PITTSFIELD — Every little bit counts, say those on both sides of a tax rate debate that got stretched into another meeting after a Tuesday stalemate in council chambers.
Mayor Linda Tyer and half the City Council say that the $250,000 additional dollars requested by the council's other half belongs in the city's reserves, where it can help safeguard the city from economic crisis during a possible recession. Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo and several other councilors say the mayor should take $250,000 more from the city's free cash fund to offset a likely tax increase, which they say will hurt taxpayers still reeling from increasing property values.
Councilors began the debate during their meeting earlier this month, and their continued discussion ended abruptly on Tuesday after Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi pulled a charter objection, halting the conversation — and the vote — in its tracks. Council President Peter Marchetti said he would call a special meeting for next Tuesday to ensure a tax rate is set in time for tax bills to go out at the end of December.
Tyer came down from the tax increase proposed earlier this month, which would have used $500,000 in free cash to offset the tax rate, putting rates at $19.99 per $1,000 of assessed value for residential properties, and $39.96 for commercial.
In response to pushback from councilors, she upped the number proposed to $750,000 in free cash, decreasing the proposed residential rates to $19.76 per $1,000 of assessed value for residential properties, and shifting more to commercial property owners with a rate of $40.47.
Last year, rates dropped from $20.01 to $19.42 on the residential side, and the commercial tax rate dropped from from $39.98 to $39.94.
Ward 7 Councilor Tony Simonelli said he spoke with seniors on fixed incomes earlier in the day, and they asked him to do anything he could to reduce the tax rate. Electricity goes up, prescription costs go up, "everything goes up," he said. "Except retirees pensions."
"We don't work for the mayor," Simonelli said, after councilors Earl Persip and Pete White pointed to the mayor's willingness to compromise. "We work for the taxpayers."
The city's auditor, Thomas Scanlon, reminded councilors during the meeting of the need to break the habit of using free cash to meet the city's annual expenses. But more importantly, he urged them to reach a consensus on this issue soon. "I can't stress that enough," he said.
Mazzeo said she's heard it often over her decade on the council, but sometimes "we have to" use free cash to keep tax rates down.
"This is Pittsfield — we have our ups and our down," she said. "We've survived."
Finance Director Matt Kerwood said economists predict a recession will hit within the next few years, and that could hurt the city's revenue streams.
"That is the point in time when you're going to need to use your reserves," he told councilors, reminding them there is no option for Pittsfield to do a tax override to maintain services.
The city has about $10 million in reserves, officials said during the meeting. Given the city's budget is about $150 million a year, Scanlon said he'd like to see the city's reserves reach toward $15 million.
Amanda Drane can be contacted at email@example.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.