Mayor Daniel Bianchi addresses a joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee on Wednesday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School and road funding were the key topics of discussion, as Mayor Daniel Bianchi presented an overview of the coming fiscal year at a joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee last week.
Bianchi said he projects a budget of $148,142,000 for fiscal 2015, and although he said estimates presented are not yet finalized, it will likely mean an increase of about $4.4 million over last year's $143.7 million budget.
"These numbers very well may change," Bianchi told officials on Wednesday, depending in part on unknowns in state funding allowances.
Under provisions of the new city charter passed by voters in November, the mayor is now required to convene a joint meeting of the city and School Committee to review the city's financials and budget projections 60 days before the beginning of the fiscal year.
Within the overall budget, a $57.2 million school budget
was approved by the School Committee, an increase of $1 million over this year. Much of that increase is the result of $1.3 million in increased payroll costs from already negotiated contractual obligations, as well as several hundred thousand in unfunded mandates from the state to comply with testing requirements.
"While it looks like an increase, from a level service perspective, it's actually a cut in schools," said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol.
"I wouldn't necessarily call it a cut, and I don't think services are being cut," said Bianchi, who praised what he called "a very collegial and collaborative" budget process between his administration and school officials in finding flexibility in funding. "We're not losing any teachers, we're not losing any programs."
"To me, what I'm hearing is that there are different thoughts about what the school budget should like," Krol told Bianchi. "I think there are a lot of people in this community that believe strongly that we should be investing in a more robust way in our schools."
"I think we're funding the school department, and every other department, in a responsible way," Bianchi told the councilors.
School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said the finalized school budget did not allow for the kinds of improvements the committee would like to see in Pittsfield schools, but ultimately concurred with the compromises made to reach the current figure.
"I think we're in the best place we can be at the moment, to help the schools move forward and get the budget approved," said Yon.
"I think a $1 million [increase] is adequate," said at-Large Councilor Kathleen Amuso, a former School Committee member. "It could be $10 million and it would never really be enough."
A final capital improvement program, encompassing all the city's planned road work, major construction projects and large equipment purchases, was not yet available, an omission challenged by at-Large Councilor Barry Clairmont. Under the new charter, that part of the budget is also supposed to be presented to the City Council at least 60 days before the fiscal year.
"We should not be ignoring what the charter says," Clairmont told Bianchi.
"This is a new charter, and we're working toward that," said Bianchi, who told the council that the initial wish list from city department heads totaled $44 million just in capital projects.
"It's going to be a lot lower than that," said the mayor, who said he is continuing to meet with staff to arrive at a final plan.
Bianchi again acknowledged the public's concerns about the conditions of roads, both seasonally this spring and longtime paving needs, and suggested this would improve with the implementation of a new paving management software system the city has purchased.
"We will be assessing each and every road — accepted and unaccepted — and every sidewalk in the city," said Bianchi. "This is a management tool that is going to allow us to plan much more effectively."
"We are still establishing our priorities," Bianchi told the councilors, with regards to when a finalized list of planned road improvements would be available.