Pittsfield councilors fail in efforts to cut airport, other spending
PITTSFIELD —; Several city councilors returned to budget-cutting mode on Wednesday while reviewing 11 spending categories in Mayor Linda M. Tyer's fiscal 2017 budget.
However, the group of four was consistently in the minority during the fourth of five budget sessions and failed to push through any reductions in the $151 million spending plan for the next July-to-June budget year.
Councilors Christopher Connell, Anthony Simonelli, Donna Todd Rivers and Kevin Morandi led the debate concerning proposed reductions among the department budgets considered, supporting more than a half-dozen targeted cuts. But every motion put forth over the four-hour session was rejected on votes ranging from 2-8 to 4-6, and all the budget categories were approved.
The overarching theme has been that, with a shrinking ceiling between annual city tax assessments and the limit without a Proposition 2 ½ override vote, significant reductions are needed. For fiscal 2017, the estimate is that Pittsfield will still be $2.4 million below that levy limit, but the gap has narrowed significantly following tax increases in recent years.
Not counting state aid or other revenue, the budget tax levy is proposed at $81.3 million, up from the current $76.8 million, for an increase of $4.6 million, or 5.9 percent.
Those councilors supporting the mayor's spending plan and its hike in the tax levy, such as John Krol, have argued for allowing Tyer a full budget year to implement her promised changes and pursue departmental consolidations and efficiencies.
The most intense debate Wednesday focused on the Pittsfield Municipal Airport spending plan, which totaled $203,296.
Connell, Rivers and Councilor Melissa Mazzeo, who was absent Wednesday, earlier this year spearheaded an ongoing study group analysis of the airport's operation and its fiscal efficiency in light of annual operating deficits of about $80,000 to $100,000, which the city covers.
Connell proposed lopping off $30,000 from the airport budget, but that was rejected on a 4-6 vote. He said that would reinforce the message that increased revenue is required at the airport to better balance expenses and spur the Airport Commission to decisive action toward that goal.
He added at one point that he believes a "forensic audit of this airport" by the Federal Aviation Administration should be requested to review aspects of the facility operation over the years.
"The bottom line for me is we're not turning a profit," said Morandi. "Obviously, something is not working."
Connell followed with a proposed $17,000 cut for the airport, but that also was defeated, and the overall airport budget was approved.
Councilor Peter White said he is "looking forward to seeing what the [airport] study group recommends" for the airport, but added that in light of staff responsibilities for safely maintaining the facility, "I can't support reductions this year."
Krol agreed, terming cuts at this stage "premature." He added that it is somewhat unreasonable for the city to expect the airport to produce a profit, when only a few department budgets even come close to breaking even due to fees or other revenue sources.
Krol also cited Tyer's apparent willingness to pursue efficiencies in the airport budget.
The mayor told councilors that airport Manager Robert Snuck and airport commissioners are pursuing options to increase airport revenues, such as through leasing land for a solar array and airport user fee increases, and by seeking to clarify or alter current lease agreements for land or facilities to help close the annual budget deficits.
Snuck, who was appointed to the post last fall, said revenue has been up about 15 percent and airport officials are "working to increase fees and try to renegotiate leases" concerning airport land or facilities.
He and commission Chairman Christopher Pedersen said the commission is due to vote soon on proposed user fee hikes. They added that, should a budget reduction affect the ability to maintain the airport as the city agreed to maintain it in receiving significant federal and state funding, it is possible the FAA could demand repayment of grant funds. The funding was primarily used to purchase airport land and fund significant runway and other extensions and improvements.
Simonelli complained that the city is being asked to provide funding but "really doesn't have a lot to say" about the airport operation because of the long-term grant stipulations.
Connell insisted that information compiled during the study effort shows changes are needed and all methods of operating the airport should be considered, including privatization.
Tyer opposed cuts but urged the councilors on the study group to submit their report soon so her administration can begin to move on the recommendations it believes should be implemented.
Among other reductions proposed and rejected Wednesday were cuts in the Personnel Department budget in the amount needed for providing physicals and evaluations for new employees. Personnel Director Michael Taylor said an increase had been added in because of expected hiring of a number of new police officers next budget year.
Connell also proposed cutting the Department of Public Services budget account for gasoline and diesel fuel from $400,000 to $350,000, based on the recent gas price decline, but that was rejected.
He also questioned totals in line items for professional and contractual services in Department of Public Utilities accounts, suggesting cuts. Those were rejected by 4-6 votes before the total department requests were approved.
The budget categories approved Wednesday also included those for the city clerk, city solicitor, building inspectors, and the water and sewer enterprise fund budgets.
Councilors will be right back at it at 6 p.m. Thursday with further budget reviews, including the mayor's $11.9 million capital projects plan and five-year capital plan. The mayor's entire budget is posted on the city website.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.
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