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Pittsfield city council approves water and sewer rate hikes in vote delayed from February

A stone building with a colonnade sits below a grey sky amid snowdrifts.
Josh Landes

After a legislative stalling tactic delayed a vote on raising water and sewer taxes at the last Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council meeting, the body approved the move Tuesday night.

At the February 22nd meeting, Commissioner of Public Utilities Ricardo Morales detailed what a 12% increase in sewer rates and a 10% increase in water rates – the first such rate hikes since 2019 – would mean for city residents.

“What this represents to some average consumption of water and sewer in the city for a typical two-bedroom house, it will represent about $19 per quarter," he said. "That's a two-bedroom house, that's approximately $6.43 per month of an increase. And for a typical meter use household with 220 gallons per day, that's about $16.17 per quarter, $5.39 per month of an increase.”

The city framed the move as an overdue means of addressing longstanding and inevitable infrastructure needs. Several councilors vociferously opposed the move, voicing concerns about levying a cost of living increase on vulnerable taxpayers amid rising gas prices and economic uncertainty. It was booted into Tuesday night’s meeting with a raft of charter objections, where the debate continued unabated.

“We were given this to review at the last council meeting. And we hear that, well, we didn't raise it in 2020 and we didn't raise it in 2021 because we are going through a pandemic. We're still going through a pandemic," said Ward 7 city councilor Anthony Maffuccio. “I’m not going to give you credit for not raising it in 2020, because you would have presented this to us in February, like you did at this past meeting last time. The pandemic didn’t hit until around March 19th. So you can't really take credit for that year why you did not raise taxes. In 2021, you didn't raise taxes because, you said, because of a pandemic. OK, so you were sensitive for one year. You were negligent for one year that you didn't come forward to raise taxes.”

Meanwhile, another opponent to the hike – Ward 2’s Charles Kronick – claimed to have found a way to use the city’s $40 million American Rescue Plan Act federal COVID-19 relief windfall to avoid raising taxes.

“ARPA can be used for all infrastructure projects that were in process as of March 2020, as opposed to those started after," he said. "Originally, it was for those new projects that you took on during the pandemic. They say you can now apply it to works in progress at the time of March of 2020.”

Council President Peter Marchetti cut him off.

“I'm going to stop you for a moment,” he told Kronick.

“Oh, dear. What did I do,” responded the councilor.

“And we're just going to put some stuff on the table," said Marchetti. "You can talk about all the ideas that you want to-”

“Great,” said Kronick.

“What is in front of us tonight is orders to approve water and sewer rates,” continued Marchetti. “You cannot change that.”

“I get that,” said Kronick.

“So the vote could be, we vote this down and refer something back to the mayor for more stuff," said Marchetti. "But you cannot solve the world tonight by saying, I read some ARPA stuff, and this is what we're going to do. I just want to make sure that we're on that page before we go too far down that road.”

Mayor Linda Tyer’s administration has spent months determining how to use the ARPA funding both internally and through community outreach. Unsurprisingly, she was opposed to Kronick’s plan.

“I would suggest that it is not in the city's best interest to use those funds for operating costs," said Tyer. "One-time infusions of funds such as the American Rescue Plan, including the lost revenue, should be used for capital expenditures to advance the future of our city. So for example, we are using $7 million or $8 million we budgeted for repairs to the Ashley Reservoir and the dam. So we feel strongly that these funds should not be used for operating expenses, recurring operating. It's not going to solve the problem in the long run that that we have in front of us now. So we really feel strongly that capital expenditures is the best use of the American Rescue Plan Funds.”

At-large city councilor Karen Kalinowsky was elected last fall. She took the opportunity to attack her fellow councilmembers for not previously arriving at a plan she introduced at the last meeting to use ARPA funds to install water meters for low-income, disabled, and older Pittsfielders.

“They knew back in 2019, that these rates were going to go up," said Kalinowsky. "Why didn't anybody do anything then about water meters? We know we have a population of a lot of elderly people on limited income. Why is it just being brought up this year?”

At-large city councilor Pete White – who was on the council back in 2019 – pushed back.

“While I agree, I wish all of our seniors – and anyone, forget your age – that you are on a water meter now if you can't afford this increase, you can- You know, we're going to be hearing that we're telling people to take less showers and things like that, is what we'll be hearing when that happens," said White. "But I just don't want it out there that if we had gotten everyone on water meters, that we would be in this miraculous, better position. People would have more control, but we'd still have to raise the same dollar amount.”

A final 6-4 vote approved the hikes for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, with councilors Kenny Warren, Kronick, Kalinowsky, and Maffuccio in opposition. Ward 5’s Patrick Kavey, the body’s 11th member, missed the meeting.

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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