22 hours of scrutiny over five nights nets zero reductions Pittsfield budget

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PITTSFIELD >> A philosophical rift over Mayor Linda M. Tyer's fiscal 2017 spending plan hardened further Thursday and helped lengthen an already exhausting City Council budget review season to more than 22 hours over five nights.

In the end, the only reduction was likely in sleep time over the past two weeks. The mayor's budget actually now is just over $4,000 higher than when submitted to the council — confirmed at $151,302,164 as of Friday morning.

Councilors calling for significant reductions in a proposed $4.6 million increase in the local tax levy continued to propose myriad cuts Thursday, ranging from major to the micro-management level. Most were again voted down by the councilors, but a few were approved.

The councilors had also added back in approximately $123,000 for 17 local human service organizations that the mayor had deleted from her original budget proposal. The change slightly overbalanced cuts made in other line items.

In advance of the council's Tuesday meeting, when members are expected to give a final OK to a budget for fiscal 2017, the total tax levy increase to $81.3 million, up from the current $76.8 million, essentially remains the same.

The mayor's $11.9 million capital projects list, requiring borrowing, was reduced by $50,000.

Those pushing hard for spending reductions in light of a shrinking gap between the current levy and the city's tax ceiling without a Proposition 2 ½ override vote — primarily Christopher Connell, Anthony Simonelli, Kevin Morandi and Donna Todd Rivers — have argued the city faces a fiscal crisis and must begin this year to pare back spending.

Others, including John Krol and Peter White, have argued for allowing Tyer a year to implement promised department consolidations and other changes to reduce spending in future budgets. She took office in January.

The monumental nature of that task was also illustrated Thursday during a discussion of the maintenance needs for the city's approximately 100 buildings.

Councilor Kathleen Amuso, who has advocated for an increase in maintenance funding, asked Director of Maintenance Denis Guyer if he could find overdue projects to address if given an additional $500,000 in funding, and he said that the amount would only begin to cover the needs.

When Rivers commented that the city should develop a priority list for building maintenance, Guyer responded, "You are my hero. I have been saying that since I came onboard."

He said that in light of declining population and other factors, the city should take a hard look at which buildings it wants to keep and maintain over the next 20 or 30 years. Guyer said that includes city schools, some of which might no longer be required given a lower student enrollment, adding that school redistricting should also be part of the conversation.

While the councilors rejected on a 3-8 vote Amuso's motion to ask Tyer to add $500,000 more for maintenance, councilors seemed to favor council President Peter Marchetti's suggestion that a council subcommittee be given the task of overseeing a study of long-term building needs and priorities.

Concerning the mayor's $11.9 million capital projects list, a $2.6 million request for work on city airport runways sparked the most debate before ultimately being approved. Most councilors eventually agreed that the 95 percent grant funding for the project and the fact it follows a 10-year, $21 million improvement project at the facility — which also received a high level of grant funding — were reasons to approve the work.

Connell's motion to reject borrowing the $2.6 million to finish resurfacing of the main runway and resurface the secondary runway that crosses it, was defeated 9-2, with Connell and Morandi in the minority.

Connell had argued for halting approval until the airport operation could show an increase in revenues to offset annual city appropriations to support the facility.

Rivers, White and others remarked that they want to see a report from an ongoing study of the airport operation and the city's long-term management options before making significant decisions. The study began earlier this year after it was proposed by Connell, Rivers and Councilor Melissa Mazzeo.

Airport Manager Robert Snuck and Airport Commission Chairman Christopher Pedersen said the $2.6 million request for fiscal 2017 represents the second phase of a $6.1 million project to finish work on the main runway and also resurface and make other upgrades to the shorter runway that crosses it.

They said the work is designed to improve the line of sight in both directions and make grade level changes to enhance safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the MassDOT Aeronautics Division will provide 95 percent of the funding, with the city's share of the $2.6 million estimated at $130,000.

Pedersen said the work will complete a multi-year project to bring the airport and the 24-year-old runway system up to current FAA standards.

The largest reduction in the regular budget made on Thursday was actually the result of the apparent overfunding in a mitigation account set up to reimburse city employees for out-of-pocket increases under the city's current health insurance contract.

Connell mentioned that it seemed too much was allocated for that line item, and Kerwood agreed. A total of $29,000 was subtracted.

The councilors also approved cutting $25,000 from a contingency account within the budget funding insurance and other costs, and a $2,500 cut in a legal ad and subscriptions line item, which Kerwood said he was comfortable with and could accommodate.

In the capital budget, the councilors voted 9-2 against the proposed $50,000 purchase of a small lot on Wahconah Street in front of Wahconah Park. That was proposed to ensure no development takes place in front of the historic park to detract from it as the city plans for a major renovation of the facility.

Councilors rejected Simonelli's proposal to reduce the funding to human service groups to $65,000, and his subsequent motion to cut the total by $38,000.

And they rejected on a 5-6 vote a proposal to reduce a Community Development Department position to part-time. That item is expected to be discussed further on Tuesday, after questions were raised over how the council can legally reduce a city position and/or the salary amount. A $27,787 reduction was voted during the first review meeting, intended to cut from the salary for that position.

The final decision of the long meeting concerned the amount the city will use from its free cash account to reduce the fiscal 2017 tax levy. Morandi's motion to add $500,000 to the $2 million the mayor had approved, and a follow-up motion from Connell to add $200,000 to the mayor's proposal, were both rejected on 5-6 votes.

Those supporting the increases argued that not enough was cut from the next budget to lower the tax impact on the elderly and others struggling with tax bills.

Councilors opposing the use of more from free cash supported Tyer's attempt to bolster the city's budget reserves and end what she called the practice of under-budgeting accounts and then making up the difference in the following year by using free cash — the amount certified by the state as left over at the close of a fiscal year on June 30.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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