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Pittsfield Preliminarily Approves Operating Budget

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Pittsfield lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a $156 million operating budget. 

The entire budget totals roughly $163.8 million – an increase of just more than 1 percent.

It’s under the ceiling by just $37,000 because the city has chosen – like it has for the last decade – to use free cash to balance the budget, this year $2.25 million.

Councilor Kevin Morandi doesn’t approve.

“We get something, an emergency or whatever,” Morandi says. “That’s a real concern of mine that we use this money and, you know, we are on thin ice pretty much with what’s left. We better not have anything major happen.”

Last year, the council debated more than four hours a night at budget hearings, reviewing the plan line by line. This year, the ceiling has tied the hands of city councilors to dramatically alter the budget.

City Councilors have only made a $5,000 reduction to the Personnel Department budget line item, and another referring to public services.

Director of Finance Matt Kerwood says this year the city doesn’t have much of a choice.

“Given the situation that we are in right now, if you were not to use free cash for the amount we are requesting, you would need to reduce this budget by $2.2 million,” Kerwood says.

Councilor Anthony Simonelli chimed in.

“If we didn’t use the free cash last year, we wouldn’t be in the same situation because a lot of the cuts that happened this year would have happened last year,” Simonelli says.

“That is, Councilor,” Kerwood says. “That is…”

“It became the perfect storm warning to deal with this year.”

“Councilor, I understand that. But, but…”

“And for years the auditor has said don’t do it. For years we have been doing it.”

“We have done it for decades, Councilor. We have done it for decades.” (“Let me finish.”)

“I am not blaming this administration. But the fact remains, we keep doing it.”

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city never bolstered its reserves and relied on free cash instead.

“The chickens have come home to roost at our time here,” Tyer says.

But Tyer says better planning is a goal for the future.

Pittsfield can’t generate any more tax revenue under the 2.5 percent levy limit set by state law. Every city department has either reduced or maintained its budget. 

The high cost of employee pay raises and pension obligations, and $3 million in health insurance costs, have also constrained the budget, Councilor John Krol says.

“Probably one of the largest, if not the largest, single line item in the city’s entire budget and it’s being increased by 14 percent – a massive increase. And that $3 million there essentially obliterates that sort of, I don’t know, precarious buffer that we have with the tax levy ceiling. That alone would just totally crush us,” Krol says.

Mayor Tyer says steps will be taken in the next fiscal year to renegotiate health care.

“To begin a conversation about things like plan design, which would maybe involve an adjustment to the co-pays or adjustments to the deductibles,” Tyer says.

As for now, the budget eliminates six positions and would consolidate and reorganize several departments. 70.2 fulltime school employees will also be cut. And property taxes will increase $80 per every $100,000 for residents, and $145 for businesses.

The city council also approved a roughly $8.2 million capital expenditure plan and $14.4 million enterprise fund for city improvements. 

The $3 million cost of converting to LED streetlights was a nearly two-hour topic of discussion. Some councilors, including Chris Connell, say more work needs to be done to replace the failing lighting infrastructure – instead of merely installing new light bulbs.

“We got to have a plan?” Connell says. “We got to come up with a fast plan. All right? If we want to make this city safe, all right, let’s do the basics.”

The council expects to ratify the budget at Tuesday’s meeting.

The budget can be viewed here.

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