PITTSFIELD — Mayor Linda Tyer’s proposal for $188.7 million operating budget and $10 million in other expenses appeared poised to become the city’s fiscal 2023 budget after a procedural move by one of the administration’s most vocal critics on the City Council.
A charter objection by Councilor Charles Kronick on Tuesday night essentially removed the council’s ability to influence the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The move prevented the council from voting on the budget, and thus the mayor’s original budget will be accepted by default.
“I think it’s absurd, I think it’s a cop-out and it doesn’t accomplish anything,” Councilor Earl Persip III said after the council meeting.
“I don’t believe he understands what actually his charter objection did to the budget and the things we accomplished this year.”
“He has nixed all the accomplishments that we pulled of this year,” Persip continued. “I was very proud of the things we did but now they don’t matter.”
The budget process has a time-worn path through city government. The mayor makes an initial proposal. The City Council debates and tweaks that proposal through a series of special budget hearings. The adapted budget package — typically full of compromises from the administration and council — comes back to the body for a final vote and is passed.
For weeks the council has been following this process.
Over the course of four multi-hour meetings in the last two weeks, councilors listened to budget proposals by city departments, discussed residents’ needs and suggested line-item changes to fine tune the proposed budget to something several councilors had come to see a more responsive to the community’s needs.
During these hearings the council recommended that Tyer increase her initial budget to allocate another $1,000 for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, $50,000 for the city’s building inspectors and $65,000 for building maintenance.
Councilors said they’d also made major steps toward improving the city’s mental health support system by voting to have the Pittsfield Police Department direct $250,000 of the grant funds it receives each year toward hiring more co-responder clinicians.
The body had also tried to reduce the impact of these changes on resident’s tax bills by asking the administration to increase the amount of free cash used toward property taxes by another $250,000 — for a total $1 million in free cash.
This would have further lowered the $100 million the administration has said it will need to raise in property taxes to cover the budget.
On Tuesday, the council was set to vote on a revised budget package — with an operating budget totaling $188.8 million and other expenses still at $10 million.
Instead, as council President Peter Marchetti was opening up debate and discussion of the operating budget proposal — the step just before a vote — Kronick interrupted to say “Mr. President I make a charter objection on behalf of Ward 2.”
Marchetti reminded Kronick that under a charter objection the council cannot take up an item for a vote or further discussion until the following council meeting. The next council meeting is set for June 26.
That puts the proposed budget package in conflict with another city rule.
Under the city charter, the City Council has 45 days to adopt a budget after a proposed budget is submitted — a clock that runs out on June 24. If the budget isn’t adopted then the mayor’s budget goes into effect as originally proposed.
“The mayor will have the original budget without any of the changes we’ve made,” Marchetti said. “Is that really what you want to do?”
“Yes it is,” Kronick replied.
Marchetti banged his gavel and said, “the mayor just got a budget” to groans and shocked exclamations from councilors, as well as Tyer.
Several councilors sat stunned with their mouths agape as Kronick leaned back in his chair. Persip walked out of the council chambers in frustration.
The forced inaction on the budget doesn’t only negate the council’s changes; it solidifies mistakes made by the administration in its initial budget presentation.
When the budget was proposed to the council, the finance and administration department said it was requesting $1,345,333. Staff in that department forgot to account for the fact that the city is entering a reevaluation year required by the state.
Once every five years the finance department must reevaluate every Pittsfield property in order to make sure their property valuations — which sets a person’s property tax — were accurate. The department had budgeted almost $96,000 when in reality staff have said they will need $212,000 to carry out the major property review.
The administration and council had amended that department’s budget to $1,462,207 to correct that mistake. That work will be negated, too, when the budget is accepted by default later this month.
The consensus among many of the councilors after the meeting was that Kronick didn’t fully understand the consequences of his actions. Kronick was elected in November and is serving his first term on the council.
“We’re now six months into this term,” Persip said. “You need to understand the rules before you do something irresponsibly and that’s what it was: irresponsible.”