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Tyer Discusses 2021 Budget Plan Before June Hearings

The Pittsfield city seal
The City of Pittsfield, Massachusetts

For state and local governments, the coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges in crafting spending plans. Tuesday night, the mayor of Pittsfield, Massachusetts submitted her proposed 2021 budget to the city council before hearings on municipal spending begin next week.

Council President Peter Marchetti presided over the remote meeting, with 11 councilors gathering on Zoom in what would normally be a violation of state open meeting laws.

“Consistent with Governor Baker’s executive order of March 12th, 2020, due to the current state of emergency in the commonwealth due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus,” Marchetti explained.

At the meeting, the council received Mayor Linda Tyer’s full budget proposal, which was referred to the committee of the whole before hearings begin on June 2nd.

“As I began thinking about the budget in January of 2020, I was optimistic that we were going to be looking at finally a growth outlook for the city of Pittsfield," said Tyer, who is in her second term. “Unfortunately, coronavirus has impacted not only public health but state and local budgets – and so the budget that we’ve presented really represents what some would describe as a maintenance budget, or – just really, we’re treading water.”

Including expenditures not voted on by the council, the 2021 budget is slightly less than the 2020 budget, at just under $180 million. Comparatively, the 2020 budget was almost $10 million more than the 2019 budget. Tyer says that stalled momentum represents unrealized hopes for the city.

“We really were focused on getting further down the road on the construction of a new police station," she told WAMC. "We wanted to put more efforts into our property demolition program as a way to continue strengthening our neighborhoods, and we wanted to put some effort into doing the kinds of things that make our city an enjoyable place to live – so, investments in parks would be an example.”

The city’s public safety spending was not among the abandoned goals.

“As the budget is submitted to the city council today, it includes funding for that fully built out staffing plan that we have in place, which is to get to 98 sworn police officers,” said the mayor.

With the state budget unfinished, Pittsfield is operating in the dark on what aid it can expect for both municipal spending and schools.

“On the school side, we level funded the Chapter 70 state aid, and on the city side, we reduced by 15% the anticipated state aid that we would get from Massachusetts,” said Tyer.

In a year of level funding and cuts, the city’s budgeting for its sewers has increased by almost 72% to over $816,000. Tyer says the jump is related to the implementation of her plan to carry out long awaited EPA mandated improvements to the city’s wastewater plant.

“There are probably other elements to the Enterprise funds related to smaller projects that might be required to be accomplished during this next construction year,” she said.

The mayor says the city can expect to see other areas bolstered during the COVID-19 era, like the Department of Public Health.

“We brought in three public health nurses to help us with monitoring the virus and to help us with contact tracing, and now that we’ve moved into testing," said Tyer. "However, we’ve been provided some funding from the state to cover those expenses.”

The COVID-19 crisis also means city spending on projects like the transformation of the St. Joseph High School building into a homeless shelter will continue throughout the year.

“As we move into the next fiscal year, what we will probably be focusing on is that we have the proper PPE for our employees, that we have the proper cleaning and disinfecting supplies and materials and labor for all of our city buildings,” said the mayor.

While the new fiscal year begins on July 1st, Tyer says any budget that passes will likely require tinkering.

“We do anticipate that during the summer and fall we may be hearing more bad news from the state with regard to the state’s economy, so we may have to go back to the city council and amend the budget," she said. "And we can do that any time before the city council sets the tax rate.”

Along with Tyer’s budget proposal, the council will also consider a plan to use $750,000 in free cash to lower the city’s 2021 tax rates. The budget hearings on June 2nd and June 4th will also serve as public meetings for Pittsfielders to weigh in on the spending plan.

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