It has been a significant week for Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.
Tuesday night, Tyer’s “At Home In Pittsfield” home improvement loan program fell just short of passage in a protracted, combative city council meeting. Moments after the vote, she told WAMC she felt “extremely disappointed.”
“We lost that by one vote," she said Thursday. "It was a slim margin, and I’m grateful for the six members of the city council who shared our vision around what it means to strengthen and stabilize neighborhoods. So since Tuesday evening, we don’t have any new sources of funding which seems to be the sticking point for some members of the city council.”
Tyer wanted to fund the $250,000 pilot program with money from a fund established by General Electric as part of a settlement over pollution with the city. A vocal minority on the council maintained that the program wasn’t an appropriate use of the funds, as it did not directly contribute to the creation of new jobs and was designed to specifically benefit the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
“And while we talked around a number of their ideas, at this moment, there is no other funding source except the economic development fund," said Tyer. "And I continue to believe that this is a small amount of money that will go a long way to lifting up the West Side, the Morningside, and all neighborhoods in our city that would benefit from this program.”
The fund originally contained $10 million.
“It still has $3 million in it, and those funds remain available for other types of economic development," said the mayor. "As you heard me say Tuesday night, I believe housing is key to that. We have to be doing traditional economic development right alongside with housing if we’re going to have the most transformative change. Having safe, clean neighborhoods where people feel respected, where they can thrive, is a key piece to building our economy.”
The mayor says no specific plans for use of the fund exist right now.
“We are in ongoing conversations with a number of companies that are either here now, or who would like to come here," she told WAMC. "And so, at some point, as those conversations evolve, we may be looking to the economic development fund to support those economic development opportunities.”
Councilors like Ward 7’s Anthony Simonelli spoke out against plan. He was one of the four votes that prevented it from reaching a supermajority, and evoked memories of Pittsfield at its economic height in the General Electric era at Tuesday’s meeting. Tyer, echoing her state of the city earlier this year, says she’s looking forward.
“I understand that there remains a little bit of this GE legacy, a little bit of this ‘we once were a great city, and we are in decline.’" said the mayor. "I think we are positioned for an all American comeback. I think our city is turning the corner. We acknowledge and honor our past when GE was here, we honor and recognize that they have left a legacy that we now have to deal with – but I also think that it doesn’t help us to remain bogged down in our past, that we learn from our past and we look for the future.”
Tuesday night also heard calls for the city to use tax revenue from recently opened recreational marijuana retailors to fund the “At Home In Pittsfield” program. In recent weeks, councilors have pushed for that money to be used to fix the city’s roads. To date, the city says it’s collected a total of $10,000 from one of its two operating weed stores. Tyer cautions against the idea that the tax will be a silver bullet for the city’s economy.
“So there’s been a lot of conversation among the members of the city council about how we should spend that money," said the mayor. "And I’ve been cautious about overcommitting a source of funds when we don’t have any real forecast of what that amount is going to be. So at a prior city council meeting, I assured the city council that we would undertake an assessment over the next six months that we would report to them in September what our revenue stream has been in the realm of marijuana tax revenue, and from that point on, we could probably forecast to a better degree what the amount will be annually, and then we can begin planning for the best use of those funds.”
On the heels of her disappointment on Tuesday, one of Tyer’s chief political rivals on the council announced her candidacy for mayor on Thursday: at-Large Councilor Melissa Mazzeo, with whom Tyer had a tense standoff with over the program in the midst of the hours-long debate.
Tyer is in the final year of her first term, Pittsfield’s first four-year term.
“I am looking forward to this upcoming campaign, election, where we can talk about our accomplishments since we took office in 2016, we can talk about where we're going from here, and so we’re ready to share with this community what our vision is, how we have backed up our words with actions, and where we're going next,” she said.
Tyer and Mazzeo sparred in 2018 over the $74 million spending plan to overhaul the city’s wastewater plant to meet EPA specified standards, which was passed only after an initial rejection by the city council and months of debate. Mazzeo and other councilors protested the cost of the project and the subsequent rise in utility rates.
“So we’re under construction, we’re under way," the mayor told WAMC. "Just to reiterate that the aspect and the importance of that infrastructure project is that it is environmentally sound, it reflects what ought to be our new legacy around environmental stewardship, it is an infrastructure project that will be built for today for 50 years into the future. The impact to the rates is phased and managed and planned so that residents are going to be able to manage those rate increases – yet we’re still among the lowest water and sewer rates in the state.”
With Election Day on the horizon, Tyer says she’s prepared to hit the streets to promote her vision of Pittsfield to its residents.
“I do think that the vote and the debate that happened on Tuesday night around the ‘At Home In Pittsfield’ initiative reflects a very distinct belief and vision that I have and that the people who are likeminded share with me, versus what some members of the city council think and believe about their city – and I look forward to having that conversation over the next six months,” said Tyer.
Pittsfield voters hit the polls November 5th.