Pittsfield councilors look to work with mayor on setting aside marijuana taxes for roadwork
PITTSFIELD — It's pothole season, and so the state of city streets is on the minds of many.
But city councilors on the Finance Committee decided Thursday there's more than that to consider about a measure that would designate 50 percent of incoming marijuana taxes for road paving.
"I think what you guys started is a great conversation that we need to hash out a little bit," Council President Peter Marchetti told Councilors Melissa Mazzeo and Chris Connell, who submitted the proposal.
The committee, which includes the three councilors, as well as Councilor At Large Earl Persip and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi, voted to recommend sending the proposal to Mayor Linda Tyer for consideration. It did so after a discussion that revolved around how to strategically infuse a new revenue source into a tight budget and how the council can best execute its powers over that process.
The city's first recreational marijuana sales commenced last month, with the promise of more on the way. Mazzeo said she thought incoming money would be better spent reducing debt service for such items as road work, rather than for funding initiatives the city might not be able to fund in future years.
Marijuana taxes are a big unknown, officials agreed during the meeting. That's why Finance Director Matt Kerwood said he is moving into the budget process as if the new revenue stream doesn't exist.
"The message to budget heads continues to be: budget conservatively," he told councilors.
So far, there are eight marijuana shops with municipal approvals, but Kerwood said he's unsure of how many will be up and running this year. A 3 percent tax on every sale goes to the city.
Yes, it's hard to gauge how much marijuana money the city will actually see, Connell said, but drained ATM machines in the area of the cash-only marijuana store, Temescal Wellness, suggest a strong start. He said roadwork is an annual expense that the city borrows money for, and at times the debt term lasts longer than the roads.
"This would minimize what we have to borrow every single year," he said.
"To me, it makes perfect financial sense to do this," Morandi said.
Kerwood said the city will likely choose to spend around $2.5 million on roadwork this year, and Public Services Commissioner David Turocy said that will get the city about 9 miles worth in road reconstruction. The city previously would spend about $2 million to do 10 miles, but the city stopped chip-sealing last year, amid pushback from residents, who called it ineffective and harmful.
Mazzeo said the city needs to consider the measure as a means to address taxpayer concerns about the roads, of which fewer will be done this year.
"I think it's going to cause a lot of problems," she said.
Turocy said each city road would ideally be redone every 10 to 15 years, but some don't get redone for as many as 30 years.
Kerwood said he and Tyer aren't opposed to the idea of using some new revenue for roads, but "I'm not sure that, at 50 percent, this is the right answer."
"I think it might be a bit premature," he said, arguing that the new money might be of better use in the general fund, where it could have an impact on taxes.
And leaving the money in the general fund doesn't mean the money can't be appropriated for roads.
"We don't have that control," Mazzeo said, referencing council powers.
To that point, Marchetti said, the council could vote to form a new stabilization account for roadwork, but under the law, Tyer would have to be the one to initiate the appropriation.
Marchetti and Persip also agreed with the general premise, but not with the idea of 50 percent.
"I don't want to be stuck using this money for the same thing every year," Persip said.
The sidewalks are also in rough shape throughout the city, he noted, and Marchetti pointed to public concern over crime and public safety — another possible budget priority.
Councilors decided that the mayor should take a look at the proposal, consider the state of the city's roads and suggest a way forward.
"We're better working together," Persip said. "The administration's willing to work with us, so we should be willing to work with them."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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