Pittsfield capital projects budget is stalled
PITTSFIELD -- The city is well into fiscal 2015 without an approved capital projects budget, and the mayor and some city councilors are blaming one another for "playing politics" on the issue.
"I think this is unfortunately an exercise in political theater that is completely unneeded and unnecessary," said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol, one of four councilors who opposed Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi’s $9.5 million capital budget plan June 24.
The mayor, who warned at the meeting that not having a capital plan in place could stall or jeopardize roadwork, repairs to school buildings and other projects, said this week he believes he compromised on the proposal only to be shot down at the last moment.
Bianchi said that after a June 7 budget hearing, he cut some items he supported from the capital plan and added $2 million for street projects based on councilor comments. However, he did not include about $450,000 for a new fire truck, and that proved the deal breaker for the four council members -- Krol, Barry Clairmont, Jonathan Lothrop and Kevin Morandi.
Because the capital budget -- which is acted upon separately from the city operating budget -- involves borrowing, it required at least eight of 11 council votes but received only seven.
"They are the guys who threw this [budget] back at me twice, and they aren’t being political?" Bianchi said of the allegation he was playing politics by holding up popular projects. "I think they have to take a look at that. This is not the way politics should work."
Bianchi added that he offered to put the fire truck in the next city budget or consider it again later this year. He said he also plans to again propose a fleet of smaller, rapid-response vehicles for the fire department, which the council opposed and he deleted.
"I don’t know where it stands," Clairmont said this week, adding, "I was shocked we didn’t get anything back [at a July 15 meeting]. I assumed he was going to bring something forward in July."
A majority of the council has indicated it wants to purchase a fire truck this year, and it was obvious that members were looking for more compromise around that one item, he said.
The at large councilor said the mayor did not reach out to him and he didn’t try to contact Bianchi. "I didn’t because we don’t have a good working relationship ... The last time I was in his office, he basically dressed me down," Clairmont said.
"I find it incredible that he did not bring anything back [to the council]," Clairmont said. "If there is nothing by August, it is just playing politics."
"The thing is, we took months to develop a capital budget," Bianchi said. "And we took a lot out of it ... We compromised on 95 percent of the things they wanted. They had plenty of time to give me feedback before they took that [June 24] vote. I think I’ve been more than fair. I would have liked to see that reciprocated."
"The idea that the mayor would leverage the whole capital budget over one item is bizarre," Krol said, adding that it would not be the first time a council has advocated this way for including or deleting something from a budget.
"Basically, he is saying he’ll take his ball and go home, and I think that’s childish," Krol said. "There is no doubt the council wanted that fire engine. ... I think we had an honest difference of opinion over a fire engine."
Krol added that the mayor could still bring in any item or all the same capital items for a vote "at any time."
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell said he is especially upset about the $3 million that was earmarked for road work in the city. "It is too late [in the construction season] to do any of those road repairs," he said. "I feel that for the sake of a fire engine that could have been brought back at any time, the residents will be adversely affected."
A third to half of the construction season has already passed, Connell said, and he believes the contractors still seeking work "probably are not busy for a reason," and might not be the best choice for Pittsfield.
Bianchi agreed that it is getting late in the construction season, but any work funded later in the July-to-June fiscal year could be bid to begin next year.
"If it is approved later, we could make a bid package for the spring," he said. "We might get more aggressive pricing."
Even without the $3 million proposed, Bianchi said the city will have about $1.5 million in state highway aid and leftover roadwork funding from past years. He said city highway crews will take on some street projects, adding, "We want to see how much they can do."
He added, "I don’t anticipate losing out on that [$3 million for roadwork]."
As for the entire capital budget, Bianchi said he will "evaluate each item on a case-by-case basis" before deciding what to bring back to the council for approval.
Items like funds toward a planned turf athletic field at Berkshire Community College could be expedited, he said, but that project also depends on other funding sources and might not require the city funding this year.
Ward 2 Councilor Morandi said he remains hopeful there will be compromise, but he reiterated his support for a fire engine. A number of the trucks now in use are rapidly aging, he said.
Even adding $500,000 to the capital budget would still keep it below the $10.8 million plan Bianchi initially proposed, Morandi said.
"I’m more than willing to sit down [for negotiations]," he said.
Ward 5 Councilor Lothrop said the issue comes down to the fact the council "told him [Bianchi] what it wanted," and that included a fire truck, but the mayor "took a chance" in June by leaving that one item out.
A major factor, he said, is that it takes about a year from the time of the order to have a fire truck assembled and delivered. "I just don’t know why it was so hard to produce the fire truck," he said.
In addition, Lothrop questioned why the city didn’t seek bids using the state road aid and leftover funds even though the full road projects funding wasn’t approved.
He said using city highway crews for road repairs was discontinued in the past because of problems that developed as a result of insufficient staff to tackle that job and perform ongoing maintenance work at the same time.
Having private contractors do the paving work "was widely recognized as more successful," Lothrop said, adding that he doesn’t believe having city crews take on that role "will work out well."
To reach Jim Therrien:
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Among $9.5 million in projects stalled because of dispute over the city’s capital budget:
n Police radio replacement: $100,000
n BCC turf field funding: $200,000
n Wahconah Park improvements: $100,000
n Crime scene police vehicle: $39,005
n Online permitting software: $100,000
n 11 school repair/upgrade projects: $800,000
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