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Bianchi, Councilors In Standoff Over Capital Budget

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
12:35AM / Wednesday, July 16, 2014
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The mayor has twice brought his capital budget proposal to the City Council to no avail. Now, he says he isn't revising it again.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Four city councilors and the mayor are in a political standoff over putting a fire truck in the capital budget.
 
Three weeks ago, the City Council rejected the mayor's revised capital plan.
 
And now, the mayor says he has no plans to change it again and is prepared to go this year without the borrowing authority — delaying capital projects.
 
"I compromised and I think they can compromise," said Mayor Daniel Bianchi on Tuesday. "I went though the process and made a lot of adjustments."
 
During budget hearings, the City Council rejected a third of Bianchi's $10.8 million request. Complying with councilors concerns, the mayor removed $3 million for a new highway garage, $100,000 for an inspector's office build out and $270,000 for emergency management services rapid-response vehicles. The mayor also bumped his original request for road improvements up to $3 million from the proposed $1 million, also in response to the council's concerns.
 
He returned to the council with the changes only to again be rebuffed.
 
Those five proposed rapid-response vehicles have become a major part of the current standoff. The mayor hoped to improve efficiency in the fire department by buying five sport utility vehicles for firefighters to respond to medical calls, which is about 60 percent of the volume.
 
Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski advocated for a new fire truck instead, arguing that cost savings would be minimal while response time could be affected. The mayor has removed the rapid response vehicles but still hasn't committed to a new fire truck. 
 
City Councilors John Krol, Barry Clairmont, Kevin Morandi and Jonathan Lothrop voted against the revised budget and are continuing to oppose it until the fire truck is placed in the plan. The capital budget needs a supermajority of eight votes to pass and the four in opposition led the proposal to being one vote shy.
 
"Even with a fire engine placed into the budget, it was going to be less than his original proposal," Krol said. "We thought it was a fair compromise. We thought there was a good back and forth and hoped to get that fire engine in there, which nearly every councilor was in favor of."
 
Morandi said the department needs a new truck  and he doesn't want  the replacement schedule to be backed up. He, too, said the cost isn't any more than Bianchi's first request so the cost isn't what is stopping the truck from being added now.
 
"I, too, strongly feel that can be added in there. I have to err on the side of caution in public safety," Morandi said.
 
Even though a majority of the council approved the mayor's budget version, the four councilors say the entire committee wants the fire truck.
 
"Even the people who voted for the capital budget expressed interest in a fire truck," Lothrop said.
 
The councilors were expecting to see another revision on Tuesday — but that didn't happen. 
 
On Monday, the city's purchasing office canceled an already advertised bid for $3.5 million in road repairs. The bid was prepared in anticipation of the borrowing authority. The city only has about $1.8 million currently authorized for roads.
 
"It was for a street improvements project in the city and it was canceled because the scope of work had changed significantly. The project will be re-bid with the revised scope of work in the near future," said Purchasing Agent Colleen Hunter-Mullett in an email Monday, when asked about the bid.
 
The bids were due on Thursday but the City Council's rejection of the capital spending plan three weeks ago left Pittsfield without the authority to award the contract, Bianchi said.
 
"They voted against it so they should have been aware of their actions," Bianchi said of the initiatives that are currently unfunded because the omnibus package hasn't been approved. "The ball is in their court."
 
Bianchi says the City Council can petition for borrowing at any time or one of the four voting against could ask for a reconsideration. If they don't, Bianchi said he will find a way to move forward with city projects without borrowing. 
 
"There have been years where we haven't had a capital budget," the mayor said.
 
Krol, however, said there is nothing stopping Bianchi from bringing any one of the items — including the $3 million in road repairs — to the council for approval individually. Krol said the City Council is in favor of the rest of the most recent capital plan.
 
"There are projects to do. There are roads to do. The only one that is getting in the way of these projects being done right now is Dan Bianchi," Krol said.
 
Clairmont doesn't believe the City Council has any authority to bring back the capital budget on their own. The councilors cannot reconsider the vote because, he says, that can only happen during the meeting the vote was taken. Clairmont said the mayor needs to resubmit the capital budget before action can be taken.
 
"The ball's in the mayor's court at this point and I would hope that he will give us the fire truck we are looking for. Public safety is always a concern," Clairmont said. "I think the right thing for him to do is bring the capital budget forward with the fire truck and I think he'll find it passing."
 
Meanwhile, Lothrop said he is still hopeful that the mayor will revise and resubmit the spending package in August.
 
"I still have hope. I would like to see it for August. I think there are a lot of projects that are not only needed but also are tied to reimbursements," Lothrop said. "A lot of the airport money. Even though it looks like it is a $1.3 million expenditure, it is backed by 90 percent reimbursement by the state and federal government. There are a lot of maintenance projects in there and I think everybody wants to see the street improvements."
 
This is not the first time in recent history councilors and the administration argued over a fire truck. About five years ago, former Mayor James Ruberto opposed the purchase of an engine but ultimately placed it in the capital plan.

Tags: capital spending,   city council,   fire truck,   fiscal 2015,   road project,   

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