Pittsfield Councilor Switches Vote To Approve Bus Purchases

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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The 11-member committee previously fell one vote shy of approval.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Ward 1 City Councilor Lisa Tully changed her vote from two weeks ago to allow bonding on a $2.7 million school bus purchase.

Tully had voted against the five-year bond for 43 new school buses, saying she preferred the city replace buses on a revolving schedule instead. She cited the city's current $1.5 million owed on the last bus purchase as a reason to not purchase an entire fleet.

On Tuesday night, she changed that vote to one in favor, providing the two-thirds majority needed.

"I was never against buying new school buses. I felt very comfortable two weeks ago making that decision," Tully said. "Since that time, I've had two weeks to do a lot of research."

Tully said she called other cities and towns, met with the purchasing and school officials and launched her own study. Bottom line, the buses are not in a condition where it would be cost effective to start the revolving system right now, she determined.

"If we wait another year, we will lose a lot of money on maintenance and value in trading them in," she said.

Tully provided a more detailed explanation of her vote in an e-mail following the meeting, which can be read here.

The buses are still in working condition, but as time goes on the maintenance costs increase while the value for trade-in decreases. The buses are currently 9 years old and 11 of the 52 have mileage below 80,000. Since the buses hit the 5-year-old mark, school officials say maintenance has risen by some $90,000. The proposal is to trade in those 52 for 43 new buses, a reflection of the decreased enrollment.

The Tuesday vote transpired mostly as it had last time — with Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi and Ward 4 Councilor Anthony Simonelli voting against and Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo, a school department employee, abstaining. Tully's vote in favor gave Tuesday's vote the eight votes needed for the two-thirds majority — ending at 8-2-1.

The new bond would expire around the time when the previous one, which was for 12 years, does. The city will pay $560,000 each year for the new buses, which will be added into the school budget.

Morandi said the additional cost is why he voted against it. The expenditure won't be covered with cuts to the budget, but rather be another addition to the school's annual request.

"It is going to add on $500,000 to the school's budget each year," Morandi said. "This is just going to keep adding and adding on as we go further into the budget season."

Much of the talk last meeting was focused on options to lease instead of own. But school officials say it is more expensive to lease. Superintendent Jason McCandless said, "for the money, it is a good bang for our buck."

Councilor Anthony Simonelli stuck with his vote against the purchase, requesting that a study be completed looking at the leasing costs.

Later he added that while working in other districts in the Berkshires, he was unable to get more than one company to bid on a busing contract — narrowing the competition in the marketplace. At one point, multiple South County towns joined together in one request for proposals in hopes to attract more vendors and still, only one company bid on the contract.

He further added that all of the details — from after-school programs to field trips to sports — are contractual in a lease and the district has little control over making changes.

Mayor Daniel Bianchi said the city was able to pick up children who typically walked during this past winter's very cold days, which wouldn't be possible under a lease agreement.

"It's not just a matter of dollars and cents," Bianchi said.

Nonetheless, McCandless says a consultant has already been hired at $3,500 to do a review of the busing system in an attempt to finding efficiencies.

"We will have a study completed that will guide us in the future with how we approach this," McCandless said, but in the meantime, "these buses are losing value by the day."

That study will include looking at private contractors but also the routes, trends across the state, and ways to open up space on buses.

"We have a waiting list of people willing to pay to ride the bus," McCandless said, adding that with more paid riders, the money generated can be used to offset some of the bonding.

Simonelli, an opponent of the purchase, said the study should have been done before the school department came looking for new buses. Nine years ago, auditors gave figures showing that ownership is better than contracting out the service.

"All I heard was nine years ago, an auditor said it wasn't worth doing," Simonelli said. "Why wasn't a study done a year and a half ago?"

Bianchi said none of the major factors had changed so ownership is still a better model. He added that if the new study shows something had changed, the city can write into the request for proposals that the new fleet is used, lowering the contracting cost. Private companies place limits on how old the buses can be.

"It's not as if we have to wait," Bianchi said of pushing off the study until the next round of bus purchases.

However, doing such a study now could place many of the councilors in the same position as they were this time around. Councilor at-Large Barry Clairmont says the next time the city needs to do something with buses, that study will be too old.

"If you do the study now, you could have very unreliable data in a few years," Clairmont said.

During the first vote, even those in favor voiced concern with the lack of updated information.

Tags: bonding,   bus,   school bus,   

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