The two mayoral candidates squared off in the first debate before the November election.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Linda Tyer says for too long the city's West Side has not gotten its fair share of investment.
Daniel Bianchi refutes that claim, saying Tyer is just "pandering for votes" by promising infeasible or expensive projects.
That was the tempo for the two mayoral candidates at they battled it out at Conte Community School in their first debate. The debate was put on by the West Side Neighborhood Initiative, with WAMC's Jim Levulis as moderator.
Throughout a series of questions, challenger Tyer said Bianchi has let many projects for the West Side fall by the wayside and vowed to restore the community's trust in government.
Bianchi, meanwhile, hammered home the number of accomplishments completed during his four years in office.
"The mayor shouldn't offer hollow promises just to pander to votes," Bianchi said of Tyer's pitches for projects and programs in the city's west side. "I'm not going to prey on the hopes and dreams. I am going to make sure the hopes and dream are attainable and realistic."
Among those "unrealistic" projects is a community center in the West Side, he said, because there is no business plan and no funding source. Instead of spending city money building a new center, he called for focus on improving schools, churches and the Christian Center, all which serve as community centers.
That isn't entirely true, said Tyer, it's just that Bianchi refused to make it a priority.
"There was the beginnings of the plan and there were the beginnings of funding but it languished under the current mayor," Tyer said. "I wouldn't just walk away. I would roll up my sleeves, sit down at the table, and figure out a business plan."
The current city clerk said the riverwalk project is yet another example of the mayor letting West Side projects languish. The city went through the land takings to create a river greenway but never moved forward in construction.
"There are opportunities now for us, within city government, to invest in the riverway project and make it a priority. It has languished," Tyer said. "This community asked for it, wants it, and has planned for it. It is time to get busy making it a reality."
Bianchi again said the city doesn't have the money for it. Instead of building new parks, the mayor said the focus should be to improve the parks already in existence.
"You don't have the opportunity to throw money at every single project," Bianchi said. "We have to cherish the parks that we have and encourage activity in the parks that we have before we take on another one."
He added, "We can't continue to make investments in properties that we can't maintain."
Tyer said not all projects she supports needs to be paid for by the taxpayer. She said there are grant programs and other resources for which the city has never even applied.
"There are other resources available to us and we need to chase them down and make them happen," Tyer said.
She added that even with the taxpayer money being allocated, the West Side hasn't seen much of it. She promised to reprioritize the city's spending to be more equitable. One example is that while many other city parks were upgraded, it wasn't until this year that the basketball court at Pitt Park was restored.
"I will look at the other side of the balance sheet and find out what sacrifices we need to make so you get your fair share," Tyer promised.
Tyer also questioned Bianchi's plans for St. John's Hall, which is in need of demolition or restoration. The mayor said it is part of a dozen properties a mayoral task force is looking at. The cost is some $500,000 to demolish all of the buildings and the city currently has slightly more than $100,000 to do the work. A hazardous materials assessment is being done and the goal is to work with the property owners to find funding to raze it.
"It is my job to find resources to take down St. John's Hall," Bianchi said.
Those properties are being tackled by the vacant building task force he created. He said many of the vacant buildings were caused by regulations put in place by former Mayor James Ruberto, who is a Tyer supporter, but the task force is working on cleaning up blight.
"It was foolish regulations by the last administration that I tried to stop that created so many vacant buildings on the West Side," Bianchi said.
He added that it shouldn't be on the taxpayer's shoulders to board up buildings because that takes away resources from other needs in the Highway Department. He said there is some $2.5 million worth of work needed on vacant properties identified by the task force as priorities and that, over time, the work is being completed.
But, "the work hasn't produced any results. I think it is time to make this a top priority and a comprehensive program," Tyer said.
Tyer's plan is for regulations requiring property owners to secure broken windows and doors not with boards but with replacement doors and windows that can be locked. If the grass needs mowing, then the owners should be forced to do it. She said she'd put together a blighted properties task force to aggressively go after poorly maintained properties.
"We set a goal, we measure the goal, and we deliver progress to the people on the West Side," Tyer said. "I think this is a critical issue if we want to improve the quality of life for the people living in the West Side."
This summer the West Side was also the location of a shooting and several other violent crimes. Tyer said the Police Department needs more staffing and new programs for community policing and efforts for mentors to intervene with at-risk youth before an incident. She called a focus on crime as being "urgent."
"Crime is weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of the people in this city," Tyer said. "There are certainly aspects of violence that become a public health issue."
Bianchi agreed with Tyer in the need for mentors because that is what he started with the Pittsfield Community Connection. He said a youth mentoring program could cost more than $1 million and he sought out the Charles E. Shannon Grant, which provided state funds to launch the program.Now there are more than 30 mentors matched up with at-risk youth throughout the city.
"It is working and we are not paying $1 million to do it," Bianchi said, adding it is helping the city's youth.
Tyer countered that there "shouldn't be a cost benefit analysis done on protecting our community."
The Shannon Grant was also used to open community centers at Dower Square and the Wilson Projects. Tyer said the residents there were not engaged nor asked how the community centers would operate.
Bianchi said the centers are used to provide an array of services such as tutors and health screenings. Since opening, the mayor said arrests are down by 40 percent, calls are down by 15 percent, vandalism is down and engagement is up.
The debate was aired on PCTV; it will be rebroadcast on the following dates:
Friday, Oct. 8, 9 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 9, 3 a.m., 10 a.m. & 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 10, 1:30 a.m.
Check the schedule for future times.
Also regarding crime, when asked about lawsuits posed by officers in the Police Department over hiring practices, Bianchi said, "don't worry about a payment there. That is going to be taken care of."
The officer suing because he didn't get a promotion hadn't "prepared himself for a promotion," he said, and that the individual had less specialized training and dressed unprofessionally for his interview.
"We need to hire the most effective people and if that means being involved frivolous lawsuits then so be it. We are going to put the best people on the streets," Bianchi said.
Tyer didn't comment on the suit itself but blasted Bianchi for "disparaging" a city employee on a public stage. As far as management goes, Tyer promised to work closer with city employees, supporting them, and providing the professional development the workers need.
"I won't be sitting behind a desk. I will be in the departments. I will be in the trucks. I will be interacting with the employees," Tyer said, adding that she would encourage them to disagree with her so the sides can come to a "shared vision."
"I will not sideline someone who challenges me. In fact, I welcome it," Tyer said.
She also rapped Bianchi for his handling of the switch from the GIC health care plan to Blue Cross Blue Shield. She said while it may ultimately save the city money, it was poorly handled.
"It was not communicated effectively," Tyer said. "There was not an engagement and partnership in making a decision that makes a significant impact."
Bianchi didn't have a chance to respond to that criticism. But, he said his management style included creating the various task forces such as for vacant buildings and for public safety, which consists of the sheriff, police chief, the housing authority, and the probation department. The public safety force led to the zero-tolerance patrols following the shooting and to the community centers.
Further, his management style led to the reduced health care plan, a comprehensive pavement management system, and forced strengthened tax collection, he said.
The two also sparred over economic development. Tyer said when it comes to the West Side, she'd focus on improving the "quality of life" by cleaning up blight and working with the organizations in place to inspire new business ideas. She would encourage both commercial and home owners to improve their properties.
"The first thing we need to do is improve the quality of life for the people who are living here," Tyer said.
Bianchi said he plans to create tax incentives for properties on Linden Street and Columbus Avenue for commercial properties. He said those incentives will help attract businesses to redevelop commercial properties there.
Between expanding commercial investment and education, the mayor says the city can combat poverty.
"It is imperative that we focus on education and the programs that increase the literacy rate," Bianchi said.
He says literacy programs and early education will lead to better educational attainment in the new Taconic High School and ultimately a job, which can expand from the Berkshire Innovation Center.
Tyer, too, agrees with early education but doesn't feel enough has been done. She says the city also needs to do a better job of connecting residents with jobs. Particularly, there is a gap that needs to be filled when low-income families work additional hours but then get cut off from welfare and food programs.
"We have 1,700 or so job vacancies in Berkshire County. We need to do a better job of exposing those job opportunities to men and women who are seeking jobs," Tyer said.
But overall, she says the government needs to show the residents of the West Side that it cares.
"The way you show that you care is by putting your investment in the neighborhood," Tyer said.
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