Though frustrated, Pittsfield City Council approves controversial budgetary overages
PITTSFIELD — Last-minute requests to cover deficits ruffled councilors' feathers, but still the majority voted on Tuesday to move funds needed to balance the books.
Councilors threatened to vote against covering the most controversial overages — those stemming from a recent police department settlement as well as some $1.4 million in snow and ice spending that councilors continued to question — but Council President Peter Marchetti told them the ledgers must be balanced by June 30 or the city falls out of compliance.
The City Council is asked each June to approve transfers to cover over-budget costs before the end of the fiscal year. Still, councilors criticized Mayor Linda Tyer's administration for filing them so late in the month.
Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo, who is running for mayor, also knocked Tyer for her absence from the timely meeting.
"Through these months, you have to be here when it's time to do your work," she said of Tyer, adding it's frustrating to have questions about the handling of embattled former police officer Dale Eason's settlement that no one could answer.
The Council ultimately approved the order transferring $423,000 from various other city accounts to cover deficit spending by the Pittsfield Police Department, with Mazzeo and Ward 6 Councilor John Krol in opposition.
Police Chief Michael Wynn told councilors that $250,000 of the deficit was spent on unfunded scheduled overtime, and $105,000 went to Eason for back pay.
Krol said he disagreed with the city's handling of Eason's case and so couldn't support the measure.
Mazzeo said she had questions about the legal settlement that city officials in the room couldn't answer.
"Why are we being asked to discuss this tonight if no one is here to discuss it with us?" she said.
Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell said the transfer request serves as an example of the annual "shell game" played by the administration. He said the shuffling around of funds invalidates some councilors' efforts to reduce the budget each year.
"Personally, I don't even know why we go through the budget process," he said, throwing up his hands.
Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers said it was unfortunate the council wasn't given more time to consider the transfers. But "that's the nature of the beast," she said, noting she hopes it's not the nature of the beast in the future.
Councilors also peppered Public Services Commissioner David Turocy with questions about why they were asked to approve $1.4 million in snow and ice overages — higher than they've ever seen it, they said — following a mild winter.
Turocy said the city spent $878,000 for salt, $582,000 for plowing contracts and $358,000 for vehicle repair costs over the winter season.
"We should not be over this much, I'm sorry," said Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi.
In response to questions from Krol, Turocy said the city's highway superintendent is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day snow maintenance operations. He told Krol the spending was aggressive but appropriate in the interest of public safety.
But Krol called the deficit "massive," and it comes amid turmoil in the Highway Division. The Eagle learned last month that the city's then-highway superintendent, Daniel Ostrander, had been placed on leave. Last week, the city launched an internal search for his replacement.
"I think we need to take a closer look ..." Krol said. "There's something amiss."
The council ultimately approved moving $1.4 million from free cash to cover the snow and ice overages, with Rivers, Krol and Morandi in opposition.
Councilors Connell, Mazzeo and Morandi also filed a fresh petition during the meeting calling on the administration to hold a property sale to unload some of its dozens of surplus properties. Councilors voted to refer the new measure to the mayor.
The idea would be to get costly properties back on the tax rolls, proponents said.
"These are burdens that we don't need to deal with as a municipality," Mazzeo said.
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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