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Mayor Tyer has put forth a $198 million budget for FY23. Pittsfield City Council wants more for mental health supports.

PITTSFIELD — Mayor Linda Tyer’s administration has proposed a $198 million budget — a 4.8 percent increase over this fiscal year’s budget.

The proposed fiscal 2023 budget, which was presented to the City Council on Tuesday night, would direct nearly $100 million to the municipal operating budget, $72 million to the Pittsfield Public Schools budget, $16 million to the city’s water and sewer enterprise budgets and $10 million to other expenses.

To cover these expenses, the administration is planning to raise $101.5 million in property taxes next fiscal year, a $6.9 million increase — or 7.3 percent — over the taxes raised this year.

That money, along with close to $66 million in state aid and about $16 million from sewer and water bills, would be the primary funding sources for the city’s budget. The budget also calls for a free cash disbursement of $750,000 as a way to help reduce the tax rate.

The council gave preliminary approval to spending in nine departments: the mayor’s office; City Council; City Clerk; human resources; diversity, equity and inclusion; Pittsfield Municipal Airport; health; city solicitor’s office; and the police department.

Here’s what you need to know about the first night of the budget discussions:

Seeking more support for mental health

In response to the recent death of Miguel Estrella, the 22-year-old Pittsfield man killed by city police officers responding to reports Estrella was having a mental health emergency, community support has united around more robust programming and resources for mental health care.

In response, the Tyer administration is seeking a new $75,000 line item to fund the hiring of a licensed social worker. This position is distinctly separate from the existing co-responder program which is funded through the Pittsfield Police Department in a contract with the Brien Center.

“Our community continues to feel the impact of an inadequate mental health care network,” Tyer said. “Our goal is not to create direct mental health care or to provide clinical services, it is to help the city be more proactive in decisions around how we network with our partners in the behavioral health field.”

This new position would direct the city in strengthening relationships with the existing private providers, explore new response models including positions outside of the police department, and directing larger mental health care policies.

Councilor Charles Kronick proposed reducing the budget for the position because, as he put it, a licensed social worker has “a master’s degree and that’s all they’ve got — that’s not a lot.” Kronick felt that the position should be paid an “entry-level salary” of $45,000. He also argued that the city had identified a solution without identifying a problem.

That amendment was resoundingly rejected by the other councilors who argued that they would be lucky to hire someone for a job of this importance and magnitude at the $75,000 rate.

“I think there’s many of us that feel [that this plan], it’s not far enough,” Council President Peter Marchetti said. “We have a plan on the table and it’s time for us to take action.”

The council then turned its attention to the police department, which increased its budget request by over $400,000 this year to $11.9 million.

Michael Wynn FY 23 police budget.jpg

Chief Michael Wynn said that he didn’t initially increase the funding for the department's co-responder contract “because the Brien Center can’t find co-responders and [the money] would get transferred and unspent.”

The department is hoping to staff a new digital evidence detective unit, purchase additional equipment for its off-road enforcement team and gather an internal team to achieve accreditation from the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission.

The budget did not include a funding increase for additional co-responders, which the department pays for through a contract with the Brien Center. The department currently budgets $85,000 for two correspondents who each work about 30 hours a week — sometimes on overlapping shifts.

Chief Michael Wynn said that he didn’t initially increase the funding for the contract “because the Brien Center can’t find co-responders and [the money] would get transferred and unspent.”

“I have no issue with this budget except for not increasing this funding,” Councilor Earl Persip III said.

The council voted unanimously to make a recommendation to the mayor that up to $250,000 of the grant funds that goes to the Police Department each year be directed toward hiring more co-responder clinicians. The entire council also voted to preliminarily accept the rest of the department’s budget.

Staff salaries are up

The budget includes the typical rundown of increasing employment, training and benefits costs. Though even the typical expenses are up this year.

Non-union managers and department heads will receive a 7.5 percent salary increase thanks to a provision in the city code that ties these annual salary changes to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index for urban consumers. In January, the index — which is used as a cost of living indicator — hit 7.5 percent, the highest that index has sat in more than 40 years.

“After some careful deliberation, we came to believe that what is contained in the city code carries the same legal weight as the provisions that are contained in our collective bargaining agreements,” Tyer told the council by way of explaining increases to about 50 employee salaries this year.

The mayor said she plans to return to the council in the near future with an amendment to that section of city code to set “parameters” to what size increases the city will meet.

Targeting ‘sacred cow’

Councilor Kronick was by far the most prolific amendment-maker to the proposed budget.

He tried to reduce the Department of Human Resources budget for employee training and education to a third of its proposed size. He also took aim at almost every aspect of the budget for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

One amendment Kronick proposed was eliminating the $10,000 the office had allocated for contractual services. Chief Diversity Officer Michael Obasohan explained that the money on that line item would be used to hire people who could lead staff training.

“There are some things around training that I can do, but I think that if I was to go out and contract a person or individual that specialized in a specific field that also has lived experience, the impact is greater with that training,” he said.

Obasohan explained he used department money to hire a company to lead a training next week on LGBTQI+ awareness and education, mentioning that city employees asked specifically for help with inclusive language particularly around pronouns.

“People want to know how to talk to someone else — are you a he, she or her?” Kronick said. “Maybe it’s just an opinion — but I don’t think it’s just an opinion, I think this is common sense sort of thing — You know what you are because you were told that when you were born.”

Kronick went on to say his feelings about trans people were rooted in “a religious principle of mine,” to which Councilor Dina Lampiasi responded Kronick’s religious principles “have no place here.”

“I think what we’re talking about here is spending money on things that you can research on the side,” he added.

Kronick said that his focus on making cuts to the DEI office was because “we are in a recession; we have to reduce.” He called the office a “sacred cow” and didn’t make a similar amount of budget amendments on any other department’s proposals.

None of Kronick’s motions or amendments to any part of the budget passed.

What comes next

Under the city charter, the City Council has 45 days to adopt a budget after a proposed budget is submitted. That means the council has until June 24 to adopt a budget or the mayor’s proposed budget will go into effect as is.

Over the coming weeks, the council will discuss the remaining 21 spending areas. The next meeting will be at 6 p.m. May 26 in the City Council chambers.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

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