PITTSFIELD — The city’s budget, which came in over $200 million, rose nearly 9 percent between fiscal 2023-24. With it, increases to tax bills will follow.
Residents have been vocal in recent years that they feel they can’t keep up with Pittsfield property taxes and water and sewer fees as inflation and a COVID economy squeezes their finances from all sides.
So what options does that leave the next mayor when it comes to funding the city’s budget? The Eagle asked mayoral candidates Peter Marchetti and John Krol how they’ll come up with the funds to pay for much needed city services.
More questions and answers from The Eagle’s second sit-down with the candidates will be published in the coming days. To watch a full video of the meeting, click here.
Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
THE EAGLE: Improvements to the wastewater treatment plant have put on display an essential question about debt and borrowing. The improvement project cost just under $70 million and was paid for primarily in loans from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust.
Today, the payments on those loans are causing water and sewer bills to rise, which has led many residents to feel a delayed sticker shock over the project. Given the state of property taxes and water and sewer bills, do you think it’s better to pay for projects up front or do you think it’s better to use debt to pay for projects, knowing taxpayers will feel the cost long after the project is completed?
MARCHETTI: So there are some projects that you can't pay for all at once. I think the bigger question in regards to the wastewater treatment plant was: Why did we wait so long?
We knew 20 years ago that we needed to make these improvements; why did we wait so long? So a price tag of almost $70 million could have been $17 million if we had done it 20 years ago when we needed to do it.
The bigger question here for us is how we evaluate our water and sewer fees. And to tell folks that we still have one of the lowest water and sewer rates in the commonwealth isn't really consoling to them and it really doesn't make a difference. But we often have it in the city of Pittsfield where we say, "Well, we won't raise our water and sewer rates for two or three years because we want to [give] folks a break." And then you punch them in the gut when we raise taxes or our water and sewer rates have a 30, 40 [or] 50 percent increase.
We need to determine what the yearly increase for water and sewer rates needs to be. We need to, from the tax perspective, and from a water sewer perspective. We need to continue to look for other avenues to fund projects but also we need to look at the budget from scratch and not look at it — which I think is what we do every year — [as] the administration just adding on what additional costs may be. We have to look to see what kind of reductions that we can make during that process and create a policy where if we can afford to buy stuff — for example, we need to buy new police cruisers, you probably should be buying that from the operating budget rather than borrowing. We need to do roads. We do $2 million to $3 million of roadwork a year that we borrow for and we pay for that road for the next 20 years. That road doesn't last 20 years. So we need a better solution and that is what I plan to do come January.
KROL: In this case, we had a golden opportunity to utilize the historic excess amount of cash and federal funds that we had in the city of Pittsfield to defray that cost. And that's something we've been hearing about for a very long time during this campaign, which is, "Boy we have this $44 million in federal ARPA money, we had $17.5 million dollars of free cash, we have these cannabis dollars, why are our taxes skyrocketing?" (The city received $40.6 million in ARPA money and $17.1 million in free cash at the end of fiscal 2022.)
So I think that's a fundamental question I’m hearing, which is why we're going to move forward with my administration with the most fiscally transparent process that the city of Pittsfield has ever seen.
We're looking to bring in a director of finance that is from outside of the political establishment. We're going to do a nationwide search for that because the director of finance is not going to be a friend of mine or a political ally. It's going to be someone who's a professional who's outside of the establishment.
Also, we're going to do an outside audit that does not include an auditor that's been doing the work the last two decades for the city of Pittsfield. We're going to bring in a new auditor to the outside audit. And — this is unprecedented in the city of Pittsfield — I propose that we have an internal auditor for the city of Pittsfield, and that's something that's been done in many other communities. We're going to bring it into the city of Pittsfield — and not only from a financial standpoint — the audit will be able to look at a number of other things, things like the use of city vehicles, things like overtime being utilized for our employees and many other things. And the things that Peter was talking about that third party internally — and to be clear, my vision is to have that auditor not be reporting directly to the mayor, it will be an independent person to be able to look at city finances — so that's really important. Ultimately, when we do find savings, we're going to give it back to the taxpayers in the form of a reduced tax rate.
MARCHETTI: So first, I’m going to suggest to John that he reads the ARPA regulations so that he knows what those monies can and can’t be used for. It's very clearly spelled out that it needs to be used for existing projects. It can't be used for paying prior debit or operating costs.
But I would say this: as we have hit the ground running with the stuff I proposed years ago — an internal auditor, that's not a new conversation. We can go back to the very first time I ran for City Council in 1999. I called for an outside independent auditor. I take great offense when we demean existing employees — whether we like the job that they're doing or not. I would consider everyone that works in City Hall and every member of the City Council. Whether I agree with them or not, as professionals and people who have been there.
KROL: So this is about creating transparency and creating a process. It has nothing to do with individuals at all. And I think the people of Pittsfield deserve an opportunity to be able to have full transparency. So having the internal auditor is wonderful — that's something that other communities have done — and just having a director of finance that is from outside the political establishment. That is not a knock on anyone. What that is, is setting a standard for the city of Pittsfield that has checks and balances and protocols and processes in place to give that understanding to taxpayers that their dollars are going to be utilized as efficiently and as effectively and without waste in any ways we can find. We will do that. So I think this is a proper step forward and certainly nothing personal. This is just setting up a proper protocol that's going to be helpful to taxpayers.
Up next: The candidates talk about their unique vision for the city and their opponent’s campaign.
Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6149. Read the original article in the Berkshire Eagle here