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Pittsfield City Council Spins Wheels On 2020 Tax Rates

The Pittsfield city seal
The City of Pittsfield, Massachusetts
City of Pittsfield

A long debate about lowering rising tax rates in Pittsfield, Massachusetts ended in deadlock at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

At the third to last meeting with the city’s current roster of councilors, politics were on full display just a week after the election. Mayor Linda Tyer, fresh off her re-election to a second four-year term, tussled with familiar combatants over a plan to use free cash – unspent tax money – to reduce next year’s tax rates.

“When we built the budget we applied $750,000 of free cash to balance the budget," said the mayor. "Now that we are approaching setting the tax rate, we want to add an appropriation of $500,000 to further offset the tax rate.”

The move comes a year after Tyer touted a historic lowering of city taxes. In 2020, the average residential taxpayer could see an estimated increase of just under 3%, or around $106 a year. The median commercial taxpayer would comparatively increase by 0.31%, just under $24 a year.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi – who ran unopposed in the election – said the city could afford to use more of its $6.3 million in free cash, which city finance director Matt Kerwood described as being at an over 20 year high.

“Since we’ve got an excess of free cash and we’ve done better than we’ve done in quite a while, and I’m not one to like to use free cash, but I also sympathize with the residents out there and the taxpayers out there and what they have to deal with and what they have to struggle with," said Morandi. "This isn’t the only increase. There’s water and sewer, we’re looking at a $40 million police station, we’re looking at all kind of things. Their bills are going up, medical, everything. So anything that I think that we can do to try to reduce the rate even more...”

He asked the mayor if she was open to adding an additional $250,000 to the order, for a grand total of $750,000. Tyer said she wasn’t.

“I appreciate your point about doing everything we can to reduce the tax rate to the best of our ability," responded the mayor. "We also want to balance that with the goal of continuing to grow our reserves, our city savings account. So I think by putting this additional $500,000 – which is more than what we put in the budget back in June – we’re balancing all of those factors.”

Tyer’s most outspoken critics on the council – Ward 4’s Chris Connell and At-Large Councilor Melissa Mazzeo, who just lost the mayoral race – leapt on Morandi’s $750,000 plan. Mazzeo brought up Tyer for questioning.

“Your administration was very, very excited to drop the tax rate last year, so wouldn’t you want to continue that trend if you had the ability?” she asked the mayor.

Ward 6 councilor John Krol kicked the ball even farther down the field, demanding Tyer amend the order to a full million dollars.

“Last year there were backflips that were done in order to make the tax rate be lower, and it doesn’t look like it’s that difficult of a situation,” said Krol.

Ward 5 councilor Donna Todd Rivers asked Kerwood to explain the impact of free cash on the tax rate.

“How much would we need to use in free cash if we wanted to have no tax increase at all?" asked Rivers. "Do you have any idea what that number is? You never went there, in other words.”

“Think of it this way," said Kerwood. "A million dollars is 10 cents on the tax rate. So if you wanted to get down to what it was this current year, to lower it 10 cents, you need a million dollars. So this $250,000 is going to reduce it by pennies, this additional money you’re talking about.”

“I think that’s an important factor for all of us to hear,” responded Rivers.

“It doesn’t have a dramatic impact. Instead of $19.99 it could be $19.97,” continued Kerwood.

“If we vote this down, and the mayor does not change her mind, we’re increasing taxes by what we would be reducing them by if we put these $500,000 in," said at-large councilor Pete White. He pointed out many of the opposing votes to the plan were from lame duck councilors.

“I know what everyone’s trying to do," said White. "I think the mayor’s made it clear that they’re comfortable putting the $500,000 in because those of us who are going to be here in the future are looking at though times, and we need reserves for what is coming.”

The original $500,000 plan failed, with councilors Connell, Morandi, Rivers, Krol, Mazzeo, and Simonelli voting against it. The latter four are not returning in 2020.

After an over 40 minute recess for the city to put together new estimates on alternate plans, the council resumed as deadlocked as ever. Tyer again faced off with Mazzeo.

“What’s your compromise? Is it a million, or is it $250,000?” asked Tyer.

“A million,” said Mazzeo.

“I can’t do a million,” said Tyer.

“I’m all set then, thank you,” said Mazzeo.

“I can do $250,000,” said Tyer, after a beat.

“I’m not going to bargain on the taxpayers’ backs, so I’m not going $250,000," responded Mazzeo. "Thank you, I’m all set.”

At-large councilor Earl Persip intervened on behalf of the mayor’s plan.

“What we’re really talking about, as I see the numbers now, it’s great to say we want to put a million dollars towards free cash, but I think the city of Pittsfield could probably use that million dollars for its savings account and it would be more beneficial than $1.65 a week,” said Persip.

Despite Tyer agreeing to compromise to the $750,000 put forward by her opponents, the opposition decided that it was no longer enough. Morandi was the first councilor to propose that number.

“Far as I’m concerned, a million dollars is really fair and I will not support anything less than that,” he said.

Rivers, who earlier made a point of Kerwood’s observations of how restrained an impact the free cash will have on the ultimate tax rate, abruptly changed tack and said it was no longer about the actual data.

“We keep saying things like, it’s only $20, it’s only 13 cents," said Rivers. "I think sometimes it’s not about the dollars, it’s not about the pennies, it’s about the message that this body is sending to the taxpayers, and I think that’s where I am tonight.”

The same coalition of largely lame duck councilors again voted down the $750,000 compromise, leaving no progress made on the city’s 2020 tax rates. Tyer told WAMC that she planned on regrouping with her team to explore other options for the tax rate without using a million dollars from free cash.

“It’s disheartening, honestly, that the council chose to use this as a political maneuver, rather than doing what’s best both for the taxpayer and for the city’s future,” said the mayor.

The body convenes again November 26th.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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