PITTSFIELD -- The School Department's long-planned purchase of a new bus fleet ground to a screeching halt on Tuesday when the City Council rejected a $2.7 million bond for the upgrade on a razor-close vote.
A bond to purchase 43 buses and pay them off over five years - which required a two-thirds council majority -- failed by one vote. The vote in favor was 7 to 3, with Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo abstaining, but eight council votes were needed to meet the threshold for bonding.
Caccamo, in his first year on the council, abstained because he is a school system employee. He said after being elected that he would abstain from school-related votes and not participate in debates on those issues.
Not being able to vote Tuesday was "frustrating," he said.
The councilor had expected that the annual council vote on the school portion of the city budget would require him to abstain, but he said Tuesday he believed the school bus bond vote also required him to abstain.
The problem dates to adoption of the new city government charter, which does not provide an exception -- as did the old charter - for school employees to serve on the council. That issue was not raised until after the election. The general consensus among officials has been that Caccamo was elected under the old charter and could serve but won't be able to run again unless he is employed elsewhere.
Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, who also serves on the School Committee, said after the vote it's possible for the council to reconsider any vote, so there is time before the fleet purchase was to have occurred in August for further action -- including during the council's final vote on the school budget and on the combined city-school budget in June.
School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said she felt in shock after the vote, which had at least stalled a plan that involved research and study of various proposals dating back more than three years.
The proposal, as presented by school officials and the mayor, involved spending about $560,000 annually for five years on the new buses, replacing buses that would be traded in that are nine years old.
Next fiscal year, the amount would be covered through $200,000 in the school budget and $370,000 in a fund dedicated for bus replacement, but after the first year the full annual cost would come from the school budget.
Councilors Lisa Tully, Kevin Morandi and Anthony Simonelli voted against the proposal.
Tully and Morandi questioned why the fleet could not be replaced in stages, with some purchased each year. Both said they had heard from taxpayers concerned about rising bills, Tully adding that she drives a 2004 vehicle and believes the bus fleet could be extended in a similar fashion.
Morandi suggested using the best 43 current buses and keeping some in reserve, since the fleet now contains 52 buses, which was to be reduced to 43 as routes have been consolidated in recent years.
The city should not wait until the final budget meeting to "tighten our belts," Morandi said, referring to a comment he made during debate on the current school budget in June 2013.
Simonelli said he was philosophically opposed to the city owning its buses, preferring to hire a private contractor for the service. "We shouldn't be in the transportation business," he said.
Kristen Behnke, assistant school superintendent for business and finance, said the administration and the committee have wrestled since at least 2010 to find the best method to replacing an aging bus fleet, on which repairs costs have risen significantly.
The deal was complicated because the current fleet was purchased with a 12-year bond, on which more than $1 million still is owed, she said, adding that paying down the cost of new buses over five years would give the schools a number of trade-in options and lower costs going forward.
In addition, Behnke said an auditor's study of costs determined in 2006 that owning buses was more cost effective than hiring a contractor, and that those cost factors appear to be the same today.
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said that as superintendent in Lee schools, he became familiar with the option of hiring a bus contractor. He said there is very little bus line competition in the county to help lower costs and estimated it would cost more to hire a contractor and allow far less flexibility in bus scheduling than the city now has.
Councilor Jonathan Lothrop said, "This is the end of a very long process," which he said could finally resolve budgetary problems caused by the previous bus purchase over 12 years.
"It has been researched very well," said Councilor John Krol, who added that the expected reduction in maintenance costs with new buses would drop sharply, but would have to be added back in if the old buses are retained.