PITTSFIELD -- The City Council on Thursday gave preliminary approval for a $55.7 million school budget for next year, but not before a lengthy debate that included a proposal to withhold $1.5 million from the total.
Councilors, meeting as the Committee as a Whole, soon after followed that up by approving an overall city and school budget of $137.7 million on a preliminary basis -- again with much debate. A final vote on the spending plan by the council is expected at a June 27 meeting.
The council rejected on a 10-1 vote Councilor at large Barry Clairmont’s proposal to withhold $1.5 million in a reserve city account from the school budget -- to be released only if a demonstrable need could be shown later. In his detailed review of school revolving fund accounts and carry-over budget funds, Clairmont asserted that about $2.4 million was being "hoarded" by the school department as unofficial "free cash" funds to supplement school spending.
Clairmont said he is philosophically opposed to leaving large amounts in those areas of the budget at the end of the fiscal year, adding that the amounts have increased annually in recent years.
However, Finance Director Kristen Behnke went through the accounts and said late transfers in the current budget year that will end June 30 will greatly reduce the amounts mentioned by Clairmont. She added that the programs involved, such as for special education program tuition, can be drastically affected by the unexpected arrival of a special needs student requiring placement in an expensive program, and state education aid can be suddenly slashed from a program during the school year, or reimbursements cut.
Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, a voting member of the School Committee that approved the budget on Wednesday, said he agrees with the explanations offered by Behnke. He said that "in theory it would be great to expend all the funds within the year, but it is not practical."
Other councilors raised concerns about the cost of administrative salaries in the schools and with regular step raises for teachers in light of small or nonexistent raises for other city employees, and in light of declining student enrollments and the effect of a weak economy on city taxpayers.
However, in the vote on the school budget, only Clairmont voted no.
Before voting preliminary approval for the entire city budget, Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan Lothrop and others argued for holding the Fire Department budget out of the total because councilors had rejected it at a prior meeting over what they saw as staffing levels that are inadequate.
Bianchi said the Fire Department has operated for some time with the current funding, employing overtime for firefighters, but he said he would consider changes if warranted. He also agreed to entertain ideas for funding the department from councilors prior to the June 27 meeting, "I did hear your message, loud and clear."
However, Lothrop proposed cutting $6.2 million from the overall budget and then discussing fire department spending with the mayor. That amendment failed on a narrow 6-5 vote.
Preliminary approval for the $137,782,697 overall city budget then passed on a 7-4 vote.
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