Public services, infrastructure top issues at Pittsfield councilor at large debate

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PITTSFIELD — From potholes to pitfalls, candidates for at large seats on the City Council waded into Pittsfield issues during a Monday debate.

Seven candidates participated in the debate at Berkshire Community College, but only four will win spots on the City Council during the Nov. 5 election.

At large candidates at the debate included incumbent councilors Peter Marchetti, Pete White and Earl Persip III, as well as local property owner Alex Blumin, Uncorked manager Auron Stark, Methuselah owner and financial adviser Yuki Cohen, and Jay Hamling, a nurse and city native who said he wants to help Pittsfield succeed.

An eighth candidate, Richard Latura, will appear on the ballot but was not present at the debate.

Shawn Serre, executive director for Pittsfield Community Television, moderated the event, which was also sponsored by BCC and the Pittsfield Gazette.

Notably absent from the discussion — driven by questions selected by the candidates randomly — was crime in the city, though Hamling referred to the issue of the day during his opening remarks.

He said he was taken aback on Monday to learn a BB gun had made its way into Pittsfield High School. He said he was happy to hear the weapon had been located before anyone was hurt, but still as a parent, he was concerned.

In response to a question about school consolidation in the face of declining enrollment, several candidates urged further consideration.

The city struggles to keep up with maintenance on its 12 school buildings, Persip said. Studying the issue further has been talked about for years, he said. "This is the time to do that."

Hamling said he would not want to see educators laid off in the event of a school consolidation, and White agreed, adding that he'd also not like to see class sizes increase.

Serre asked candidates where they stood on the $61.4 million wastewater treatment plant overhaul

Marchetti said the answer was an easy one, "even though it's a pretty crappy conversation."

"No pun intended," he said, smiling in response to laughs from the crowd.

The project was an inevitability that was allowed to fester for a decade, with the price tag inflating each year, he said.

"The discouraging part for me is that it sat on someone's shelf for a decade," he said.

Stark said the issue speaks to the city's need to deal with things more promptly.

"We waited, waited, waited and then the costs skyrocketed," Persip said, pointing to the city's aging school buildings as another issue that could end up the same way.

"Voting now because you don't want to spend money — it's not the way to do things," he said. "Take the hard votes. Do the homework and research."

But Blumin said he disagreed, saying the city's lack of a specialized wastewater engineer disqualifies it from properly assessing the path forward. The city should have listened to Craig Gaetani's alternative proposal, he said. Gaetani lost a recent primary bid for the Ward 6 council seat.

Serre said the mayor's administration and the council spent considerable time on revising its trash pickup policies in recent years, but very little progress was made. He asked what the candidates thought should be done.

Cohen said the city should pursue any plan that helps the city increase recycling, improve quality of life, increase efficiency and reduce cost.

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The city's low 11 percent recycling rate is "unacceptable," Persip said. Meantime, costs continue to rise. "We need to work for a solution that works for most of the residents," he said.

Perhaps the city could pursue incentives that encourage recycling and reduce disposal costs for the city, Hamling said, like free pickup for one large item per year for residents who are able to increase their recycling.

"It's an equity issue," Marchetti said. "If you throw out one bag of garbage, why should you be subsidizing the person who throws out 13 bags of garbage."

The road ahead

Regarding recent outcry over the state of the city's roads, White said the city is doing a decent job, but conceded "we need to do more." The issue rose to the forefront this year because it was a tough spring for potholes, he said, "and we couldn't get out there as fast as we should."

It was a rainy spring, Marchetti said. "You can't fill potholes in the pouring rain," he said.

More dire is the long list of residents who pay the same taxes but who don't receive the same services because they live on unaccepted streets, Marchetti said.

But Stark said he sees the city fill the same potholes over and over again. "There's something that's not working," he said, noting excessive salt use could be the culprit.

To that point, Serre asked candidates if the snow and ice budget is sufficiently funded and if the roads are plowed effectively during the winter.

Blumin said spending for wintertime maintenance is "just one drop," when compared with the School Department budget, which takes up the largest single chunk of the city's overall budget. He said residents should demand a shift of funds from city schools to road repair and maintenance.

Stark said he would cut back on the city's salt spending, and spend more instead on community development.

"We should be funding into things that would generate money for the city," he said.

Marchetti said he would ideally set aside funds for the creation of a new department to address the root causes of crime — drugs, poverty and mental health issues.

Serre pointed to the mayor's fizzled proposal to implement a plan that would have given zero-interest loans to homeowners to spruce up the exterior of their homes. "Where do you stand and why?" he asked.

Blumin said he disagreed with using taxpayers money to rehabilitate private property.

"It is obligation of landlord to improve his property," he said.

But housing looks dire in some areas of the city, Cohen said, so the plan was "not a bad idea." She said the plan could improve the tax base and also lend a hand to families.

"Once you improve the value of a home, that's an asset that you can pass on to the next generation," she said.

Persip, who voted in favor of the mayor's proposal, said "It's the kind of outside-the-box thinking that Pittsfield needs." The city's housing stock is in desperate need of improvement, he said.

"A city is only as strong as its weakest link," White said. "We need to make sure that we shore up all weak links."

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


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