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Friday, November 08, 2013
EASTHAMPTON — Mayor-elect Karen L. Cadieux said that when she took a job as a clerk and assistant in the Easthampton Town Hall 19 years ago, she never expected the job would one day lead her to being the mayor of a city of 16,200.

“I can’t explain what an exciting time this is and how much I’m looking forward to it,” she said Wednesday in her office, next door to the mayor’s office that will be hers when her two-year term begins Jan. 2.

Cadieux, who became Mayor Michael A. Tautznik’s assistant when Easthampton adopted a mayoral form of government in 1996, was elected Tuesday to replace him as he is not seeking a ninth term. She soundly defeated three competitors, garnering 59 percent of the vote.

She may have put away her campaign literature and lawn signs, but Cadieux has a lot of platform promises to make good on. She told voters that she will see a boardwalk built around Nashawannuck Pond and will work to provide good schools, strong public safety departments, smart economic and cultural development and find more funding to pave roads.

In an interview Wednesday, Cadieux said she still has to determine exactly how she will be able to meet those goals given the city’s tight budget, but she can get to work right away on her last campaign promise — a smooth transition from the administration of the only mayor Easthampton has ever known to her own.

“That transition — we’re starting it now,” she said Wednesday. “We’re not waiting till Jan. 2.”

First thing Wednesday morning, she said, she and Tautznik sat down to discuss her first task: choosing which capital projects the city can afford to complete in 2014. They decided that instead of asking department heads for their annual wish lists of projects, they would ask for brief descriptions of why the purchases or projects are necessary, because Cadieux does not have as much knowledge of the items as Tautznik does.

“The budgets have been tight for the last couple years and we couldn’t do as much as we’d like,” Cadieux said. “I’d like to get all their priorities and start fresh.”

Tautznik said he has every confidence his assistant will be able to keep the city moving forward after he leaves office and he applauded voters for making the right choice.

“I think people have a certain level of comfort that she’s still in the office,” he said. “She’s just the boss now instead of the support staff.”

Budget challenge

Several bouquets of flowers decorated Cadieux’s office Wednesday afternoon, and numerous residents and city officials stopped in to congratulate her and wish her good luck.

Throughout campaign season, Cadieux’s confidence in her ability to do the job well was clear in every debate and interview. But she said Wednesday that running a city when state aid is dwindling is no simple task.

Cadieux and Tautznik both said that her biggest challenge when she takes office will be crafting a budget.

“I think the budget is the biggest challenge everywhere. I can’t imagine a city where it isn’t,” she said. “It’s a challenge to provide level services with a tight budget.”

She has said that as mayor, she will continue projects Tautznik spearheaded that have the potential to save money as a way to help balance the budget. One option, she said, is building an anaerobic digester, which produces energy from sludge and food waste, a possibility that the city is studying.

Keeping strong schools and public safety departments will also be a challenge as positions have been cut from both areas, she said. The Police Department is now short three positions after officers retired and were not replaced in several of the mayor’s budgets, and the Fire Department is short one firefighter for the same reason.

Cadieux said she won’t know whether it will be possible to refill those positions until she sits down with city Finance Director Melissa Zawadzki to start the budget process.

“I think that will all come into play in budget discussions” with the chiefs, she said. “I’ll consider whatever their priorities are.”

Both departments were also forced to do without second-in-command positions for several years, and the Police Department this year used funds from drug forfeiture to pay the salary difference to promote Detective Robert Alberti to captain. But the funds will dry up at the end of June, so Cadieux will have to decide whether to fund that position in the next budget.

“We hope so, but the budget process hasn’t started yet and there’s no way to know what the requests from departments will be,” she said.

Cadieux, who pledged in her campaign to support programs that help seniors, said one thing she will fund in her budget “without a doubt” is the Council on Aging’s outreach workers. They work to help elderly people find the services they need, even if they can’t make it to the council’s Enrichment Center.

Grant funding for one of the outreach workers, a van driver and a receptionist expired earlier this year and Tautznik budgeted $20,100 to cover some hours for each position.

As mayor, Tautznik has said that the city’s inability to control the rising cost of employee insurance and other benefits is making it increasingly hard to balance the budget without cutting services. He tried unsuccessfully in January to get the City Council to approve a new state law that would give the city more power to change employees’ health insurance plans as long as they maintain the same level of coverage that state employees have.

But Cadieux said that the way the city gets insurance through the Hampshire County Group Insurance Trust is a good deal because the trust has funds set aside to defray any rate increases. “They’ve been eating up our increases,” she said.

Her goal of completing a decade-old plan to build a boardwalk around Nashawannuck Pond could move forward soon if the city gets a $400,000 Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities grant this month.

It would require a match of $245,164 from the city’s Community Preservation Act funds, which the City Council will vote on later this year. Cadieux clarified Wednesday that when she said in a past interview that taxpayers shouldn’t pay for the project, she meant it shouldn’t be funded through a debt exclusion that would raise taxes.

New leadership

Tautznik said that he and his assistant have different leadership styles and there will certainly be a period of transition. “Every time there is a new person in office, there are going to be new initiatives, new outlooks,” he said.

But there are a number of factors that will help Cadieux step into the role of mayor fairly easily, he said. Besides her years of experience in the office and the two months she has now to start taking on responsibilities alongside Tautznik, he said he has been preparing the office for a new leader for several years.

“Clearly, there’s going to be a change, but in this instance, I think we’ve prepared for the change by taking some of the responsibilities away from the mayor,” he said.

Tautznik has made the changes because he believes it would be hard for a new mayor without his skill set to take on all his duties because they are so varied. So he hired Zawadzki in 2010 with the idea that she would have the budgeting know-how to help his successor write the budget, and he said he plans to ask the City Council soon to shift responsibilities for municipal buildings maintenance to Peter Roy, who oversees maintenance of the school buildings.

Easthampton isn’t just getting a new mayor, but also a new mayor’s assistant.

Cadieux said Personnel Director Raisa Riggott will advertise the job to the public soon and conduct the preliminary interviews. Then the two will interview finalists together, before Cadieux makes the decision.

While Tautznik worked in the office next door, Cadieux said her boss of nearly two decades is a hard act to follow. “There’s no doubt about it, he’s done a great job,” she said.

But with the backing of most voters, Cadieux said she knows now that she and the community share the same vision for its future. Good things are coming for Easthampton, she said.

“It feels great,” she said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.