Amid support for schools, Pittsfield council drops call for deep budget cuts

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PITTSFIELD >> Talk of deep fiscal 2017 budget cuts evaporated during the City Council's second straight five-plus-hour review session this week with zero reductions in the bottom line.

However, the meeting Thursday did produce plenty of emotion and an apparent consensus that the entire city must work together, beginning right now, to control annual budget increases before Pittsfield reaches its spending limit without a Proposition 2 ½ override vote — possibly in fiscal 2018.

Before a council chambers packed with teachers and other education advocates — many wearing stickers saying Save Our Schools — councilors also heard a detailed description of why local school district budgets keep rising significantly.

The school budget proposed by Mayor Linda M. Tyer and tentatively approved on a 9-2 vote Thursday requires a $1.8 million hike in the city appropriation for the schools, or 3.1 percent. The total required is $60.3 million.

Councilor Kathleen Amuso, one of the strongest advocates for significant budget cuts, set the tone at the start. Speaking during the public comment session, she first apologized for being one of the councilors who on Monday proposed reducing the job and salary for Director of Administrative Services Roberta McCulloch Dews, Tyer's top administrative aide.

"I have apologized privately to Roberta McCulloch Dews, and I want to do so publicly," Amuso said. "I am truly sorry."

"I believe we are an inclusive community," she said, adding that the reason she proposed cutting the high-profile City Hall job, held for the first time by an African-American, had to do solely with the city's fiscal concerns, not the person in the post.

Warren Dews also spoke during the comment session, telling councilors, "It hurt my heart what you all did to my wife here Monday."

He added, "If you were not thinking about race, what were you thinking?"

Dews, a local minister and vice president of audience development and marketing at New England Newspapers, which owns The Eagle, said it seemed the council was questioning his wife's qualifications for the job in talking about her salary level. He said her resume proves she is well qualified, perhaps more than others who have held the position.

But he told Amuso, "I appreciate what you did tonight. I accept your apology."

Dews told Councilor Donna Todd Rivers, who he said he has worked with on community initiatives, "What you did upset me."

He said to the council, "I still have your back and I still love you, but you can't do that again."

Rivers said later in the meeting that the discussion of cutting the administrative position "was not as politically correct as it should have been. But it was based on last job created, first job out. That is where I was coming from; it had nothing to do with [the job holder]."

During her comments at public session, Amuso also said, "I say deal with this [budget issues] next year. I will not be voting for any further cuts. This needs to be a collaborative effort."

Other councilors during the lengthy session echoed that sentiment, arguing that the council is presented with a school budget increase each year and must make the hard choices, amid intense lobbying from school employees and others.

Following Amuso to the podium were 17 speakers from the public, almost all of whom made impassioned arguments against cutting the school budget — all concluding to ringing applause from the audience.

However, later in the meeting, Councilor Anthony Simonelli, who proposed a bottom line $200,000 cut in the school budget, said, "Something has got to give somewhere."

That motion, along with a second one to cut $150,000, was defeated on a 9-2 vote, with only Simonelli and Kevin Morandi in favor. The overall school budget was then approved by an identical tally.

After the council had heard a detailed description of the fiscal pressures that push up local school budgets from Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless and Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke, Simonelli acknowledged that even with the $1.8 million hike, the school proposal was not quite a level-services budget.

But he added, "We [councilors] don't have any control over this budget. I am not really sure we are all on the same page."

The retired educator told school officials and committee members, "We are the ones who have to be the good guys or the bad guys," but Simonelli said it was the committee that negotiated employee contracts and made other decisions that helped fuel the increase. Contractual raises for six school employee groups added $1.68 million to the next budget.

"You are throwing it on us," he said.

Amuso said, "I came into these hearings with a different perspective," but she advocated Thursday against reductions but for a frank discussion aimed at significant reductions next year.

"I do believe this is a shared responsibility," she said, adding that the type of small cuts she and others proposed on Monday won't have enough of an impact on rising costs.

"We have one year to solve this," Amuso said.

Council President Peter Marchetti stepped into the discussion toward the five-hour mark of the meeting, saying he was "frustrated" with the "mentality of us versus them, city and school."

He said he had hoped to end that trend when he was sworn in as president in January, but instead, "I became the bad buy when we are laying off teachers The system, if you'll pardon the expression, sucks."

Marchetti referred to the necessity — because of employee contract provisions — of notifying teachers early of possible layoffs, creating uncertainty. The notices go out well in advance of the adoption of the budget, although, as is now the case for next year, all 154 layoff notices will now be rescinded because the budget was approved.

However, during that period, lobbying on behalf of teachers and the school budget becomes intense, Marchetti said.

McCandless agreed, saying the city governmental charter that was approved in 2013 specifies the school budget be completed by May, which is too early to know much about state aid levels or what the council might approve. Therefore, he said, school districts have to send out the layoff notices to maintain flexibility in case there are significant reductions made in June.

Even with the $1.8 million increase, he added, nine positions in the fiscal 2016 budget were eliminated in the fiscal 2017 spending plan, McCandless said.

Marchetti also likened the city's fiscal predicament to that of crash test dummies in a vehicle heading for a brick wall that represents Pittsfield's shrinking levy limit without an override vote — now at about $2.4 million.

"We have 365 days to make a difference," he said.

Overall, the mayor's fiscal 2017 operating budget was proposed at $151 million, up by 4.2 percent, or just over $6 million from the current budget of $145.2 million.

The local tax levy for the budget — not counting state aid or other revenue — was proposed at $81.3 million, up from the current $76.8 million, for an increase of $4.6 million, or 5.9 percent.

"The bottom line for me is there is only so much to go around," Morandi said in opposing the school budget without reductions.

He said the school officials "should decide where the priorities are, not us," adding that the raises for the unionized professional staff are typically higher than for private sector employees.

Rivers voted in favor but said she had talked to some senior citizens about the school budget and they expressed fear of another tax increase. "And they are not anti-education," she said.

Rivers called on the entire community, including teachers in the audience, to work together to solve the budget crisis, becoming involved more than at annual school budget hearings and helping out seniors in need or simply shopping locally to boost the city's economy and tax revenue.

Councilors John Krol and Peter White, who opposed any cuts in the school budget, noted that the detailed presentation of school finances showed the increases to be largely out of the city's control.

"Dr. McCandless gave us the numbers tonight," White said. The figures show "the budget is not over-bloated," he said, as is often asserted by those seeking cuts.

Krol thanked McCandless and Behnke for providing figures on comparative spending among Berkshire County districts and also other Gateway Cities in the state, showing that Pittsfield is in the middle to lower ranks on teacher pay, administrative staff costs and spending per student.

He also noted what McCandless termed " virtually flat" levels of Chapter 70 state aid in recent years, which has forced local districts to make up the difference maintain services. The officials said annual Chapter 70 increases to Pittsfield usually topped $1 million several years ago but have dropped off to less than half that.

"We need to take this to Boston," Krol said. "[Gov. Charlie Baker] is not giving enough to the schools."

In addition, McCandless said, unfunded state and federal mandates are piling on additional expenses that districts must incorporate into their budgets. He cited standardized testing costs, special education services, which can increase dramatically with a few student placements in an outside program; a rising level of at-risk students from low-income and distressed households, who require greater services; and health insurance costs, which the superintendent said are higher in rural areas of the state and should be addressed through the Chapter 70 aid formula but currently aren't.

The council will review other city department budgets in two sessions scheduled for next week prior to expected adoption of an overall budget June 28.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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