PITTSFIELD -- Saying she was persuaded by additional information, Ward 1 Councilor Lisa Tully switched her vote on a $2.7 million school bus purchase plan, allowing the measure to win approval on the second attempt before the council.
Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi submitted the proposal to purchase 43 new buses over five years during an April 8 council meeting, but the approval -- requiring 8 votes on the 11-member council -- failed by one vote. Bianchi indicated at that time he would resubmit the plan, which had been developed by the School Committee and administration, prior to the end of the fiscal year in June.
"Over the past two weeks, I’ve done a lot of research," Tully said, saying she had spoken with school administration officials, city Treasurer Susan Carmel, Bianchi and officials in Amherst and other communities, who convinced her the proposal was fiscally sound.
She had asked previously why a percentage of the city-owned bus fleet couldn’t be purchased this year with the goal of replacing the fleet over time. Tully questioned whether all of the nine-year-old buses needed to be traded in at once.
The councilor said she now is convinced "this is the best time to trade the buses in."
However, the two other councilors opposed to the plan at the prior meeting -- Anthony Simonelli and Kevin Morandi -- again voted no.
Simonelli, who said he is philosophically opposed to the city owning its own bus fleet, questioned whether the pros and cons of the purchase could have been better researched.
School Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless told councilors a consultant will be hired to compare costs, as well as the optimal time for trading in the new buses, before any new bus proposal is considered.
He added that, while he agrees schools should focus on education, all the information available showed that "we get more bang for the buck" by owning the fleet and employing the drivers.
That includes not only the overall cost but in terms flexibility in scheduling bus runs to best serve the students, he said.
At the prior meeting, Kristen Behnke, assistant superintendent for business and finance, said a 2006 study of the options showed that for a system the size of Pittsfield’s, owning the fleet was the better financial option. She said recently updating the cost figures for inflation did not change that advantage versus hiring a busing contractor.
Morandi reiterated that he believes city taxpayers are under pressure, especially elderly residents, and he could not justify the expense. "This is just going to keep on adding on and on," he said.
McCandless said that while $370,000 of the annual cost for the purchase bond is covered next fiscal year by a bus purchase fund, over the next four years the cost would be about $570,000. He acknowledged that the amount would not likely be made up through cuts in future budgets but would be "reflected in it."
School officials contended, however, that the system will have good financial options for trade-ins or a staggered fleet replacement within three years, and that savings will be realized over the long run. The current fleet was purchased over 12 years and more than $1 million still is owed on an aging fleet that has required an escalating repair budget.
Bianchi said following the meeting that the purchase doesn’t mean privatizing the system can’t be considered in the future, but it was determined that "this is the economically optimal time to do this," and because of the age of the buses and bonding costs, waiting or buying only a few buses at a time would not improve the bottom line.
Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo, a school system employee, again abstained from the vote. Without his likely yes vote on April 8, the plan was rejected despite a 7-3 vote in favor.
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