The Pittsfield City Council approved a $141 million budget for 2015, but is not seeing eye-to-eye with Mayor Dan Bianchi on capital investments.
The council approved the municipal budget by a vote of 9-2 with many expressing concern about not enough investment in public safety. The budget includes funding for two police officer hires for downtown walking patrols, although Police Chief Michael Wynn requested five. Councilors Lisa Tully and Kevin Morandi voted no, citing the 5 percent tax increase for residents and businesses needed to support the $4.1 million budget hike.
“Maybe we should be looking at cutting some things and consolidating some things,” Morandi said. “But I haven’t seen that done here. So I think it would be a good time to start maybe looking out a little more for what we can really afford in this city.”
The council had until the end of June to pass a new budget, which has been worked out in meetings over the past several months. Morandi asked Bianchi what would happen if the council sent it back to the mayor, who would’ve had to call a special meeting before July 1.
“So this could be not approved tonight and sent back to you,” said Morandi.
“Well it could be, but you shouldn’t do it because it would be irresponsible unless you offered some recommendations for cuts which you haven’t done to this point,” replied Bianchi.
However, the mayor’s $9.5 million capital budget failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote. The council had suggested a $7.5 million plan. Councilors Jonathan Lothrop, Barry Clairmont, John Krol and Morandi opposed borrowing the money that would fund improvements, which Bianchi read to the council.
“Sidewalk repairs at the schools won’t happen,” Bianchi said. “The bleacher replacement at Pittsfield High School won’t happen. A number of other things won’t happen as well. I can go on if you’d like.”
The sticking point for those refusing to pass the capital spending plan was that it did not designate money to buy a new fire engine, requested by the fire department. Councilor Krol voted to send the plan back to the mayor.
“Clearly everyone here wants a fire engine, so let’s get it in the capital budget,” said Krol.
Bianchi proposed five SUVs also requested by the fire department to respond to 3,800 yearly medical calls instead of sending engines, according to the mayor. Those were removed from the plan at the council’s request. Those who voted to approve the capital measures, such as Councilor Kathleen Amuso, said they want to see a new fire engine and believe Bianchi can make it happen in the future.
“He did take out the five emergency vehicles,” Amuso said.
“Which I didn’t agree with,” Bianchi chimed in.
“I know you didn’t,” responded Amuso.
“But this is a compromise,” Bianchi said. “And I thought we were working together on this, but if you want to play this out, feel free councilors.”
“But I do think it could come to us before the beginning of next year’s budget,” Amuso said. “I’m voting for this because I don’t want to put the other items on hold.”
The city has about $2 million in state aid and money from last year’s capital budget for roadwork, according to Public Works Commissioner Bruce Collingwood. Councilor Lothrop, who voted no on the current capital plan, says the fire truck, at a cost of roughly a half a million dollars, could easily be added since the original proposed spending plan was near $11 million.
“Frankly our next council meeting is only in two weeks and it would be hard pressed to understand where any of these projects would be negatively affected for two weeks,” said Lothrop.
Councilor Anthony Simonelli voted to approve the capital plan.
“I don’t think it’s just a fire truck that’s the issue and if it is I think one issue is questionable in my mind even though I think a fire truck is needed,” Simonelli said. “I would strongly suggest that anyone who voted against it set up an appointment and meet with the mayor and discuss it so that it can get aired out. Time is of the essence here.”
Mayor Bianchi says he plans to include money for a fire engine in next year’s operating budget. After the meeting, the mayor said he is seriously considering whether to submit an altered capital spending plan to the council at its next meeting July 8th.
“We may not get to attend to some of those projects,” Bianchi said. “But, that’s yet to be seen.”
The council could also reconsider its vote. Meanwhile, the North Adams City Council approved a $37.7 million budget. That’s an increase of $1.2 million, but takes nearly 20 people off the payroll across city and school departments. It includes $600,000 in cuts and a revenue package that increases water and sewer rates by 10 percent.