Should the city reconsider?
I'll be honest in that I was skeptical at first but I have come to believe that this is the best option for moving forward regarding our K-7 school facilities. In reviewing all the information available, more than anything it was Letters to the Editor from people who also initially felt skeptical of the project that swayed me. A lot of alternatives have been offered by people throughout the debate — including building a new school and renovating Sullivan — but upon examination, no option but Conte proved financially feasible. The money offered to us by the Mass School Building Authority could not be used to build a brand-new school and would not have been adequate to rehabilitate Sullivan (which, I was surprised to learn, would require more investment than Conte).
 
Some people view the proximity to downtown as a liability for the school, but I see it as a plus for the school as well as for the downtown. If we want more life, energy, and pedestrian/bicycle traffic downtown, what better way could there be to do this than to locate a large institution, such as a school, close to our city center? I live on East Main Street and am aware that people do often speed on the Conte section of the road; however, there are numerous traffic calming measures that can be used to address that and to change the traffic flow in the neighborhood and we have a new city planner, Mackenzie Greer, who is versed in these strategies. 
 
5) City council candidates often talk about improving the school system but the council has no control over the schools other than voting on the budget. Should the council be more involved? How?
As I understand it, the council does not have much authority over how the school system operates outside of approving the budget. What the Council does have, however, is a public voice, and it's important to use that voice to ask questions, bring attention to issues that need attention, and engage meaningfully with residents on critical issues such as education. While there are many wonderful things happening within our schools, we still fall short when our results are compared with other parts of the state. I believe that our high rates of poverty and its attendant social factors (family disorganization, poor health and nutrition of children, substance abuse and domestic violence within families) play a significant role in our lag compared with other school systems and these are issues that Councilors can use their voices and public positions to shine light on. 
 
6) Housing: As a councilor, what measures would you support to prevent or remediate blight? Some residents feel there is too much low-income housing that is making the problem worse. If so, how could the council address that?
I want to note first the blight is inevitable in a community with population loss, and our population has been trending downward for decades (though the drop-off has become less dramatic since 2000). The only real silver bullet solution for blight is a significant influx of population. Short of that, our options are limited but we do have some. Experts on blight recommend that cities take measures to reduce the harm to the rest of the neighborhood in which blighted homes exist in large part by helping to care for the property (mowing lawn, removing debris, and securing property as able). If city employees do not have time to do this work, perhaps some of it could be incorporated into the excellent days of service run by MCLA, Williams, and the MLK Day Committee. We have a very high population of renters (which includes myself — I rent an apartment), many of whom may be in a position to purchase and own homes but who would need assistance in doing so. Increasing our number of owner-occupied buildings and decreasing the number of unoccupied homes can reduce blight. I'm interested in seeing what role the city might be able to play in 1) educating renters on buying/owning homes and 2) incentivizing new home ownership. Incentives for home ownership more often come from the federal government, but I'd like to explore what role other cities have played in moving their renting population into ownership. 
 
7) Public Safety: The city has suffered through a number of high-profile crimes this summer. What can be done to make the city safer? Would you support spending more to hire more officers? Are there other ways to make it safer without spending?
Earlier this month, I attended a Neighborhood Watch reorganization meeting co-hosted by Councilor Jenny Breen and Becky Miner. At this meeting, NAPD Chief Mike Cozzaglio delivered a clear message that a very effective way to reduce crime in North Adams right now is for people to do three things: 1) lock their cars; 2) lock their homes; and 3) leave lights on in their homes. While I think everyone can agree that it would be desirable to add officers to the NAPD roster, I think it would would be hard to finance, so we need to consider ways, such as that which Chief Cozzaglio points to, that all citizens can take part in addressing crime. Neighborhood Watch, neighborhood organizing in general, and engagement in existing substance abuse prevention initiatives would be a great start for anyone looking to make a difference.
 
8)Resident question: Would the councilors be willing to help organize public meetings with police or other city employees to discuss municipal issues?
This is something that especially interests me and gets at the heart of what I most value. One of the most important things that we do at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition is organize the public to discuss key, timely issues impacting our community. I would both embrace existing opportunities and work to create new opportunities for public dialogue on all manner of issues if elected to City Council. 
 
I'd also like to share an idea I have here that I'd like to advance as I gain more experience on the Council and have the resources and knowledge needed to make this happen: at a community organizing conference I attended last spring in Minneapolis (Neighborhoods, USA) I learned of an award-winning program in Garland, Texas, in which the City of Garland organizes trainings for the public on topics such as how to utilize municipal services, the ins and outs of the city budget, how tax money is collected and uses, how to get permits, the process for addressing concerns (such as traffic, public safety, etc), and how to organize your neighborhood and plan events. While Garland has funding to support this program, I could imagine a scaled-down articulation of it here that is run by volunteers. If elected, this is something that I'd be excited to take the lead on developing. I often see people post concerns (a water main break, a street light out) on the Mayor's Facebook page for which he is not necessarily the "go-to" person; I'd like to see us develop a citizenry who knows who in particular to talk to when they need assistance. 
 
9) City Council: The city has a "Plan A" government with a strong mayor and limited council. How do you see the role of the council in the city's government? Should it be more proactive or more questioning of the mayor? Or should it focus on more of an advisory role as the voice of constituents? Can it be both? Or should the city's government be changed?
I believe Plan A is a good fit for North Adams at this time. It may be time for a charter review (an idea introduced by Councilor Mike Boland a few years ago that he did not have the opportunity to pursue), at which time we could carefully reflect as a community about whether Plan A, B, C, D, E, or F is best for us moving forward; while I am not opposed to radical change, I don't believe we need a change as radical as this at this time. This question makes it sound as though the Council questioning whoever serves as Mayor and serving as an advisory body are mutually exclusive; I don't believe they are. With a respectful, diligent approach to dialogue, the Council can serve both as colleagues with the sitting Mayor and as a check and balance. I think it serves us all to have someone catching our blind spots and prefer that the people I work with notice things I don't notice and ask about them.
 
10) The council instituted limited speech from citizens as a way to prevent disruptions. Do you agree with the rules or should they be revisited? If the council allows more speech, how can it prevent disruptive behavior?
I certainly believe that it is important to safeguard free speech. I will also say that I value dissent - I wouldn't want to be represented by a deliberative body and citizen activists in which everyone agreed on everything. That said, the City Council meetings are business meetings and not public hearings. At present, I believe that the hearing of visitors and open forum portions of the meetings are appropriate opportunities for input. I believe that the ideal opportunity for discussion between residents and Council members are committee meetings or informal conversation between residents and Councilors. If elected, I hope to be accessible to citizens outside of Council meetings so that they feel heard and understood.
 
11) Business: How can the council help to attract and retain businesses? Should it allow or limit the number tax-increment financing (letting businesses phase in property taxes) agreements? What realistically do you think the council can do in terms of ordinances and other measures? 

First it's important that I'm open about the fact that I do not have expertise in business development. I hope to learn much more about this topic in the coming months and, as I learn, rely on relationships I have with business owners and developers in the community for advice. That said, I think that it's important that we do what we can to offer tax packages that make our community attractive to new business. Beyond taxes, we need to focus on engendering the kind of community pride that inspires people to shop locally. That might sound light or idealistic, but in the small and mid-sized business forum that North Adams hosted as part of the Comprehensive Plan development, community pride was a key factor our local business owners pointed to that could help to spur economic development. They also pointed to a need for a stronger, more vital downtown, which the Council has the ability to facilitate through policies that encourage a walkable, bikeable, and generally more vibrant downtown.
 
12) Should the city create an economic development department, similar to Pittsfield and Adams?
This would definitely be a direction to move in if we can find ourselves in a stronger financial position in a few years time. We needn't wait too long; I do believe that you need to spend money to make money. However, at present we do have have wiggle room in the budget to create such a department and my sense is that the climate is such that residents would likely not favor the expansion of our city government if they were to play any role in funding it. I would personally be comfortable shouldering a slightly increased financial liability to the City in order to fund an economic development department but I doubt a majority of people would agree with me at this time. 
 
13) A national drugstore chain has shown interest in the former St. Francis' Church. The council passed an ordinance that would delay any demolition of older buildings until plans could be reviewed. Do you agree with that? Or should the city allow historic buildings to be demolished after a certain time? Should the city attempt to save St. Francis for other uses?
I favor the delay. I can appreciate the challenging situation the Catholic Diocese in regarding their tax expenses, but at the same time I believe that it's important to safeguard the heritage of North Adams, and our steeples are central part of our visual, emotional and social landscape. I am hopeful that the delay will buy Mayor Alcombright and others (such as resident Kurt Kolok, who has become a wonderful citizen activist regarding preservation of the church building) time to come up with a viable alternative for the property. 
 
14) The Redevelopment Authority is considering a long-term lease with private developers to turn Western Gateway Heritage State Park into "Greylock Market," an artisan studios and residences. Do agree with the plan? Should the city actively help the current nonprofits in there - the local museum, theater company and television station - relocate? 
I am very excited about the Greylock Market plan and have been further encouraged by Blair Benjamin's eagerness and openness regarding speaking with members of the community about their questions, concerns, and ideas. I think the Market presents an exciting opportunity to create connectivity between Mount Greylock, Mass MoCA, and our downtown. At the same time, I am mindful of the future of the non-profits located within the park, including the wonderful North Adams Museum of History and Science and Mill City Productions, which I have been active in over the past 10 years. I would like to see the city do anything in its power to help these non-profits develop plans for sustainable futures — they are key to the character of our community and I want to see them survive this development. 
 
15) Resident question: Do you think municipal employees salaries should be posted online like the state employees are? Why or why not?
I don't see why not if they are positions funded by public dollars and there is an interest in this information. At the same time, there might be nuances associated with salaries that are important to understand but that might not be apparent when salaries are simply listed. I might like to see some context for the salaries included with such a listing. Contextualizing info could perhaps include details such as the following: comparable salaries for similar positions in other communities, explanation of what sources fund the position, union-bargained or mandated salary requirements, and perhaps a brief description of the position. 
 
16) Is there another topic not addressed here that you feel is important to bring up?
Yes, and that is citizen engagement and responsibility. We have a community of 13,500 and while there are many amazing, caring people who are actively engaged in improving our quality of life, it is certainly nowhere near 13,500. I am very interested in advancing and encouraging resident engagement in community change. For example, some folks I know from high school organize the "Tour de NA" pub crawl every September. I went for the first time this year and had a blast. About 80 individuals spent a day riding from local bar to local bar on BMX bikes. Participants each contributed $20 to a pot and businesses that we stopped at kicked in money as well. The organizers of the Tour decided to use the money to help buy and install bike racks around the city. The Tour was great for community pride, helping people feel connected to each other, bringing bodies into downtown businesses, and raised money for improving our local facilities — and it was residents who organized it, not the City. The City of North Adams can, does, and should do big projects — but everyone else can do it, too. I'm interested in finding more ways for Councilors and other aspects of City government to encouraged such citizen engagement in the community.

 

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