PITTSFIELD — With question marks punctuating the process, the City Council on Tuesday evening started weeding through Mayor Linda Tyer's proposed $169.5 million operating budget.
The $169.5 million budget request is approximately $1.65 million more than last year's spending plan for city expenditures, schools and enterprise funds, which represents the portion of the budget over which the City Council has control — though the city is poised to spend a total of just under $180 million next year.
This first of five hearings on the budget kicked off in an unprecedented manner, with 11 councilors logging into the public meeting over Zoom. The councilors, Tyer and department heads whose appropriations were up for debate Tuesday found themselves speaking at a virtual public meeting that heard no members of the public.
Though councilors themselves picked through appropriations requests, no members of the public logged on to speak their piece about public spending into a microphone. Tyer is proposing to raise $93.5 million in revenues from property taxes, and also plans to offset the tax rate with a $750,000 appropriation from free cash.
The city has proposed a 2 percent increase on local taxes, a half-percentage point below the maximum allowable increase under state law. The city would have raised just over $1.5 million more if the levy was hiked to the ceiling, according to Finance Director Matthew Kerwood.
The remainder of revenues come from state funds from unrestricted municipal aid, Chapter 70 school aid and local receipts. The amount of money that Pittsfield will see from the state next fiscal year is a glaring unknown, amid what Tyer called a "historic and rapid economic downturn" during the global coronavirus pandemic.
In her budget presentation to councilors, Tyer said officials from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which earlier in the municipal budget process outlined a "grim" picture of state finances, more recently painted an even bleaker picture.
She said the economy is "unlikely to ramp up quickly, and the job losses will be much greater than expected." Tyer's budget assumes unrestricted municipal aid will decline by 15 percent and school aid will be level compared to last year.
Tyer's salary was among the first issues councilors debated, though councilors ultimately narrowly voted in favor of her contractually obligated $2,462 raise — which increases her salary to $100,915. Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell, Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio, Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi, Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey and Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon voted in favor of an amendment to reduce the mayor's office budget by roughly the amount of Tyer's raise.
The amendment failed by 6-5 vote, but not before several councilors took issue with Tyer including receiving a raise in the middle of an economic downturn that has resulted in sky-high unemployment.
"There's so many people out there that are struggling, there's so many residents, businesses in this city that are struggling, and will they ever make it back?" said Morandi. "I think to set an example it would be the right thing to forgo a raise."
Tyer said she did not take salary raises permitted to her by contract for the past two years. She said that if the council voted in favor of reducing the budget line for the mayor's office, which it ultimately did not, then "I will reexamine the mayor's budget."
At-Large Councilor Earl Persip said Tyer has been leading the city during the pandemic, and that questioning her raise was unnecessary. "To question the mayor's leadership of the $2,000 raise that is in the city charter is just uncalled for in my opinion."
Kavey clarified that his opposition to the raise took a symbolic layer of importance and was not reflective of the mayor's leadership, saying, "when we're talking about laying people off and people losing their jobs, it's not appropriate to give people raises, but I do think mayor Tyer's been doing a great job."
Moon pointed to how at least 24 paraprofessionals and teachers will likely not return to Pittsfield Public Schools next year. She said the discussion about Tyer's raise is warranted "when I look at the school budget and I see the cuts that are being made."
On Tuesday, the councilors also approved a $106,062 City Council budget, a $219,623 city solicitor budget, a $344,272 city clerk's budget, and a $115,672 cultural development budget. The next budget hearing is on Thursday.
Amanda Burke can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.