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Examining Every Penny, Pittsfield Passes Budget

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With Pittsfield City Councilors counting every penny, the biggest city in the Berkshires has approved a $156 million operating budget. 

Following weeks of budget hearings, Director of Finance Matt Kerwood had a funny moment at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. He asked Council President Peter Marchetti to keep all of the last ditch attempts to save the city some money in whole dollars – to match the rest of the $156 million budget.

One motion included cutting $39,168.98 from an overfunded union contract.

“I am not going to argue over two cents,” Marchetti says

“I understand that, and …,” Kerwood says.

“I actually made a joke about two cents,” Marchetti says. “Here is our budget with the two cents….”

“I’ll put the two cents, I’ll put the two cents on the, on the podium and we will be even,” Kerwood says.

“But not, because it will throw off everything. I am just trying to keep consistent with the flow of the budget and that everything is done in whole dollars.”

“I am OK with that,” Marchetti says.

“OK,” Kerwood says.

In 2014, then-Mayor Dan Bianchi’s administration touted roughly $2 million in savings over three years after switching the city to Blue Cross Blue Shield from Group Insurance Commission.

That contract established an employee mitigation fund. The city was supposed to deposit up to 25 percent of each of the plans savings in year one, fiscal 2016. In years two and three, it called for the same deposit, up to $250,000.  

“And that kind of spun into a totem pole of confusion after that,” City Solicitor Rich Dohoney says.

The city wasn’t supposed to make payments until fiscal 2017. Because of payments made over the past two years, the union contract is overfunded by roughly $39,000.

That motion passed. And some councilors like Melissa Mazzeo weren’t happy about it. She calls for a reduction of $50,000 instead.

“It’s overfunded. Every dollar that we can knock off of this budget is really worth it,” Mazzeo says. “You know, I mean, we have done these numbers upwards upside downs and backwards and I just keep counting: overfunded, overfunded, overfunded. And if, if we can’t come out of that agreement that we get ever every penny back that we put in overfunded, which is what I am reading, then I am concerned that we should, you know, take out the 50.”

That argument is representative of a long and sometimes frustrating budget-making process for city officials.

Last year, they might have debated for more hours than this year, but Mazzeo says she feels like her hands are tied.

“When you look at things that are out of our purview – you know, anything that is under contractual services: so whether it’s on the school side or it’s on the city side, and things are the huge drivers behind the budget – we don’t have the ability to do anything with that,” Mazzeo says.

Councilor Kevin Morandi says cuts are painful but necessary.

“We need to really start looking to cutting things down. We are in this predicament because we didn’t in the past,” Morandi says. “This should have been done last year, what is happening tonight. Some of us tried to make reductions last year, and it didn’t go.”

Other motions to reduce line items failed. Again, Mazzeo.

“You know, sitting up here for five meetings or more for a number of hours – more hours than I would like – we really didn’t get anything, we are not accomplishing anything,” Mazzeo says. “We are just basically saying yes to everything. And I think there comes a time when we have to really start saying no more.”

To fix the employee mitigation fund, City Solicitor Rich Dohoney says the city could renegotiate the union contract.

“That is definitely a legal possibility,” Dohoney says.

Also this week in Berkshire County’s other city, North Adams approved its $40 million budget – including a $17 million school budget, which cut nearly a dozen positions – for next year. Mayor Richard Alcombright calls the effects of more than a decade of flat-lined state education funding Berkshire County’s next financial crisis.

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