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New England News

Mayor Bianchi Sees Financial Strength As Pittsfield Eyes Innovation Center And New High School

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Jim Levulis
/
WAMC

As Pittsfield approaches the groundbreaking of an innovation center and the expected approval of a new high school, Mayor Dan Bianchi says the city’s finances are strong.As part of a new city charter approved in 2013, Pittsfield’s mayor is required to deliver a pre-budget proposal review of the city’s finances. For the city’s fiscal 2016 budget, Mayor Bianchi expects a three percent increase over the current $141 million spending plan, noting rising energy costs. The Democrat says 36 percent of the city’s funding comes from state aid, which is expected to rise one percent under the proposals of Republican Governor Charlie Baker.

“This, what I call an anemic increase, is going to hurt the city of Pittsfield,” Bianchi said. “We have experienced small state aid growth for the past few years. What this does is basically create an unfunded mandate for the city of Pittsfield. Especially the city of Pittsfield because we’re recognized by the state as having the capacity to be able to tax more than what we are. So when state aid is cut it essentially creates a mandate for us to make adjustments.”

About 50 percent of Pittsfield’s revenue comes from property taxes, according to Bianchi. He says he’s committed to maintaining a modest increase in the city’s business and personal rates. He anticipates using $2 million from free cash to offset tax increases. With $10 million in back taxes owed to the city, Bianchi says a new tax title auction process has brought in more than $1 million since January.

“The tax title auction itself, when we sell the right for a third party to collect back taxes, I think will generate somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million,” said Bianchi.

While the city’s finances are strong and unemployment is dropping, Bianchi says the lack of business sector diversity continues to be an issue. The city is banking on an innovation center to break ground this summer on former General Electric land with a $10 million state grant to boost the city’s tax base and improve the economic climate for life science companies.

“It will give them access to the latest technologies and processes,” Bianchi said. “It’s going to be a valuable element for the growth of those corporations. We’re going to have partnerships with research institutions such as the University of Massachusetts, RPI and the nanotechnology center over in Albany.”

Meanwhile, Bianchi expects a new Taconic High School will stem the tide of city students choicing out to other schools at an annual cost of $2.4 million to the city. Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason McCandless expects 100 additional students will come to the new $121 million vocational school replacing the current 45-year-old building, bringing with them $1.7 million in tuition.

“We lose out of district students at the front door of Taconic,” McCandless said. “We lose our own students at the front door of Taconic. With a new facility and programs that are worthy of this new facility the city has an ability to become a magnet. Keeping more of our own students and attracting from neighboring communities. This is math that matters to taxpayers.”

The state is expected to reimburse about 65 percent of the school project, meaning the city would pay roughly $42 million. At the projected bond rate, the project would create an estimated annual tax increase of $106 for a $150,000 home. The Pittsfield City Council is expected to vote on borrowing the money at an April 14th meeting putting the project on pace to break ground in a year. Most of the 11 councilors like Kathleen Amuso have voiced their support for the new school, ten years in the making.

“This is something that I can wholeheartedly support,” said Amuso.

The Berkshire Chamber of Commerce is endorsing the new Taconic school, with president Jonathan Butler saying there are 1,700 unfilled jobs, including skilled worker positions, in Berkshire County. Some residents have raised concerns about the project’s cost claiming tough economic times in the city.

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