PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Linda Tyer feels her administration has begun building a strong city and is looking for it to be stronger.
The incumbent mayor is seeking re-election to the post as she wraps up her, and the city's, first four-year term. Tyer previously served as a ward councilor and city clerk prior to being elected as mayor.
"We've got a record of accomplishments to show we are intent and deliberate at building a stronger city. We've created jobs. We've invested in public safety. We are putting investments into the Tyler Street neighborhood to rebuild that part of our city. Neighborhood stabilization is an important aspect of building a strong city and that is work I want to continue doing," Tyer said. "I hope the people of Pittsfield have confidence in the work we've done and that I would earn their vote for re-election."
The mayor is particularly focusing her election bid on what she believes is a record of positive accomplishments. She said under her administration the city invested in public safety and created jobs. The economy will be a focus on her next term if elected. The big fish in economic growth is Wayfair opening a service center in Pittsfield, bringing some 300 jobs.
"It has been decades since we had a global, international, company choose Pittsfield as a place to put down some roots. That's 300 new jobs. In addition to that we've got 113 new jobs created through other city incentives and resources," Tyer said.
She said a number of economic sectors have been growing -- from the advanced manufacturing that she sees will be furthered by the Berkshire Innovation Center to security companies such as LTI and Lenco to small shops on North Street. For Tyer, the key is to help build a diverse economy and not be reliant on a single manufacturer as the city had done in the past.
"I am most interested in making sure the economy is diverse. We've got to learn from the GE lesson, which is the all of our eggs in one basket idea. I love that we have small shops on North Street, that we have art and culture, that we have advanced manufacturing," she said.
She believes her reorganization of economic development agencies in the city will help foster that. She had created the "red carpet team" with the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority and the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corp. The city and the two organizations now share in the cost of a business development manager who markets the city to both companies here looking to expand and companies outside of the area thinking about moving.
Next, she wants to launch a program called "E for All" that will give entrepreneurs access to business mentors, the ability to pitch business ideas to investors, and ways to accelerate their growth.
"That is intended to be more emphasis on this new way of building an economy," Tyer said.
She is also seeking to bolster the outdoor recreation economy, which she says is fairly untapped potential for the area. A $75,000 allocation from the state will be used for a feasibility study on becoming an internet service provider, which she hopes will ultimately give residents and businesses better internet at a lower cost.
"I'm kind of tired of waiting for cable companies and the utility companies to decide that Pittsfield is a market worth investing in. This is one of those technologies that will make us competitive," Tyer said.
And she doesn't want to lose sight of the arts and culture economy, which had become one of the major reasons why she ran for mayor. Tyer had grown up in somewhat of a "gypsy" life, as her father was in the Air Force and continually moved around.
"That experience of living and traveling has certainly informed what I think about our city and how I imagine we can be," Tyer said.
But her parents were both from the Berkshires and extended family lived here so vacations and holidays were here. Her father retired from the Air Force when she was graduating high school. The family moved back to Pittsfield and Tyer quickly went off to college at Bay Path.
After graduating, she worked in Boston as a paralegal. She was often commuting back and forth to be with family here and work there. Eventually, she rolled the dice and moved back home with her grandmother, just hoping to find a job. She found a job with another law firm here and eventually moved into her own apartment.
After seven or so years as a paralegal here, she took a job as executive assistant to the director of special education in Lenox Public Schools and was promoted a few years later to be working under the superintendent of schools. There she got to see the workings of the City Council when they took on big issues of building a new school and other policy decisions. Her interest in public service was piqued.
"I realized there is a whole other element of public service," she said.
Tyer bought a home in Pittsfield in 2001 and shortly after the Women Helping Empower Neighborhoods political action committee was formed. She knew some people and decided to get involved.
"My initial idea was that I would be part of the issues committee. I wanted to be on the team of women that were going to help the candidates understand the issues, formulate their arguments and make their case as to why their position was right for our city," Tyer said.
The election was coming and there were women looking to run for at-large seats on the council, but none for ward seats. She decided to put her name on the ballot.
"This was such an unplanned decision. It never dawned on me at any point in my life until then that I would ever run for office. I admired people ran for office. I followed politics. But it wasn't like I was in high school and had these ideas of running for office someday or being a mayor. Even in college or the years after college, this was unexpected," Tyer said.
She defeated incumbent Mark Brennan for the Ward 3 seat. She would serve the ward until 2009. Tyer agreed with former Mayor James Ruberto that the arts and culture economy was all around Pittsfield, but not inside of Pittsfield. Tyer was part of the council that approved renovating North Street and helping create various anchors of arts and culture venues to revitalize North Street.
"I was proud to vote yes for the investment in the Colonial Theatre. I was proud to vote for the Beacon Cinema. Those votes have stood the test of time," Tyer said.
In 2009, another "unexpected thing" happened. Former City Clerk Jody Phillips left for a job in the private sector and she was asked to take on that role. At first, Tyer wasn't that interested but continued to mull it over. Eventually, the idea of overseeing elections, managing the budget, and leading a staff intrigued her. She was appointed to take over that job on an interim basis and then won election to it the following term.
"I created a whole training program, I wrote a manual. I was excited about being part of the process of an election," Tyer said, adding that she also launched a be a voter campaign and made a number of modernizations to the clerk's processes.
But, Ruberto left the corner office and Daniel Bianchi had taken over. Tyer and Bianchi didn't share the same vision.
"I felt that we were stalled in some of that effort. I was afraid, honestly, that we were going to slide back, that we were losing momentum," Tyer said. "I didn't really see eye to eye with the mayor at the time."
Four years ago, Tyer stood on the steps of City Hall and declared her intentions to seek the mayor's office and later won. Her campaign primarily focused on public safety and blight.
In her first budget, she proposed a $1 million increase in the Police Department to bolster staffing. However, that process has been slow. The budget calls for 99 officers but the department isn't there.
"It's been a slower process than I would like to get to 99 but we've got the budget and we've got the plan, we just have to keep going," Tyer said.
Tyer said the challenge has been a number of retirements and difficulty getting officers trained. The city is dependent on the Civil Service Commission to hold tests and release lists for hiring, slowing the process. And then Tyer said it takes a year to get an officer trained -- if the officer stays with the program the entire time. Meanwhile, she said officers keep retiring -- an issue in the Fire Department as well linked to a hiring spree some 30 years ago.
"We have hired 41 new police officers since 2016. But we've also lost, not an equal number, but enough that we can't seem to get to the 99," Tyer said.
She's backed the community policing programs the department has launched and brought in ShotSpotter, the gunshot detection system.
"Since we brought that on board we've had a number of successes in terms of arrests and gun seizures and collecting of evidence. All of this is making a safer city," Tyer said.
She also credits changing out all of the streetlights as being part of increasing safety by making the neighborhoods brighter -- as well as saving on utility costs.
Tyer found little help from the City Council when it comes to blight. She sought increases to the budget for demolitions but the City Council cut that from the budget.
"We've made some progress there. The KFC is gone. The house on John Street is gone. We've done a significant amount of work in that area. We've got more to do but it was disappointing to me that the City Council did not share that value of addressing blighted conditions so our neighborhoods would have improved quality of life and improved value. Every time I tried to put additional funds into addressing blighted conditions, they would cut it," Tyer said.
The council also didn't support her At Home in Pittsfield program, which was eyed to help residents make exterior improvements to their homes with zero-interest loans to improve the neighborhoods. Tyer fell one vote short of putting that in place.
The City Council had also rejected her proposed toter plan to change trash collection. But Tyer doesn't see that as a loss.
"I heard loud and clear this is not right for us, we don't want this. So we withdrew the proposal. I don't consider that a failure. I consider that we tried something, we built a plan, we proposed it, we listened, and we understood that it wasn't the right thing for the city of Pittsfield," Tyer said.
She said the proposal took months to develop and focused on reducing trash, increasing recycling, lowering costs, and cleaning the city. She said the administration looked at data, other communities, and developed a way to address those concerns. But, then the "narrative got away from us." She feels the reasons and thought behind the plan got pushed to the back as residents vocalized that "people really don't want to be told what to do in their kitchen, in their garage, at the end of their driveway."
After that rejection, Tyer tried to roll out an educational program to get that narrative back but it was too late. She pulled the plan.
Tyer also had a tough time with the upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant. That had been years in the making -- and Tyer points out that some of the harshest objections came from councilors who previously approved millions to be spent on studies and engineering for it -- and only got passed after lengthy debate.
"That is infrastructure. And ultimately, for me, when it comes to the wastewater treatment plant, I could not in good conscience be a polluter of the Housatonic River and that is what the EPA was saying to us," Tyer said.
Tyer said the plant had to be upgraded because of the EPA mandate and her administration developed a plan to ease the rate increases in over time.
"The city of Pittsfield still has one of the lowest water and sewer rates in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts even when we are done with the wastewater treatment plant. You are getting a major investment in infrastructure and paying a fair price for it," Tyer said.
The mayor feels that some of the current City Council have been "especially oppositional" this year.
"I don't expect people to agree with me 100 percent of the time. I welcome questions. I welcome fierce debate. I think that the members of the City Council in this past year that have been especially oppositional were probably laying some groundwork for the candidate they were going to support in this mayor's race," Tyer said.
Despite sometimes clashing with the council, the mayor says the signs of the city becoming strong are there. The housing market continues to grow, showing more and more people want to buy here, and there was some $54 million in new growth. And what she had accomplished comes as she attempted to dig the city out of a financial crisis.
"When we took office and were confronted by a fiscal crisis, literally. We had to think quick. We had to use our network and resources to come up with some strategies to stabilize the situation," Tyer said.
The city's levy ceiling had crossed below the levy limit, constricting the amount of taxes that can be pulled from taxpayers. The tightness of the city's finances led to investments being scaled back.
"We would have put more toward education. I would have tried to put more money toward neighborhood stabilization with things like the At Home in Pittsfield program," Tyer said.
The crisis was also a driver of the toter plan, as the administration projected rising costs for trash removal and wanted to curb that. Tyer said the administration developed the five-year capital plan, build a new forecasting system to see long-term financial effects on decisions, completely revamped the budget document, and then sought ways to lower costs such as the toter plan and streetlight conversion.
"We've adverted crisis but there is more work to do," Tyer said.
Tyer is facing City Councilor Melissa Mazzeo, former Police Officer Karen Kalinowsky, and business owner Scott Graves in the preliminary election. The two top vote-getters will move on to the November general election.
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