Pittsfield City Council preliminarily approves $160M budget

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PITTSFIELD — Additional state revenue will likely spare the city from a power struggle that reared its head Tuesday evening between the City Council and Mayor Linda Tyer, she told The Eagle on Wednesday.

The council preliminarily approved a $159.98 million spending plan for the coming fiscal year during its final budget hearing, which stretched late into Tuesday night. The mayor's $1 million free cash appropriation request failed in an 8-3 vote by the council, putting into question whether or not the budget will balance, and in a split vote $4 million in water and sewer maintenance also failed to pass.

The preliminary budget passed by the council also includes $8.83 million in capital spending for projects like a new police station, demolition and resurfacing of the Columbus Avenue parking garage, and roadway resurfacing.

On Tuesday the City Council will make final decisions on the fiscal year 2019 budget, which takes effect July 1. Between now and Tuesday, Tyer said, she'll work to change council minds with regard to borrowing the $4 million in water and sewer funds, as well as track an additional $1 million in state reimbursements that could displace the need for the free cash order bucked by the council.

Though councilors voted to make slight reductions throughout the budget process — a $65,000 line item that would have replaced carpets at Pittsfield High School the largest among them — Tyer said she's happy with the final product.

"I'm really pleased that our budget has remained fairly intact," she said Wednesday. "I think that it is a responsible budget that takes into account our fiscal constraints and community expectations about what our government should be doing."

Councilor Melissa Mazzeo said she rejected the water and sewer borrowing authorization because $74 million that the city is borrowing for wastewater upgrades, required by the Environmental Protection Agency, is already too much money to spend on wastewater over the next fiscal year. Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell said he couldn't support borrowing more for water and sewer maintenance given his stance that the city should enter a public-private partnership to manage its wastewater operation.

Connell also moved to refer the free cash request back to Tyer, asking she increase the appropriation by $500,000. The increase would mean the city would take $500,000 more out of reserves to balance the budget rather than raising them in property taxes — a move that under a single tax rate would save taxpayers about $14 per $100,000 in property valuation during the next fiscal year, Finance Director Matt Kerwood said.

Connell successfully convinced his colleagues the move would provide some needed relief to taxpayers, in light of increased property valuations, tax rate increases and the promise of rising sewer bills.

"It was a double hit to all the taxpayers here in Pittsfield," Connell said Wednesday of property tax bills. "We've been hitting them too hard."

Connell, Mazzeo, Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi argued for more cuts throughout the process but were not always successful.

"It was the best I could do," Connell said. "There were only of a few of us trying to make any changes in the budget."

Tyer said the free cash debate "was quite a surprise to me." She said councilors and auditors alike have in previous years pushed to store more free cash and stop relying on it to balance the budget.

"We've got to build our reserves," she said. "It's precisely why we built a budget around only using $1 million in free cash."

Still, she said, the debate may not need to continue given an additional $1 million in school reimbursements likely heading to Pittsfield, if state numbers hold. She said the additional revenue would reduce the amount of funds the city would need to raise to balance the budget.

If those funds fall through, she said, she could again ask the council to appropriate free cash funds at any time in order to make ends meet.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.

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