Ten Minutes with The Berkshire's Two Mayors
Linda Tyer of Pittsfield and Tom Bernard of North Adams
Photos by Megan Haley
Mayors Linda Tyer of Pittsfield and Tom Bernard of North Adams sit at the helm of the Berkshire’s only cities, places still emerging and being redefined from their past as one-company towns. As these areas embrace diversification to create vibrant, desirable locations to live, they also face some serious financial challenges. With Tyer in office for two years and Bernard barely four months, the two sat down to talk about their roles, their communities, the similarities, and an upcoming—friendly?—mayors competition.
What are you most proud of in your city?
Tyer: The collaboration between government, private organizations, nonprofit organizations, our financial institutions—together that network is able to accomplish a lot more than if we were by ourselves in trying to design the future of our city.
Bernard: I would absolutely echo that for North Adams. The things that go along with that are a spirit of tremendous resilience and engagement. Whether it’s citizens, people in public service, the business community, nonprofits—all understand that it takes collective effort to work. In challenging times, that network becomes a source of strength.
What is your biggest challenge?
Bernard: It really comes down to financial sustainability over the long term. We are looking in North Adams at approaching our levy capacity [tax limit], and what that is going to mean in a couple years and how we continue to plan.
What can you do about that?
Bernard: We are really looking at growth, so bringing in jobs and selling more homes and having house valuations rise. Improvements in the places where the pool is deeper and wider.
Tyer: So, Mayor Bernard is anxious about approaching his levy ceiling. We are already there. We are at the crisis. We experienced it last year in our budget development where we were forced to make really difficult decisions. People lost their jobs. Our school community was impacted. Our ability to provide services was impacted. We are looking at every possible way to contain costs, to see growth in our real-estate property values, to see growth in our commercial base where we have jobs being created and capital investments being made. We are figuring out how to manage our debt better. We are looking for ways to grow our savings account if there is any kind of emergency. This is truly the biggest challenge from governing that I confront.
What issues is the city facing right now?
Bernard: The opioid epidemic is a huge one. Poverty, mental health, domestic violence, addiction—the things that are foundational to having a healthy community. Again, this is another place where, as the mayor said, having a network you can draw on as partners and collaborators working together is absolutely essential. We are still dealing with economic issues that are generational and are attended by social consequences.
Tyer: We have a very similar challenge in terms of the social and community impacts around poverty. What that means to kids when they come to school and they come from homes that are unstable, and maybe they haven’t slept and maybe they haven’t eaten or maybe they’re not ready to learn. It puts them at a disadvantage. They may be in a household where there is an addiction that they’re being challenged by. So, poverty, addiction. We are also still recovering from the post-industrial decline. So, the impact of that is still being felt today and some of our neighborhoods, in terms of vacant and blighted housing. We are still trying to shift people away from what for generations was a GE town. I have millennials telling me, “Please stop talking about GE,” and then we have seniors who long for those days. How do we bridge those generations? We have seniors saying, “I cannot afford the taxes.” Yet we know the taxes go to pay for public education, and we have young families that want good public schools, and so there is always this trying to find the balance between respecting our seniors and what their needs are and really pushing ourselves into our future.
Have you found that sweet spot?
Bernard: You never find it; you calibrate and adjust. It is difficult. There is a piece of what the mayor was just saying, that there is always this generational cycle. You may not have children in schools, but when you were a parent, when you were raising your family, the generation that was ahead of you was investing in your children. It’s about shared investment.
Tyer: It’s a balance; you’re teetering and tottering. That’s the thing I’m thinking about all the time—creating a place where people want to live. Balancing that with what can sometimes be described as a little bit of group depression. A lot of heartache and heartbreak over the fact that what was once the economic engine is no longer.
What did you not expect about the job?
Bernard: I did not understand, starting my administration, how much of the job of being mayor involves water. What happens when it falls from the sky, comes up out of the ground, freezes, thaws, goes over a damn, goes around the dam, finds a crack in the damn. It has become this introductory course on hydrology.
Tyer: I never thought I would know as much as I do about trash, about the different ways of filling potholes, about all the kinds of emerging technologies. This job is like a laboratory of learning. The thing I didn’t expect was a willingness and a comfort in delegating. I kind of like being in the weeds. I like knowing how to fill a pothole. But I can’t be the director of public health, I can’t be the director of finance, I can’t be the police chief. So, I had to figure out how to get comfortable with delegating, being able to support my incredible, amazing, brilliant team of professionals so that they can succeed without me being in the weeds so much.
Are there any perks to your job?
Bernard: The role of community ambassador. You get to go to the youth-hockey tournament and drop the puck. It’s just fun. You connect with the community in tough times as well. You go to a wake, you are part of a meeting of the community coalition. One of the perks is just knowing that beyond the administration and the budget and potholes, that you are seen and you have the privilege of serving.
Tyer: The perk is being able to celebrate people’s personal successes, or the successes of an organization, being able to root for your community. Not necessarily to take the stage or to be in the limelight, but just to celebrate someone when they have accomplished something important personally or an organization or a nonprofit. Those are the moments that make sort of the slog of dealing with the day-to-day routines of operating municipal government, that is what elevates it.
What is your city’s personality?
Tyer: Pittsfield has this scrappiness about it, a grittiness, an urban feel, and it’s this really great mix of art and culture and really new, hip, urban living spaces, and neighborhoods that are made up of families and seniors. It’s also deeply rooted in tradition.
Bernard: I like scrappy. We are both communities that are evolving, that are redefining themselves, and for the most part, it’s doing that with a really open spirit.
What are you two competitive about?
Tyer: We have the Mayor’s Fitness Challenge coming up. Our cities compete against each other, this is our third year. The intention is to draw attention to health and fitness and wellbeing. The mayor and I will have a challenge or two, but we will also be inviting the community to join in healthy eating and exercise, and just drink more water, good habits and mindfulness. It kicks off May 19th [berkshiremfc.com].
Bernard: I am trying to co-brand the Mayor’s Fitness Challenge with things that happen in the community. I’ll pick a couple of Thursdays that will be “Bike with the Mayor,” and we have a great disc golf course up at Windsor Lake. So some Friday afternoon will be “come kick the mayor’s tail at disc golf.”
So, this is competitive?
Tyer: Friendly competitive. I have to acknowledge that North Adams won the last two years, so we are more determined to win this year.