Pittsfield City Council recommends water and sewer rate increases

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PITTSFIELD — In separate split votes, the City Council preliminary approved water and sewer rate increases.

As proposed, the typical Pittsfield homeowner could see their water and sewer bills rise by about $43 in their next quarterly bill. Mayor Linda Tyer is proposing the rise in rates as a means to pay for a $74 million upgrade of the city's wastewater plant, as required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The City Council's Committee of the Whole, took two votes on the proposed increases — one for water and one for sewer. For both, the vote was the same: 6-5 in favor, with Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell, Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers, Ward 7 Councilor Tony Simonelli, Councilor At Large Melissa Mazzeo and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi voting no.

Councilors will take a final vote on the proposed increases during their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday. If approved, the rates would take effect in January.

City councilors who voted against the measure said they have outstanding questions regarding a proposal from Tyer that would raise water and sewer rates, while Connell Mazzeo and Morandi said it was unlikely they would vote in favor of the rate hikes — even after their questions are answered — because they didn't approve of the project to begin with.

"I just need to see all the documents," Rivers said. "I'm a data person."

To satisfy some of the questions, Council President Peter Marchetti asked Tyer and her team to provide the council with the full report conducted by Russell Consulting, and a history of how retained earnings in the city's water enterprise fund have been used over the past seven years.

Russell's study cost $10,000 and helped form Tyer's plan to pay for upcoming expenses to the city's water and sewer systems.

Dave Russell, the owner of the consulting firm that conducted the study, said he was struck by how low the city's existing water and sewer rates are.

Mazzeo said it was difficult to evaluate the rates without knowing what numbers Russell used to form his analysis. She and Connell asked about what water projects were used in the analysis, given they haven't been decided upon.

"It's our job to do our due diligence and it's our job to review the documents if we choose," she said.

Russell said he based his projections on $85 million in upgrades to the city's water infrastructure, which is separate from a $74 million wastewater upgrade already in the pipeline on the sewer side.

At times, Mazzeo and Finance Director Matt Kerwood went head to head. Kerwood said the city has been nothing short of upfront with information, but Mazzeo disagreed.

"This isn't upfront information," she said to him. "This is information to support what you're asking for."

Connell pressed Public Services Commissioner Dave Turocy for answers about retained earnings and the administration's aim to grow them. Turocy said building retained earnings leaves room for emergency fixes that can sometimes cost large, unexpected sums of money.

"That's my emergency bucket for things that come up," he said.

At urging from councilors, Turocy said the city is overdue to make water upgrades the Department of Environmental Protection has been calling for.

"I think it has to be done sooner rather than later," he said, noting there have been times city employees have been forced to worry about the state of the water they were putting out. "I'm not going to put it off forever."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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