Some in cutting mood as Pittsfield budget review begins
PITTSFIELD — Fiscal battle lines formed Wednesday even before Mayor Linda M. Tyer presented her $151 million fiscal 2017 budget plan to the City Council.
Councilor Kathleen Amuso proposed cutting $3.2 million from the mayor's operating budget before it had been formally presented during a special noontime council session. That proposal — along with a similar motion from Amuso to cut $2 million from Tyer's proposed $11.9 million capital projects budget — was voted down.
Amuso and Councilor Anthony Simonelli backed the reductions, while Councilors John Krol, Peter White, Christopher Connell and Council President Peter Marchetti opposed any changes prior to the council budget hearings to review the mayor's spending plan, beginning June 13.
Councilors Melissa Mazzeo, Kevin Morandi and Lisa Tully did not attend the meeting.
"I want everyone to know where I'm coming from," Amuso said, echoing earlier comments that she believes annual budget increases can no longer be supported in light of fiscal and economic challenges facing Pittsfield.
However, Krol and White said that, if cuts are to be made, they should only be considered after the mayor and department heads have a chance to present the budget details.
"I don't believe we should be cutting the mayor's budget before it is presented," Krol said.
"We have only had this for seven minutes," said White.
Marchetti said the city government charter requires a timetable for considering the budget, which is set in motion only when the mayor presents a budget to the council.
"We can't start debating until we have a budget," he said.
Simonelli told Amuso, "I tend to agree ... I wouldn't have a problem with it [the reductions]."
He noted that the council could only reduce the bottom line figure, not individual line items, but Amuso said her intention is to ask the mayor to send the budgets back to department heads and have them return with reductions.
"I think there are a couple of departments that could do that; it would be painful, I know," Amuso said.
Councilor Christopher Connell voted against Amuso's motion but said, "I hear you," before adding that it was not yet time to discuss budget changes.
In giving a brief overview of the plan, Tyer said the overall budget is up by 4.2 percent, or just over $6 million from the current operating budget of $145.2 million.
The School Department budget is proposed at $60.3 million, up $1.8 million, or 3.1 percent, from the current budget of $58.5 million. The figure is the bottom line amount approved in May by the School Committee.
During an interview following the meeting, Tyer and city Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood said the local tax levy — not counting state aid or other revenue — is proposed at $81.3 million, up from the current $76.8 million, for an increase of $4.6 million, or 5.9 percent.
Kerwood said the city side increases are focused mostly on the Police Department, increasing by $936,208, the Fire Department, up $294,223, and the Department of Public Services, up $353,507.
In light of a rash of recent incidents involving gunshots, the mayor last week held a news conference with city and public safety officials to announce a major increase in staffing and equipment for the PPD.
All other city department budgets are up or down from the current year by less than 2 percent.
Kerwood said the estimated tax increase over the current year would require a rate of $24.28 per $1,000 of property valuation, if a single rate for all property is used, up from $22.97 per $1,000 this year.
The mayor estimated the new rate would mean a tax bill increase of about $230 for the single-family home of average value, based on a single tax rate. The city uses separate tax rates for commercial and residential property, but the final determination on that ratio for the fiscal 2017 tax rate won't be decided until November.
In other notes included by Tyer in her budget cover letter, she said that among cost drivers are a $1.3 million hike in health insurance costs; $329,049 more for a health insurance mitigation fund that protects employees from increases in their share of premiums during a current contract for health insurance; $521,833 in increased employee retirement costs, and $489,349 in increased long-term debt principal payments.
Kerwood said following the meeting that the increase of $1.3 million in health insurance costs still reflects about a $1 million savings over the estimated cost under the city's previous insurance contract, which expired July 1, 2015. The current contract with the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association for Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans is for three years.
The budget also proposes using $2 million from certified free cash to offset the tax rate.
Within her capital projects budget of $11,948,000, Tyer is proposing:
• Street improvements totaling $2.5 million
• $2.6 million for Pittsfield Municipal Airport runway improvements (a project to receive federal and state funding)
• A total of $570,000 for 10 itemized school repair projects or maintenance upgrades
• $250,000 for site analysis and design for a new police headquarters building
• A total of $378,000 for police equipment, including $200,000 for radio replacement
• For the Fire Department, $600,000 for a new ladder truck, $105,000 for two command staff vehicles and $70,000 for fire equipment replacements
• $3.55 million for sewer collection system improvements
Tyer said her budget plan "is fundamental to ensuring that our city has the services it needs to raise property values, to keep educational standards at a premium, and to make public safety priority No. 1. The actions we take today will yield steady returns toward the city's long-term fiscal investments. I look forward to a robust discussion about community priorities and the ways in which we fund those programs and services that citizens expect and deserve."
The mayor said she also is exploring strategic options beyond fiscal 2017 to control costs, manage debt obligations, develop improved budget formats and long-term spending plans, and possibly combine information technology departments and merge school and city building maintenance personnel.
Marchetti has set the council's budget review sessions for June 13 at 7 p.m. for opening remarks by Tyer, an overview by Kerwood and consideration of the first eight departments.
Subsequent sessions beginning at 6 p.m. are scheduled for June 16, 20, 22 and 23, all in council chambers at City Hall.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.
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