Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke said all of the costs were looked at and the most financially prudent decision would be to trade in the old buses and get new ones.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A proposal to purchase a new bus fleet failed Tuesday night when it fell one vote shy of the 2/3 majority needed.
The mayor's petition to bond $2.7 million over five years to trade in the current 52-bus fleet for 43 new buses needed eight votes to pass.
With three nays and an abstention, the 11-member City Council didn't approve the bonding.
Councilors Lisa Tully, Kevin Morandi and Anthony Simonelli voted down the proposal while Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo, who works for the school district, abstained.
"We have budget season approaching us. The school budget will be increased at least $1 million and that doesn't include the rest [of the city departments]," Morandi said. "We have to live by budgets. The taxpayers of Pittsfield have to live on a budget at home. A little here and a little there, doesn't take much to break them."
For Tully, the sticking point was that the city still owes some $1.5 million on the purchase of the previous fleet. Nine years ago, the city bonded for 12 years to pay for the current buses.
"We're kind of digging ourselves a little deeper into this. I think now is a great time to start revolving the buses," Tully said, adding that she wouldn't purchase a new car if she still owed a lot on the current one.
Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke said maintenance costs have grown by nearly $90,000 in the last few years because of the aging fleet. Now, was an ideal time to replace them, lowering those costs, and both debts would be paid off at about the same time in five years, she said
At that point, the school would decide if they were going to replace buses on a revolving system or contract the entire busing out.
"Purchasing the buses allows us to keep the buses for a five-year term and then re-examine our options," she said.
Behnke said she proposed lowering maintenance by $90,000 in the upcoming budget, emptying the transportation revolving account and putting $200,000 from local budgets toward this year's payment. From then on, the school department would budget $560,000 each year in its operating costs to cover the payments. Previously, the city paid for the bus fleet.
"The School Committee is going to have to work that into the budget," said Mayor Daniel Bianchi.
Bianchi said now is the "optimal time" to trade in the fleet. But he also said the current fleet does have enough life in it so as not to pose any immediate safety concerns — such as the city faced in 1991 when the State Police ordered the fleet off the road.
The School Department also negotiated a $1.3 million step increase in the current teacher's contract, adding even more to that budget. Those expenses will continue, meaning each year a level-funded budget would include $2 million in additional expenses.
"On top of the normal School Department budget, we are looking at an automatic $2 million increase with salaries and the buses," Simonelli said. "I don't think we should be in the transportation business. I think we should be in the education business and right now we are in both."
The question of whether the city should be contracting out their services or continuing to operate their own fleet was raised with the majority refuting the claim that leasing would be more cost efficient. In 2006, auditors showed that with the city's transportation needs, ownership is a better model.
"It's very clear that the school administration has gone through each and every one of those ideas," said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol, who voted in favor of the proposal. "It's not fun to have an additional cost but it has been researched really well."
Councilors Jonathan Lothrop and Lisa Tully were on opposite sides of the vote.
Superintendent Jason McCandless, who has worked in districts that contracted busing, said all signs show that contracts would be more expensive.
McCandless added that in most contracts, buses cannot be more than 7 years old. Behnke supported that by saying the city's maintenance cost climbed right after the five-year mark.
Bianchi added that with ownership, the city has flexibility with its routes and extracurricular use, such as this past winter when it was decided on the very cold days to pick up students who typically walked.
"At this point, it is still cost effective to maintain and own our own," Behnke said of the research that has been done.
Vice President Christopher Connell supported the purchase but said he won't in the future if he isn't presented with the actual contracting estimates to compare for himself.
Bianchi said that once both of the busing debts are paid off, a careful look at the options then would take place.
"We will pay off the bus fleet and we will be out of this bonding. I'm hopeful we'll have a couple years of reprieve before we get back into this," Bianchi said.
Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan Lothrop said that when the city bought those buses nine years ago, he didn't know that it was a 12-year bond. Nonetheless, now the buses are aging and the purchase should be made to be "addressing an issue before there is a crisis."
With the vote failing, Bianchi said the city has multiple options that includes embarking on an updated cost analysis or the City Council could reconsider. And, of course, the city buses will last a few more years, he said, so they could continue to operate with the existing fleet.