Facing an August deadline, Pittsfield’s city council overcame an outspoken minority Tuesday night to pass a $74 million spending plan to upgrade the city’s ailing wastewater plant. The federal government is requiring the fixes.
From its opening minutes, the writing was on the wall for the city council.
“If you’re really concerned about the ratepayers, you’ll make the decision. You’re elected to make decisions. To talk it to death and not make a decision is irresponsible on your part. Fact is, that’s why we elected you. Some of you by the skin of your teeth, some with wider margins. But at the end of the day, you all are sitting here to make decisions," said Pittsfield resident David Pill.
He spoke during the public comment period early in the more than four-hour meeting. By the time the issue made it to the floor of Pittsfield High School’s library over an hour later, even the most outspoken critics of the plan seemed resigned to the changing tides.
“I may be a while, so, ha ha. At least I’ll have one more chance — a bite at the apple, I guess, for my second time,” said Councilor Chris Connell, one of the four “no” votes at the February 27th meeting that scuttled the first attempt to pass the plan.
“I’ve thought about this project, and actually I’ve been researching this project for almost four years," said Connell. "I really don’t feel that we have exhausted or we have utilized some of the options that were presented to the administration to possibly reduce the costs.”
The plan would mean substantive upgrades to the city’s wastewater plant, specifically addressing its ability to prevent the discharge of pollutants into the Housatonic River. After reintroducing the plan, Mayor Linda Tyer wasn’t even at the meeting due to a pre-scheduled vacation, but was represented by her Director of Administrative Services, Roberta McCulloch-Dews, who read a letter from the mayor.
“These upgrades are mandated in order to meet the requirements of the city’s Clean Water Act permit, which was issued by the EPA in 2008," read McCulloch-Dews.
After the initial discussion, the council went into almost an hour of executive session mid-meeting. Upon return, Councilor Earl Persip III called wastewater plant superintendent Carl Shaw back to the podium.
“You talked earlier about the different technologies you guys practiced — are you confident that this is the best technology for us?” asked Persip.
Shaw said yes.
“Is there any doubt in your mind that this project needs to be done?” asked Persip.
Shaw said no.
“And your opinion on the consultants that we hired?” asked Persip.
“I think they’ve worked very hard to get where we are right now," responded Shaw.
With the other “no” voters — Councilors Melissa Mazzeo and Kevin Morandi — joining Connell in doubling down on their opposition, it all came down to one councilor: Donna Todd Rivers of Ward 5.
“There was so much information out there, so many opinions out there, that I, speaking for myself, wasn’t sure what was sort of aligned with people’s opinions and what was fact and what was speculation and what was conjecture. And I think to make a decision on $74 million, that I needed some clarity," explained Rivers. "So my “no” vote was about slowing down the process to allow some more conversation, to allow some more research, and to request of the mayor that she meet with the EPA. I am pleased to say she honored that request.”
With Rivers’ concerns addressed, the 8-3 vote confirmed that Pittsfield would finally take action on an issue that’s remained unresolved for almost a decade. The EPA is requiring the city to begin the wastewater plant upgrades by August 1st.