From the Corner Office: Mayor Bianchi Shares 2013 Vision
With his first year in office wrapped up, Mayor Daniel Bianchi talked about some of his plans and projects for the coming year.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The mayor spent a lot of his first year in office setting his agenda. Now in his second year, he hopes to see tremendous progress.
Mayor Daniel Bianchi took office last January and can list what his administration was able to accomplish.
But with a new year, his attention is now solely on his initiatives. In 2013, the administration hopes to see those projects come to fruition — particularly the mayor believes he'll be able to make major steps in the life science industry.
On Thursday, iBerkshires sat down with Bianchi to find out what to expect in the next year.
Question: Let's start with the budget in the upcoming year. It's been a year and you've gotten to see how all of the departments are working up close, have you identified areas of the budget that you are looking to rework?
Answer: We are in the process right now. At the end of December,we told the departments that by the end of January we want a preliminary on the budget. Once again we want a level-funded budget but we also want to see what it would look like with a 5 percent reduction.
As far as the format of the budget, we still want people to view what their accomplishments were for FY 2013 and what their goals are for FY2014. Also relative to the format, we want to provide citizens an organizational chart of what each departments look like.
I am looking at public safety, as I said before is a huge issue for me, and there maybe some changes relative to public safety.
Q: Any particular changes you are looking at?
A: There may possibility be some staffing increases.
Q: Is there anything else particularly that you are looking to change?
A: We've had a classification study done and a salary survey done. There may be some changes relative to those studies.
Q: Overall, are you looking to level-fund the budget?
A: I think there will be some increases. We have to look at where our insurance is coming in. Insurance is such a huge part of our budget. What kind of experience we have between now and the end of the year will really dictate insurance. We'll start analyzing our experience in the last six months to see what the impacts would be or what we will be project for next year.
Also, retirement. We're on a schedule so that our retirement obligations will be met as well. It's really important for people to understand that we have certain long-term obligations that are dictated by the state that we know are going to be up every year for the next 10 or 15 years. Pension and insurance are huge drivers to the differential of the budget from one year to the next.
Q: This year you've expanded the PEDA board and you've activated groups like the Police Advisory Committee as part of an effort to get more people involved in government. Will there be more opportunities for citizen involvement in 2013?
A: More people involved in government but not necessarily for the sake of having more people involved. It's always nice to have people invested in their government and this is one way to do it.
Public safety is a very important initiative. Public safety impacts all aspects of our lives including economic development so we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to enhance public safety and the Police Advisory Committee is going to be an integral part of doing just that.
Everywhere I go, I invite young members of organizations to get involved. I had a wonderful visit at Berkshire Life and I sent a thank-you note to the president and asked if any young people there would like to get involved. There are so many ways and I can't tell you how delighted I am at the level of involvement. I've had very few people say no. From study groups to expanded boards, the agricultural commission which was dormant, the interest in these areas has been very gratifying. There will be more opportunity because there are more commissions I would like to initiate.
But it's not just things I initiate. The Pittsfield Promise was initiated by the United Way and the business community. So many people can get engaged in helping kids learn how to read. You don't have to have 100 hours set aside, you don't have to be a parent. Anyone can get involved.
Q: Regarding PEDA, there was that big announcement that a national retailer was coming and we never heard anything more to that and life science has became the focus. You've made some progress in 2012 with the Nuclea announcement. How do you expect to see this expand and what particular opportunities are you seeing and can they happen in 2013?
A: There was never a national retailer. There was a developer that specializes in the retail area and was looking for a letter of support on our part to pursue a major retailer. You haven't heard anything about it because we've pursued a different direction. They are out of the picture.
I have invited them to continue to be in the picture but not on industrial land. And in a unique way, not in the large big box operation. There are organizations and developers that can help us develop our existing commercial quarters such as Morningside with unique, smaller and less impactful retail opportunities. That's what I'd rather see. I don't want some huge big box operation coming in here that will only hurt existing retailers.
The pursuit (of life sciences) can continue in 2013. We have a working group that is putting together a report, study, application — call it what you will — that is showing the synergies between a number of local and regional organization that would be interested in a life sciences structure on the PEDA site. We are hopeful that we will be able to make very strong presentation for the life science center to release a prior earmark.
We also want to use that same effort to show private investors that we have a real plan here and that we are serious about life sciences. We are also collaborating with MCLA, Berkshire Community College, Boston, the state has interest in a life science center at UMass but only if they can make it a Western Mass initiative so I am very optimistic that we're going to be a big part of that. Dollars with that initiative would be available to help us here.
We're not just looking at life sciences. The PEDA board will be actively pursuing prospects, companies that may be interest in having a presence here. We are going to be digging up the opportunities and having face to face encounters with prospects. We'll look at any prospect and we've got the horsepower to do it. We're developing strategies to do and a campaign to do it.
Q: To switch gears, in 2012 a lot of capital projects had finished up — the streetscape work, the Common — can you give me a brief recap of what has been done and what is eyed for 2013?
A: The Common project, that phase was done. But there is going to be others. Also streetscape, what we call the second segment was done. We're not going to stop. We've got two pocket parks at the end of the last phase of the streetscape which will be done in 2013. The momentum will continue but it will be up to me to convince our friends on the federal level that we are worthy of further investment.
We have some very exciting market-rate housing projects. One on North Street and the other on Fenn and First that will be under way this year. That's private but it is assisted by governmental investment in historic tax credit.
I think it is imperative that we address the Springside House for a number of reasons. Springside Park is a very important asset for the city and the Springside House is the symbol. It is the emotional epicenter of Springside Park for many residents. We have to come up with a plan to take care of it but we also have to come up with a plan for future use of the building and the park in general.
I envision that to be an integral part of the future and the economic future of the city of Pittsfield. Agriculture and life sciences go hand and hand, they are inter-related. It would be my vision to come up with a plan for Springside Park where it might be an educational asset to the city. I would like to explore what the various uses of that park could be and I've had discussions with Pittsfield Rotary, 4-H and the Hancock Shaker Village about a citywide community gardening program with significant community gardens at all of the schools. It would enhance a nutrition awareness and programming at the schools and that ties in very well with future agricultural initiates possibly at Springside Park.
We've already started looking at the feasibility of reconditioning Hibbard School for some kind of future use. We are looking into what it will take to bring that up to standards.
We have assets but we couldn't use them. That doesn't make any sense. Let's maintain our assets and have a plan for them.
Q: You have four task forces planned and the first one on that is list addressing gang violence. How do you propose to address gang violence?
A: We have applied for what's called a Shannon Grant, which would allow us to address the whole issue around gangs but beyond that and more importantly, we have a group of citizens who are very interested in taking a look at what we can do as a community to address youth violence. That will be an integral part of a public safety task force.
Are there things we could be doing to logically engage our young people and diminish the influence of less desirable activities? What can we do to raise the awareness of the families of our communities that are affected by youth violence?
Q: We talked about this task force, the Police Advisory Committee and the police having more staffing. Would you say that public safety is the No. 1 priority heading into this year?
A: No. I never liked to rank priorities. But I look at public safety as an economic development initiative as well. They are so closely linked. If you just focused on economic development, it would hinge on education and the need to improve our educational system, which ties into the need to push the career vocational education at Taconic into the feasibility stage. We've put in tremendous work with the state treasurer's office and I am sure that will continue but we have to show him that we are moving along. He is committed to helping us. That's an economic development initiative and public safety is an economic development initiative.
It is difficult to attract investment if there is a perceived or real issue with public safety. We can do things to improve both the perception and the reality and we will. We started some great efforts in 2012 and we will continue.
Q: This was your first year and for most mayors the first year is cleaning up — for lack of a better term — and readjusting the way the city is positioned. With that adjustment period complete, how much more can your administration accomplish now that you are positioned in 2013?
A: It's a period where you just have to get down to business on the things that were just dumped into your lap. I had some things just dumped into my lap.
Honestly, I think we have accomplished quite a bit. I've always considered myself a pretty hard worker and people that on this staff in city government are conscious hard workers so we've been able to focus. We had to clean up the mess but now I think we can focus without having our efforts diminished.
We started doing what I wanted to do right out of the blocks but in addition to that it is human nature that when there is a new guy, people want to talk to the new guy. It's probably the most important thing we do is listening to people whether its the guy who is complaining about city tress that have fallen on his property to bigger issues. You really have to spend the time listening to folks to know what your agenda ought to be. You can come in with a preconceived notion of what your agenda is but you really have to listen to your constituents and determine if your agenda makes sense.
We had 191 board of commission appoints and that just doesn't happen. I interviewed people, I talked to them to make sure they were the right fit. You have to make sure they have the right resume. You have to make sure they have a good sense. We met with many members of the business community. I met about 150 city employees, have gone to a lot of different events. It's important to get out and spend the time that I did to understand.
In addition to that, I had to attend to a lot of the stuff that was left over from before — contracts, lawsuits, whatever it was we had to expend effort in that area. Now we can focus on the initiative that I brought in and those initiatives that have been complements by the concerns of the constituents.
We have that economic development task force focused on life science and if we don't break ground in 2013, we will at least have the ground work set.
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