Mayor Tyer announces tax rate compromise, flags possible financial peril

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PITTSFIELD — The City Council's politicking over tax rates places Pittsfield on a perilous path, Mayor Linda Tyer said Monday.

While she still thinks that using $500,000 more from city reserves to balance the budget is the best path forward, Tyer said that she is willing to increase that amount to $1 million to end the political debate in time for tax bills to go out.

"I'm more concerned about the risk to the city of Pittsfield than I am about winning this argument," she said during a news conference in her office.

Decisions over the city's tax rates divided the council over two previous meetings, necessitating a special meeting that will happen on Tuesday. At issue is how much of the city's free cash base should be used to balance the budget — set into motion after councilors approved the city's spending plan in June — and reduce taxpayers' share.

The more free cash that the city's leaders decide to use, the lower the city's property tax rates become. Meantime, the city's auditors discourage officials from regularly using free cash in this way, as it otherwise fuels the city's reserves.

The longer city leaders stay in this stalemate, Tyer said, the more the city's financial stability teeters. She said tax bills take weeks to prepare, and if they don't go out by Dec. 31 then the city can't collect on them until May 1, thereby putting the city in a tax crunch.

"This is a very serious moment and it is 100 percent the responsibility of the City Council," she said.

Tyer also said that councilors in opposition, including mayoral challenger Melissa Mazzeo, are sowing misrepresentations about her administration's intentions. She and her team were already concerned about the impacts a tax increase would have on residents, she said, which is why she proposed using free cash to offset that increase in the first place.

"This rhetoric that we're not doing anything or that we're not doing enough is simply a false narrative," she said.

Councilors have pointed to the fact that Tyer reduced tax rates last year, but the city's Finance Director Matt Kerwood said Monday that "every year is different."

Tyer said councilors have repeatedly rebuffed the attempts of Paula King, the city's assessor, to present information that should be used to help them make their decisions.

Councilors can also vote to adjust the shift factor, deciding to place more or less of the burden on commercial property owners versus residential ones. If they're interested in mitigating the impacts of increasing residential property values — a good thing, Tyer wanted to remind people, that is driven by the market — she said it could be a logical step to increase the commercial share, given commercial property values remain flat.

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That said, "we are recommending the same shift as last year," Tyer said.

She said that's all part of the presentation that King hasn't been able to give.

"There was no effort to understand the basis for our recommendations," she said.

Tyer and her team said the tax rates need to increase in order to meet the budget that councilors approved in the spring. And while there will often be reserves that city leaders could use to offset rates, auditors discourage them from using reserve revenues for annual budgeting purposes and they stress the need to increase the city's reserves.

The city is one of five municipalities in the state that cannot put a tax override in place in the event of financial crisis, Tyer and her team said. The city can't legally charge more than $25 per $1,000 of assessed value per property.

While other cities can turn to the override in order to meet a community's needs in times of financial strain, Tyer said, Pittsfield has to build up its reserves to use as a safeguard against the havoc that such a crisis could wreak on city services.

Regarding the compromise in play, Tyer said she and her team crafted the order containing it to read "not to exceed" $1 million more in free cash. It is worded that way out of concern councilors in opposition might again "move the goal post."

"We are not going to agree with more than $1 million," she said.

If approved on Tuesday, that amount would join $750,000 in free cash already approved for budgetary purposes in the spring.

As for needs down the road, like aging school buildings and a new police station, Tyer said they're in the background of this debate. Part of what she has worked to do as mayor is make future needs part of present-day decision-making, she said, noting there wasn't a five-year capital plan before she took the city's wheel.

"Planning is a big part of what we're trying to accomplish," she said.

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


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