Council Vice President John Krol is critical of the administration regarding both the snow and ice removal budget and the Police Department settlement.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council begrudgingly approved spending $1.4 million in free cash to offset a massive budget overage for snow removal.
The city spent some $2.1 million this winter on snow and ice but had only budgeted for $700,000. The City Council was asked to either fund it with free cash or have it be paid through taxes.
The council agreed to fund it but raised many concerns about the management of the system, questioning how the city's largest overage in that line came during what was considered a mild winter.
"For me, we should not be over this much," said Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi. "We didn't have a real tough winter this year compared to last year."
Commissioner of Public Services David Turocy outlined how the money was spent: $582,000 for plowing contractors, $358,000 for repairs to vehicles, $878,000 for salt, $180,000 for gas, and $100,000 for miscellaneous associated charges. The $1.4 million budget overage is the highest it has been.
"I've never seen quite this situation, this deficit is massive," Council Vice President John Krol said."There is something amiss in this."
Krol particularly took aim at the highway superintendent, though carefully avoided delving too deep into personnel issues. The superintendent is the one who manages the system directly and had been placed on leave a couple of months ago and is no longer in the position. Krol pressed Turocy on when he had noticed that things were "out of whack."
"You have to be watching over these operations," Krol said.
According to Turocy, last year the deficit was $1.2 million and the year before the deficit was $1.3 million. Those numbers are more closely aligned with this year's deficit but three times as much as the year prior to that. In fiscal 2016, the overage was $444,000. Prior to that the deficit was around $800,000; the years prior to that, about $400,000 and as low as $14,000 in fiscal year 2012.
The fiscal 2017 turning point aligned with the hiring of Daniel Ostrander as the highway superintendent, which was also right after the City Council lambasted his predecessor for not doing a good enough job in snow removal and having a lack of material on hand.
Turocy responded to Krol saying he felt the department addressed snow removal "aggressively" and didn't necessarily see a failure in management. Krol, however, continued with his line of thought after Turocy told Councilor Christopher Connell that the salt contractor's use is monitored through various estimations.
"I'm hearing a lot of estimates. That's a red flag. That's a really big red flag," Krol said.
Connell, Morandi, and Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers all voted against the use of free cash. Morandi said he was particularly upset with the process of having the request come at the very end of the fiscal year.
"We have a gun to our head tonight and I don't appreciate the process at all," Morandi said.
Connell agreed and continued to express frustration that for years he has advocated to increase the budget for snow and ice to no avail. He said he'd rather see the budget line be increased to be more accurate and the lines in which there are excess should be reduced. But, Connell wouldn't vote against the free cash to avoid the bill be footed from taxes.
"If we don't approve it, then it is going to hit the taxpayers and I'm not going to do that to them," Connell said.
The council also approved transferring $600,000 to offset overages in the Police Department from other budget lines but not without some debate over $105,000 portion of that for back pay from a settlement after a lengthy lawsuit over the firing of an officer.
Krol advocated to vote it down to send a message to the administration. Krol said the city disavowed advice from arbitrators and then continued appealing the decision in courts even after losing the case in the lower courts. The city can't end the year with a deficit but Krol advocated to deny the transfers as the only way to stop the administration from taking the council for granted.
"That's the only leverage we have in this situation," he said. "It is not acceptable when we keep going on these misadventures."
Mayor Linda Tyer was not in attendance at the meeting, which frustrated Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo. She said she had many questions about the settlement and why it wasn't covered by insurance but the mayor is the only one privy to that information. She said this is the busiest time of the year with budgets and the closing of the fiscal year and Tyer should have been available.
"You need to be here when it is time to do your work," said Mazzeo, who is running for the office this year.
City Solicitor Stephen Pagnotta said such issues can't be discussed in a public forum because of a confidentiality agreement. He believes the only way the council can get more information would in be executive session but even then it could be limited.
Council President Peter Marchetti questioned even if the issue would even be a legal reason to go into executive session because the settlement had already been reached. Further, the executive session was not posted on the agenda and it would have needed to be.
Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood said he, too, wasn't privy to the details but said most of the time settlements are covered by insurance but something in the negotiations for this one was different. He said this was the first time that back pay had to be paid through the department's budget since he's been on the job.
"Generally it is covered by insurance. It just so happens this settlement was a bit different in the way it was negotiated," Kerwood said.
Mazzeo joined Krol in voting against the transfers.
"I can't support this. This is back pay that I believe we didn't have to pay because it was done with actions by the city I don't agree with," Krol said.
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Holyoke Mayor Morse Challenges Neal In Congressional Race
By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
Morse is joined by a large crowd of supporters at the Unicorn Inn on Monday night.
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They said he couldn't do.
There is no way a 21-year-old, turning 22, could defeat an incumbent mayor with years of political experience. And there was no way the city of Holyoke was ever going to be as good as it had been. click for more
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