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The at-large candidates debated the issues Monday night at Berkshire County College.
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Peter White.
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Craig Gaetani.
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Earl Persip.
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Peter Marchetti.

Pittsfield At-Large Candidates Debate The Issues As Election Approaches

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Melissa Mazzeo showed particular passion when talking about the Berkshire Innovation Center. She believes it will be a massive successful once it is built.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Melissa Mazzeo recently received a call from a resident who had become the guardian of a grandchild.
 
The resident needed help navigating the school enrollment. The grandparent believed the student belongs in one school, school officials said the child needed to go to another school. It was a difficult issue.
 
Mazzeo got in touch with Superintendent Jason McCandless and figured it out for that grandparent.
 
"I think this is something that we are going to be seeing a lot more of," the incumbent councilor at large said.
 
That story is what has stuck with her thus far in the election season. Mazzeo is running for her fifth term on the City Council. And it is stories like that, stories that derive from issues facing the city and stories of personal struggles, that drives her to keep working for the people. 
 
Grandparents taking custody of grandchildren was the exactly what former Mayor Sara Hathaway had in mind when she wrote that question about constituent service.
 
Hathaway served as the moderator for Monday's night forum, sponsored by the Pittsfield Gazette and the Berkshire Chapter of the League of Women Voters. The six candidates for four at-large seats sparred at Berkshire Community College just two weeks before the election. They are incumbents Mazzeo, Peter White and Peter Marchetti, and Edward Carmel, Earl Persip and Craig Gaetani. 
 
White has a similar story with a constituent who isn't able to get to jobs because of a lack of transportation. The person is fighting the landlord over inadequate housing. And White believes that by coming together, the community can solve these issues.
 
"Most of us are one or two paychecks away from being in the same situation," White said.
 
When it comes to struggling in the city, Carmel says he knows more than any of the other candidates what that is like. Carmel had spent two years homeless and now, back on his feet, he wants to help people in similar circumstances.
 
"The success of this city is important to me. I am not a politician, I am a person who will listen," he said.
 
The City Council just put forth $1 million to help usher along the Berkshire Innovation Center but Carmel doesn't think the money was well spent. He'd rather have seen it go toward building halfway houses and treatment centers for those struggling with drug addiction.
 
"We don't have places to put people when they want help," he said.
 
Carmel differed from most on that question. All three incumbents -- Marchetti, Mazzeo, White -- and Persip believe in the project. Gaetani and Carmel both voiced opposition to the project.
 
"I think this is one of the best things we've done in a long time. The faster the BIC is built, the better this community will be," Persip said.
 
The innovation center has been in the works for a number of years. The concept is creating a research and development center based on a membership model. Local small and medium-sized companies are able to sign on and have access to cutting-edge manufacturing equipment the company would otherwise struggle to afford to test out new products. The new non-profit holds workshops and certification classes. Local education institutions envision it as a place for students to learn. 
 
"We don't have a huge track record of businesses coming from outside and doing great. We have a proven track record of businesses starting here," White said of the concept of the innovation center helping to grow local businesses.
 
However, there was a $3 million funding gap between what the BIC wanted to build and what it could afford to build. That stalled the project for two years. Recently, the City Council approved using $1 million of the Pittsfield Economic Development Funds -- the General Electric settlement money -- to kickstart it. The city now awaits the state to put in another $2 million to close it.
 
Mazzeo said she was in the process of writing a petition to pledge the money when Mayor Linda Tyer came to council with the proposal. Mazzeo was City Council president when the BIC really started to take shape. She believes it will be a "huge success."
 
Marchetti, however, said while he is fully supportive of the project -- a project he highlighted as being one that has lingered through two city and two state administrations -- there is more that needs to be done. He said incentive packages the council agreed to for LTI SmartGlass and approving the business manager job description, both of which were approved the same night as the BIC funding, are examples of what the city needs to do for economic development. 
 
"We need to have a multi-faceted approach and the BIC is one of those pieces," Marchetti said.
 
Gaetani, however, called the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority -- which is in charge of developing the William Stanley Business Park where the BIC is proposed to locate -- a "total disaster." He said PEDA has not been aggressive enough in approaching Fortune 500 companies.
 
Known for his aggressive behavior and language during City Council meetings, Gaetani believes many aspects of the city are failures. When asked about crime, he called the Police Department a "total failure."
 
"We have a gigantic nightmare in our city and it can only be corrected by putting boots on the ground and body cameras on every police officer in the West Side area and the Morningside area," he said.
 
Gaetani also went after Hathaway in his opening statement, objecting to her serving as the moderator and calling her part of the "good ole boys network." He had already argued with Hathaway in the audience during the preceding School Committee forum. That led to a pause in that discussion and the appearance of security officers.
 
Hathaway asked about public safety, posing the question as one between the perception of crime versus the reality of crime. Marchetti said it is a matter of both. While recognizing there are crimes occurring in the city, Marchetti thinks often social media turns into a game of telephone. At the end, what really happened often isn't worthy of panic but the story has already taken on a life of its own.
 
"The public needs to be given assurance that the crime that is taking place is bad-on-bad crime," Marchetti said. "I get the fear but the way to alleviate the fear is to put more information out to the community."
 

Edward Carmel feels there needs to be more halfway houses and recovery centers for those struggling with drug addiction.
White added that the city has worked toward addressing the reality of crime. The council increased the Police Department budget by close to a million dollars last fiscal year and Berkshire Health System donated money to bring in ShotSpotter technology.
 
"The process has started. We are trying to take care of the reality of the crime that is there," White said. "The reality is being addressed."
 
Persip, too, believes social media has changed the perception of crime, one that makes it seem worse. He said there needs to be better staffing the Police Department and he wants a stronger community policing efforts.
 
"It is about relationship building," Persip said.
 
But adding to the Police Department budget isn't really an option anymore. The city is just barely under its levy ceiling, a state restriction limiting the amount of money that can come from taxpayers. In this last budget, close to 70 school positions and six city jobs were eliminated. A large driver of eating up what was remaining under the ceiling is attributed to a $3 million increase in health insurance.
 
Hathaway posed the question: is it time to reconsider the cost sharing of health insurance with the employees?
 
"Without a doubt, we are going to have to have a conversation about the percentage," Mazzeo said. "Every year it is going up and the only way we can continue to pay it is to raise taxes. Something has to give."
 
Mazzeo said the city's "hands are tied" when it comes to health insurance. She said the city has been reacting by not hiring employees but instead outsourcing work. But the real solution is going to have to come from the state and federal government, she said.
 
Marchetti said, "everything is on the table for the next fiscal year." He said the city has to weigh the impacts of changing the health insurance split to limit the amount of job loss. 
 
"We are all in this together," the current City Council president said.
 
Marchetti took a shot at the management of the city under former Mayor Daniel Bianchi, saying the city had $26 million in excess levy capacity in 2011 -- the year Marchetti left the City Council to run for mayor and lost to Bianchi by just 113 votes.
 
Hathaway said 38 percent of the current budgets goes to the school, a good portion of the $10 million spent annually in long-term debt is for school renovation projects, and the debt for the new Taconic High School will hit the books in the coming years. She asked if the schools are overfunded.
 
"I think we are seeing that our schools probably aren't funded enough," Persip responded.
 
Persip said companies won't move or stay in the city if "the school district is a mess." He said that is a major draw for potential employers. Carmel said many of the elementary schools are falling apart and have a stigma that the students aren't learning. Carmel wants renovation projects on those schools to help keep families from choosing to go elsewhere.
 
"We need to get our smaller schools fixed to get more families, bring them in, and have them stay," Carmel said.
 
Gaetani said the "problem in the schools is that the schools are not being run appropriately." He alleged that students are being passed through grade levels despite not being educated up to that level. By the time a student hits the fifth or sixth grade, he is a troublemaker, he said.
 
Gaetani also called the School Committee members "buffoons" for approving the building of the new Taconic High. He said it will "start falling apart" in just as few years, though he offered no further explanation on what would cause the decay.
 
But it is the new Taconic High that Mazzeo believes will help turn around the issue of some $2 million worth of students choicing out to other school districts. 
 
Mazzeo said the city has been losing school-age students -- not just with choice but also with the dropping populations -- and said the consolidation of elementary schools has to be on the table. She added that to get more school-age students in the city, the new Taconic will be an attraction to help right those numbers.
 
"The new Taconic is really going to reverse the trend of students choicing out, particularly in the vocational programs," she said.
 
The city and the county's entire population has been declining rapidly over the last 30 years. A 2014 report from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission sounded alarms, particularly when it comes to the 20- to 40-year-old age bracket. Recently, 1Berkshire released its Berkshire Initiative for Growth report outlining a game plan for attracting the millennial generation.
 
White said the city needs to "roll out the red carpet to anyone who is willing to move to Pittsfield." He said the city can't focus on a certain subgroup -- as in only millennials or only immigrants -- but instead be welcoming to all.
 
"The best thing we can do is be a welcoming community to anyone who wants to move to Pittsfield and be a contributing member of consistency," White said.
 
Carmel said, "you bring the businesses in, you will bring the people in." He wants the city to bring in some larger businesses. He said families leave the city often because of drugs and violence.
 
The election is on Tuesday, Nov. 7. The top four vote-getters will win the four at-large seats. 

Tags: candidate forum,   city election,   election 2017,   Pittsfield city council ,   


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Pittsfield Environmental Group Looks to Eradicate Evasive Kiwi

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The youth environmental group Greenagers hopes to secure Community Preservation Act funds to continue evasive kiwi control work at Burbank Park.
 
The Parks Commission voted Tuesday to move the Greenagers initiative to CPA project eligibility review.
 
"They want to continue the work that they have done already," Recreation Activities Coordinator Becky Manship said.
 
Manship had said at a prior meeting that there had not been enough information so it could not be grouped in with other possible projects at that time.
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