Pittsfield mayor's budget gets past divided City Council

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PITTSFIELD — Mayor Linda M. Tyer's fiscal 2017 spending plan edged past the finish line Tuesday, but not before the strong objections of several city councilors were further articulated.

The $151 million city and school budget and an $11.9 million capital projects budget won council approval during the last scheduled meeting of fiscal year 2016, which will end on Thursday, June 30.

Neither proposal won unanimous approval.

Councilors Christopher Connell and Kevin Morandi reiterated some of the objections they had raised over a five-meeting, 22.5-hour budget review process over the past two weeks. But the operating budget passed on a 7-4 vote, with Connell, Morandi, Melissa Mazzeo and Anthony Simonelli opposed, and the capital budget was approved on a 9-2 vote, with Morandi and Simonelli opposed.

The objections raised during the lengthy review process — resulting in numerous motions to cut spending items, most of which were voted down — focused on an increase of $6 million, or 4.2 percent, in the overall budget, and a hike in the local tax levy from $76.78 million to $81.3 million, or 5.9 percent.

The closest budget-related vote was to approve Tyer's proposal for using $2 million from certified free cash to lower the tax rate. Morandi and Connell have argued for increasing the amount to lessen the impact on taxpayers in light of the budget increases and the lack of approved cuts.

Because there were no reductions made in the mayor's budget, Morandi said the city was "forced" to use free cash to lower the tax hike, despite advice from the city's auditor to build up surplus funds because Pittsfield is close to the maximum amount it can raise without a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote.

Connell, who earlier proposed using $500,000 more from free cash to lower the tax rate because most of the more than $400,000 in proposed budget reductions he and others made had been rejected, again said he favors using $2.5 million from free cash.

"We did the best we could [to reduce the budget], he said.

The mayor's proposed use of $2 million from free cash was approved on a 6-5 vote, with Simonelli, Mazzeo, Connell, Donna Todd Rivers and Morandi voting against.

In arguing his position that the city should have begun making serous reductions this year in light of the looming Proposition 2 1/2 cushion, which is now about $2.4 million, Connell said, "We really have a philosophical difference on how we should be handling the upcoming crisis. I think there will be an absolute bloodbath next year when this comes up again. We should have gotten some [reductions] this year."

Councilor John Krol argued, however, that there were reductions in 10 city departments in the mayor's budget, reflecting an effort to find savings. He added that he believes city voters in November were "loud and clear" in their desire to see Tyer's priorities for Pittsfield carried out — including investing in education, community development and public safety.

"I also have a problem with the narrative that because we didn't cut the budget we failed," Krol said.

The budget items were extensively debated over 22-plus hours, he said, and in the end the council had actually added to Tyer's spending plan by several thousand dollars. In the long run, Krol said, the budget plan "looks to the future" at ways to reduce "the big ticket items" while "investing in the community and encouraging expansion of the tax base."

Mazzeo said she didn't agree the mayor's voter mandate, when she defeated former Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi in November, called for a large tax increase. "She was elected based on her priorities," Mazzeo said. "People were looking for change. What they got was an increase in taxes."

The Proposition 2 1/2 ceiling is now "right here," Mazzeo said, after years in which Pittsfield budgets had a large excess levy capacity below the level requiring an override vote.

Asked by Krol to comment on the budget, Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood noted that the city has received state Community Compact funding to hire a consultant to help improve budgeting and long-term fiscal planning and transparency.

"I think this is a solid budget," Kerwood said, adding that the administration "is fully aware" of the fiscal challenges facing the city.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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