James Gleason said he is running because he doesn't like the way the city is going.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi says with the city approaching the tax levy limit, experience matters.
"Now more than ever we need experienced leadership, one who know budgets," Morandi said, emphasizing that he's gone through six budget cycles and six tax classification hearing.
Dina Guiel says she has worked with budgets, transportation, and youth development. But she believes there needs to be more than experience.
"It is about bringing more people into the conversation and if the voters elect me, that is exactly what I am going to do," she said and then added a shot at Morandi. "When you are speaking to the same five people, that is not representation of the ward."
The three-term sitting councilor Morandi and Guiel are both seeking the Ward 2 City Council seat and had the sharpest exchange of words Monday night during a ward council candidate debate at Berkshire Community College. Put on by the Pittsfield Gazette and the League of Woman Voters, the contested ward candidates across the city handled an array of questions -- ranging from the broad to the ward-specific -- from moderator Larry Kratka.
Morandi wasn't the only councilor to voice the importance of experience among the council.
"The city of Pittsfield needs experienced professionals to get us through this situation. We can't be training new people," Ward 4 incumbent Christopher Connell said.
Connell laid out his agenda for the next two years -- implementing provisions in the state' Modernization Act to tackle issues like speeding in residential neighborhoods, expanding the wastewater system and pushing for another tax lien sale to generate revenue for the city. He voiced his independence, saying he does not work for the mayor but instead for the residents in the ward and emphasized his experience in the private sector running retail stores, a construction company, and in real estate.
William Wright is challenging Connell and will put his experience in the private sector up against Connell. He said he too managed retail up and down the East coast before returning to Pittsfield to work as an operations manager at Blue Q. He said he's managed millions in sales and hundreds of employees.
But, his work experience isn't what defines him. He said three things define him: he's a father, a husband, and a Veteran. He said as a father, he's learned to negotiate. As a husband, to compromise. And as a veteran, to put everyone else's needs before his own.
Meanwhile, in Ward 7, challenge Rhonda Serre accused the incumbent Anthony Simonelli of not being "proactive" enough. Simonelli promised the voters that he'd always respond to every call or email. But Serre said that's not enough.
"It is not just about answering the phone," Serre said, saying a ward councilor needs to get ahead of issues before a resident complains. "It needs to be somebody who is willing to bring the community together around the needs of our community."
Serre bluntly said she doesn't think Simonelli has done a bad job, she just thinks she can do it better. She said he background is in government policy and has worked in the private sector negotiating terms of incentive agreements.
Simonelli said that, unlike Serre who has a full-time job, he can devote himself full-time to the job. He retired from the Pittsfield School Department six years ago, after 38 years, and can focus his efforts on representing and helping the ward constitutes. And he. too. asked for voters to choose a candidate with experience.
"I think now more than ever experience will be needed with this budget session," Simonelli said.
Simonelli, like Connell, emphasized his independent streak. Specifically, he's voted against the city and the school budgets the last two years.
"I would never go along just to get along. I've made some unpopular votes; I've made popular votes," he said.
A similar sentiment was echoed by Ward 3 challenger James Gleason. He said he is running because he is upset with the way things are presently going, he doesn't like many of the initiatives Mayor Linda Tyer has undertaken, and he wants to be a "firm voice" on the council for a change in direction.
"There is a time to be nice and there is a time to be not nice. I'm not one to believe you have to be nice to everybody in every situation," Gleason said.
He is challenging incumbent Nicholas Caccamo, who is seeking his third term. He promised to continue to be a hardworking councilor, answering calls, seeking information from department heads, and making site visits to find the issues.
"Financial oversight is our most important role," Caccamo said, saying he's focused a lot of effort on making sure the tax dollars are spent wisely.
Most recently, Caccamo has put forth a petition to lower the speed limits in thickly settled areas to 25.
"Sidewalks and excessive speeds in the residential neighborhood are the two biggest concerns I've heard," he said.
He added that nearly all of his ward is in a floodplain and he said he's been advocating the federal representatives to have the Federal Emergency Management Agency update the maps, bringing more accuracy and lowering insurance rates many are paying on their homes.
Gleason understands the sidewalk issues well. He is in a wheelchair and he says the sidewalks are "sketchy" and at night he never knows where ledges or holes are located. But he also thinks a bigger issue is the ability for residents to pay the taxes. The city may be limited soon on the amount it can raise taxes, but that doesn't mean fees won't increase. And that's what Gleason wants to avoid.
"Your fees, your permits, they are all going to go up. The amount your house is valued at is going to go up. It will be difficult to sell your house," Gleason said.
Morandi said 60 percent of his ward is over the age of 55. He has found the aging population in Ward 2 is growing more and more concerned with the taxes.
"I've stood alone on issues because I want Ward 2 in the City of Pittsfield to be affordable to live in," Morandi said.
Morandi and Guiel both voiced concern with infrastructure - roads and sidewalks - but Guiel said youth engagement rises to the top of concerns as well.
"I live in 2A, we have a mixed bunch over there and we could use more opportunity for our youth," Guiel said.
Recently, the City Council was asked to re-ignite a conversation about a youth center on the West Side. Though that isn't Ward 2, Guiel said that is the exactly the type of thing the city needs more emphasis on.
"We absolutely need a youth center. We need a place for kids to be when the home isn't the best option at that time," she said. "If kids have a positive outlet, it doesn't matter what is happening at home. They can overcome it."
The proposal before the City Council would put the center in Ward 6, where incumbent John Krol is running unopposed. But all of the ward candidates voiced support for it.
"There are so many families with single parents, who have to work one or two jobs after school," Wright said, adding that arts and tutoring can be brought into the center.
Gleason's father was a longtime volunteer at the Catholic Youth Center and he said he has seen the impact a youth center makes on an at-risk youth. He fully supports the center. But, he raised concern with the cost.
Connell too is worried about the cost saying, "funding could be a challenge but maybe get local businesses to donate or volunteer services to get it up and running." He'd like to couple that with expanded school programs such as intramural sports, and afterschool clubs.
Caccamo cited the federal 21st Learning Centers Grant program as a resource to tap into for those afterschool programs. He said he wants the city to craft afterschool programs to apply for that grant for funding. As for the West Side, Caccamo said he'd like to see to see more details and understand how the building would be maintained in the future.
Morandi added that he'd like to see the Youth Commission returned. That had been reformed under then Mayor Daniel Bianchi a few years back but has since languished.
"That was disbanded. That is something I've been working really hard on to bring this back. We need to engage the youth," Morandi said.
Simonelli was a longtime coach and volunteer so he understands the value of a youth center. While there are other options such as the YMCA or the Boys and Girls' Club, but not all families can get there because of transportation issues.
"The more we can do for our children, the more we can keep these kids actives and engaged with something with mentorship, the better," Simonelli said. "Youth need an activity, they need involvement, they need structure, and mentorships."
Serre called the center "critical" to the community. She said it builds neighborhoods and community. She added that she'd like to see the parks improved, saying many are dangerous, aren't well lit, and on "an abandoned" street.
"There are parks in this city that are disgusting," Serre said.
Serre believes another critical piece of investment for the city is the Berkshire Innovation Center. The city had just recently put forth $1 million under the belief that the state will contribute $2 million to fill a funding gap for getting the research and development facility built.
Ward 2 incumbent Kevin Morandi had some sharp exchanges with his challenger Dina Guiel.
Serre emphasized that will be a resource for small businesses to tap into to help them grow and open up new markets. In Ward 7, Serre said there are all levels of business and some competing on the international level that needs support.
"This will be a huge benefit for the small businesses," she said.
Simonelli is on the same page. He called the BIC "an important part of the economic piece in the city of Pittsfield."
"GE is not coming back. Amazon is not coming to Pittsfield. We have to do everything we can to work with our small businesses in the city of Pittsfield," Simonelli said.
Caccamo said not only will it help small businesses but can also trigger investment to build out the rest of the William Stanley Business Park. He also cited the educational benefits through internships and job training that could come from it.
Gleason was a little more reserved on it. He said it is a great idea but worries about the future cost. He wants to make sure there is a funding stream in place beyond just building the center.
"As long as we can keep up with the technology that keeps evolving, I think this is a good idea that we do this," Gleason said.
Connell also emphasized the training piece, saying this completes a program. He said with a new Taconic High School, increased advanced manufacturing classes at Berkshire Community College, and now the BIC will create the training pipeline for jobs.
Wright said, in the long-term, the investment in the BIC will "100 percent come back to Pittsfield." He said local businesses are always looking for qualified employees and this will help provide that.
"We have to make sure that shovel does get into the ground," Wright said.
Both Morandi and Guiel voiced support for the BIC as well.
"The BIC is going to bring innovation back to Pittsfield," Guiel said. "This is a huge step for the city and the region."
On the other side of the business park, in Ward 2, another development has been pending -- Walmart. The city has been waiting for Waterstone Retail to submit a proposal to build what is being called Woodlawn Crossing, a new Walmart Supercenter development on the largest parcel in the park.
"If Walmart doesn't come here, what is going to happen to that site?" Morandi questioned. "We really have to look at what is going to happen if something doesn't happen there."
Guiel took a slightly different tone. She said the Transformative Development Initiative has a vision for Morningside as being a walkable community. She said she will support Walmart as long as the design complies with that vision.
"My view on the idea, and this goes to any potential retail, is that the William Stanley Business Park is an urban center and we need to treat it as such," Guiel said.
In Ward 3, the former Hibbard School remains an unanswered question. Gleason said he'd like to "either tear it down or see if you can see the property as is." But he doesn't see a buyer coming forward for it because of its condition.
Caccamo said the city is currently wasting money on utilities there. He too wants to see it disposed of.
"At the end of the day, the city has to get rid of it. It is a useless piece of infrastructure," Caccamo said.
In Ward 7, the Itam Club is hitting the market. Simonelli said he has convened a meeting between the neighbors and the current owners. The property leaves many question marks because while it is in the middle of a residential area, it is zoned for commercial.
"There is really not an answer at this point to this question. The city is aware and the city is involved but there is no answer," Simonelli said.
Serre said the neighbors "are rightfully very concerned about what is going to happen to that property," and is hoping the prospective buyer is a good neighbor -- and one that fixes a silt runoff issue from the property to the lake.
In Ward 4, safety on Holmes Road remains an issue. Wright said his daughter is a Miss Halls student and has to cross that road after school all the time. He wants a flashing light at the crosswalk and has been petitioning Google to change the maps as to not direct out-of-town commercial vehicles down the road.
"That will be removed from the Google maps and let them know that since they are a commercial vehicle, they will have to continue down South Street," Wright said.
Connell said he's been working on the issue for a long time but keeps hitting roadblocks. He said more crosswalks can't be installed without sidewalks. The speeding issues can't be solved because the 30 mph sign is only advisory, and not enforceable. And he constantly calls trucking companies asking them to change routes.
Speeding isn't just an issue on Holmes Road in Ward 4. Connell said he pushed for a traffic division in the Police Department to increase enforcement. But Ward 4 also has a relatively new issue: crime. The southeast side had traditionally been one of the safest, Connell said, but in the last five years, that has changed.
"The problems of ward 4 are the problems of the entire city, even crime now because I couldn't say that four or five years ago," Connell said.
Wright heard the same complaints about speeding. But he said what has happened in the area is never followed through. He cited a speed bump on Pollock Street that was put in years ago as a pilot but never followed up on.
"If things are being done, they are not being followed up on," Wright said.
He also said there need to be crosswalks at places like Fred Garner Park and Canoe Meadows.
Speeding and crime is an issue in Ward 7 too.
"There is a significant portion of Ward 7 that is not safe or does not feel safe and that is wrong," Serre said.
Simonelli said the crime and drug issues have become the top concern among Ward 7 residents. But, he also added increasing taxes is a major concern too.
"Every time taxes go up, it is an issue," he said.
As for the roads, Simonelli remembers when a pavement management report was done and it showed his ward had the worst roads in the city. He then took action to make sure the roads were fixed.
"As soon as I heard that, all bets were off," he said, adding that this last year there was more road work done in Ward 7 than any other. "I was lobbying for that work and I will continue to lobby."
In Ward 1 and 5, competitors for Donna Todd Rivers and Helen Moon have dropped out of the race. But, the two did take a minute before the debate to share a few thoughts on their wards.
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Education Task Force Continues Study on Countywide School District
By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent
Project manager Jake Eberwein, center, presents his management plan to the task force.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire County Education Task Force is trying to anticipate potential problems on the pathway to a unified county school district.
The task force meeting at Berkshire Regional Planning's office Saturday morning certainly didn't solve any problems but did try to outline where those challenges may arise.
As with all other education initiatives the first hurdle they have is money. More specifically the lack of it.
"The full proposal we pitched (to the state Department of Education) was $420,000 for each of the first three years and then another $250,000 for each of the next two," said outgoing Lee Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein.
Sutton led an itinerant childhood under the thumb of his alcoholic, abusive biological father. After shuttling between Massachusetts and the state of Florida, he was barely able to make it to the 11th grade before quitting in the first week. click for more