Our Opinion: A divided Council debates free cash

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The Pittsfield City Council is winding down this session with a familiar, but unusually testy, philosophical debate about taxes versus reserves. That the debate is unfolding in the wake of an election season that has gone into overtime may be increasing the tension.

Mayor Linda Tyer originally proposed using $500,000 in free cash to reduce the tax rate to $19.99 per $1,000 of assessed value for residential properties and $39.96 for commercial. Following pushback from some city councilors, she agreed to set aside $750,000 in free cash. It appeared that the City Council would approve that figure at Tuesday's meeting and establish the tax rate, but most of the same councilors who objected earlier in the month argued in favor of adding another $250,000 based on their comfort with the $6.3 million in free cash and $3.9 million in stabilization funds the city has set aside. After Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi ended the discussion with a charter objection, which can't be debated, Council President Peter Marchetti set a special meeting for this coming Tuesday to attempt to set a tax rate in time to get bills out before the end of December.

About half the City Council, including Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo, who is considering legal action following her narrow loss to Mayor Tyer on Nov. 5 on the grounds that the mayor's husband and campaign manager, Barry Clairmont, was seen behind the counter at the Registrar of Voters Office in the days before the election, added that the additional funds should be used to give a break to taxpayers. Money in free cash, however, benefits taxpayers if a recession hits or an unexpected expense emerges. Mayor Tyer has been building the city's reserves to create financial security, and city Auditor Thomas Scanlon has consistently maintained that the city must break its habit of using free cash to meet annual expenses.

After Council President Peter Marchetti and Councilor at large Earl Persip pointed out that the mayor had already shown a willingness to compromise, Ward 7 Councilor Tony Simonelli declared, "We don't work for the mayor. We work for the taxpayers." The mayor, of course, works for the taxpayers as well, and for government to work properly on behalf of the taxpayers the executive and legislative branches must find middle ground. That means the City Council must also compromise and not demand that the mayor make every concession.

When the debate came to an abrupt end, it appeared that supporters of adding another $250,000 in free cash were in the majority. While this debate could stretch beyond next Tuesday, Mr. Scanlon stressed that consensus was needed soon. With that in mind, it seems likely that the advocates of increased use of free cash will get their way. And then the city can look forward to a new session in which the mayor and City Council can ideally find reasons to come together rather than divide into warring camps.

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