Pittsfield councilors take first stab at mayor's budget; few cuts made

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PITTSFIELD — Slashing spending was heavily on the minds of city councilors Monday as they began a review of Mayor Linda M. Tyer's proposed budget with a marathon five-and-a-half-hour session.

But by time the meeting adjourned at 12:30 a.m., councilors had voted for cuts totaling about $61,000 in seven departmental budgets, while asking Tyer to restore up to $123,000 in human service organization funding that she had eliminated from her $151 million fiscal 2017 spending plan.

Over the long session, which included a 10-minute intermission and multiple yawns and jokes about the time from councilors and those waiting to defend their department budgets, the council debated more than a dozen proposed reductions, often voting 6-5 or 5-6 to approve or deny cuts — all under $30,000.

Among the targets for cutting were the salary of the mayor's top office aide and Board of Health funding for demolition of vacant buildings and to support efforts to attack blight through enforcement measures.

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.

In light of the increases and a report from the city's auditor that Pittsfield is approaching its taxing limit without a Proposition 1/2 override vote, several councilors have called for significant spending cuts.

Councilors voted Monday to return the entire Community Development Department budget to the mayor, asking her to restore some or all of the $123,000 in city funding to 17 local service organizations. The request followed an outpouring of support for the nonprofit groups during the public comment portion of the hearing — as well as numerous recent emails and calls to council members over the proposed cuts, councilors said.

The Marilyn Hamilton summer literacy and fitness program serves more than 100 children in West Side neighborhoods, director Vanessa Slaughter told councilors. Offering physical education in the mornings and literacy programs in the afternoons, the program "is so important to the city of Pittsfield," she said.

William Travis, of the Pittsfield Community Connection Steering Committee, said some of the expected funding would help provide youth employment. Teens and families involved in the anti-youth violence and mentoring programs of the PCC "are counting very heavily on summer employment opportunities," he said.

The funding help from the city "is desperately needed," said Holly Stover, a board member of the George B. Crane Memorial Center, which sponsors peer-driven addiction recovery services at the center on Linden Street. She said the center is dealing with issues that have a significant impact on a vulnerable population and on the city.

A restoration of funding also was urged for the Elizabeth Freeman Center, the YMCA, the Berkshire Immigration Center, the Pittsfield Family Consortium, the Christian Center and the other local organizations, some of which had received city funding for many years.

While leaving in place $154,500 in Community Development Block Grant funding recommended for eight service groups, Tyer proposed eliminating the annual city supplement to that grant support — expected to total $123,000 for next year.

The organizations had gone through the annual process of applying for funding to provide services in Pittsfield, and the city's Human Services Advisory Council had recommended city funding of $123,000 for 17 organizations before the mayor decided to eliminate that amount in light of financial pressures facing the city.

Timothy Weisman, a member of the advisory council, said "Pittsfield has great needs," adding that the people in the affected nonprofits "are incredibly passionate" about the work they perform for city residents.

If the funds are cut, "What does this say about our city?" he asked.

Tyer told councilors she and her staff analyzed all spending in a very difficult budget year based on determining "the core responsibilities" of city government. She said that in light of a need to spend more on public safety and other segments of the budget, "priorities had to be put up against one another ... This is not easy, I can tell you that," she said.

Councilor John Krol said it should be noted that the service organizations have other sources of revenue and are not solely dependent upon the city, but that, in order to put that funding back into the budget, city services and possibly employees might have to be cut.

He added that, in the case of the Marilyn Hamilton program, fundraising efforts are likely to soon make up the amount the city would supply.

While councilors suggested numerous budget cuts in the several departments reviewed over more than five hours, they agreed that elimination of the human services funding supplement would have wide-ranging negative impacts on the city and opposed it. However, most seemed open to the mayor returning with a funding level less than the full $123,000 recommended by the advisory council.

"It is just too drastic all at once," said Councilor Melissa Mazzeo.

Councilor Anthony Simonelli said he would be comfortable if the mayor "would meet us halfway" on funding the organizations

Councilor Kathleen Amuso said the city should work with the organizations this year and maybe consider reductions next year.

The mayor will now reconsider her budget for the Community Development Department and return with a recommendation at a future council review session. There will be four more meetings to review the mayor's budget for all the other city departments, the School Department, and an $11.9 million capital spending plan.

A vote to adopt the overall budget is expected by June 28.

Amuso, who has advocated for deep cuts because of the city's fiscal condition, started off review of the mayor's office budget by calling for a 50 percent cut in the job and $52,195 salary for the director of administrative services, Roberta McCulloch Dews.

That proposal, along with one to cut the annual salary to the minimum full-time rate for that post, from Simonelli, and one to make it a three-quarter time post, from Councilor Kevin Morandi, were voted down or dropped after much debate.

Krol and Councilor Peter White strongly opposed the proposals and a similar job reduction proposed in the Community Development Office. Hiring someone in January and then cutting their job and salary six months later would set a bad precedent, White said of McCulloch Dews.

A subsequent proposal from Amuso to cut city councilor pay by 2 percent also was voted down. That would have required an ordinance change as well.

Donna Todd Rivers said she favored the pay cut because the council is asking for cuts in other areas of the budget.

And councilors passed on 6-5 votes cutting $25,000 for demolition of blighted properties from the city's list of about 100 vacant properties, and $3,000 from funds used to deal with nuisance situations, such as unmowed lawns or buildings that need to be boarded up.

Councilors also voted 6-5 to cut $27,787 from a staff position in the Community Development office, but that entire budget was later sent back to the mayor with the human service funding recommendation.

And councilors rejected Lisa Tully's proposal for cutting $29,987 from the Office of Cultural Development, along with a $16,000 cut in the building maintenance department budget, proposed by Christopher Connell.

A proposal from Rivers to send that department budget back to the mayor requesting the addition of two positions while seeking cuts elsewhere also was voted down.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.

On the web ...

To view a complete copy of the mayor's budget plan, go to www.cityofpittsfield.org/city_hall/fy2017_city_budget.php


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