Pittsfield Council Passes $216M Budget, Cuts Schools

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council closed budget season just before 10 p.m. on Tuesday, approving a $216 million spending plan for fiscal year 2025. This includes a cut to the School Department.

Councilors approved a $215,955,210 spending plan that is a 5 percent increase from this year and includes a $200,000 reduction to the $82 million Pittsfield Public School budget. The budget passed 10-1 with Ward 2 Councilor Brittany Noto in opposition.

All conversation was related to the schools, as droves of staff members came to council chambers believing this was a direct slash to positions. It was agreed that misinformation sparked the uprising and was attributed to a "divide" between the school district and the council.

"The amount of misinformation that happened, I don't want to dig into how it happened but it is concerning," Ward 6 Councilor Dina Lampiasi said.

"And when I look at the emails that I received over the last several days from parents and people who are in the School Department, it's apparent to me that there is a divide here and there are a lot of people that agree with us that something isn't working."

Councilor at Large Earl Persip III emphasized that there should be a focus on communication — noting that Superintendent Joseph Curtis has communicated more than previous holders of his title.

"I think there is something missing from what you guys have said to us and from what we hear and that's where we struggle," he said.

Curtis maintained that a staff email he sent out was purely informational and did not make unsound claims, noting that "certainly this was an incredibly complex budget season." The FY25 spending plan includes the reduction of 53 positions, some related to the sunsetting of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

"There was no negativity put forward," he said. "There was a recounting of what happened and some possible next steps in the process because I feel it's incredibly important for the school community to know the process."

He read a part of the June 7 communication, noting that he had communicated Councilor at Large Kathy Amuso's wish to reduce deans.

"The Pittsfield City Council meet on Tuesday, June 11, 2024, to approve the total city budget. It is important to know that a motion could be made to reduce departments' allocation by any amount desired by the council," Curtis wrote to PPS staff.

He agreed to provide councilors with the communication and any others.

"It kind of sounds like what may have happened is a little game of telephone," Ward 7 Councilor Rhonda Serre said, adding "That type of hysteria is not good for anybody."

Councilors reiterated that the $200,000 cut was aimed at the Mercer Administration Building or non-personnel line items and that they do not have line-item control over the reductions.

"I, in no way, support or suggest that any staff member loses their job because of such a minuscule budget cut, especially, especially, the critical role of deans and support staff within the schools, absolutely critical role," Serre said.

"And I don't know how it became a focus that we had said 'dean of students got to go.' From where I stood, absolutely not. That's not what I was voting for or supporting at all. I'm really disappointed that the misinformation was allowed to rise to a level that it did."

Persip, who proposed the $200,000 reduction a couple of weeks ago, said there are teachers and administrators who agree that something needs to change.

He pointed out that the school budget has risen by $20 million since 2020.

"Why was there a teacher here almost in tears at open mic, thinking he was going to lose his job? Because what we asked for was to take cuts from the Mercer building or to look at creative ways to save 1.2 percent, whatever it was," he said.

"We were very clear when this council made that cut that we did not want to take people out of the school buildings But we have a roomful of people here that heard otherwise. Where did they hear that from?"

John Moreno, a social-emotional learning coach at Taconic High School, said the decision would either cut his position or save it.

"We are often the first responders for student dysregulation," he said. "When they're hungry, we feed them, when they're walking the halls, we ask them why instead of simply barking orders."

Mayor Peter Marchetti reported that he cut the school's original proposal by $400,000. He pointed to the challenge of delivering a close-to-level funded budget based on a request made by the council during his first week in office.

"When we sit here and we say every department has struggled and every department has taken their shots, the School Department did as well …"

"This is a communication to the members of the City Council and members of the school community that are still here: I am going to continue to try to make the city one Pittsfield and when we have our public meetings, we should do our utmost job and leave the other bodies alone because we wouldn't be here tonight if there wasn't for public comments that were made at a School Committee meeting."

Persip pointed to "unprofessional" comments made at a School Committee meeting following its departmental budget deliberation at which unsuccessful motions were made to reduce the school budget by $730,000 and $250,000.

"I struggled with [the budget,] I thought about it, and then I had to hear phone calls about I should watch the meeting, I should watch the School Committee meeting," he said.

"So I watched it and I struggled even more. So again, you're right. If the comments weren't made, I probably would have just struggled and kept my mouth shut."

The council also approved:

  • A five-year Capital Improvement Plan for the fiscal years 2025-2029.
  • An order amending Order 56 of the Series of 2023, appropriating the amount of $851,102.34 for the FY24 Community Preservation Fund Budget.
  • An order appropriating the amount of $808,547.00 from the FY24 Community Preservation Fund Budget.
  • An order appropriating the amount of $602,555.00 for the FY25 Community Preservation Fund Budget.
  • An order appropriating $2,500,000.00 from certified free cash to reduce the FY25 tax rate.
  • An order to borrow an aggregate sum not exceeding $10,192,500.00 for General Fund capital expenditures for FY25.
  • An order to borrow and aggregate sum not to exceed $7,700,000.00 for Enterprise Fund Capital Expenditures for FY25.
  • An order authorizing the use and expenditure of the city's current revolving funds pursuant to MGL, Chapter 44, Section 53E ½ for FY25.
  • An order appropriating $249,600.00 for parking-related expenditures pursuant to MGL, Chapter 40, Sections 21A-22C for FY25 beginning July 1, 2024.

Tags: fiscal 2025,   pittsfield_budget,   

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Guest Column: Full Steam Ahead: Bringing Back the Northern Tier Passenger Railroad

by Thomas HuckansGuest Column

You only need a glance outside to see a problem all too familiar to Berkshire county: closing businesses, a shrinking population, and a stunning lack of regional investment.

But 70 years ago, this wasn't an issue. On the North Adams-Boston passenger rail line before the '60s, Berkshires residents could easily go to Boston and back in a day, and the region benefited from economic influx. But as cars supplanted trains, the Northern Tier was terminated, and now only freight trains regularly use the line.

We now have a wonderful opportunity to bring back passenger rail: Bill S.2054, sponsored by state Sen. Jo Comerford (D-Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester), was passed to study the potential for restoring rail from Boston to North Adams. In the final phase of MassDOT's study, the project is acquiring increased support and momentum. The rail's value cannot be understated: it would serve the Berkshire region, the state, and the environment by reducing traffic congestion, fostering economic growth, and cutting carbon emissions. The best part? All of us can take action to push the project forward.

Importantly, the Northern Tier would combat the inequity in infrastructure investment between eastern and western Massachusetts. For decades, the state has poured money into Boston-area projects. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Big Dig, a car infrastructure investment subject to endless delays, problems, and scandals, sucking up $24.3 billion. Considering the economic stagnation in Western Massachusetts, the disparity couldn't come at a worse time: Berkshire County was the only county in Massachusetts to report an overall population loss in the latest census.

The Northern Tier could rectify that imbalance. During the construction phase alone, 4,000 jobs and $2.3 billion of economic output would be created. After that, the existence of passenger rail would encourage Bostonians to live farther outside the city. Overall, this could lead to a population increase and greater investment in communities nearby stops. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, adding rail travel options could help reduce traffic congestion and noise pollution along Route 2 and the MassPike.

The most viable plan would take under three hours from North Adams to Shelburne Falls, Greenfield, Athol, Gardner, Fitchburg, Porter, and North Station, and would cost just under $1.6 billion.

A common critique of the Northern Tier Rail Restoration is its price tag. However, the project would take advantage of the expansion of federal and state funds, namely through $80 billion the Department of Transportation has to allocate to transportation projects. Moreover, compared to similar rail projects (like the $4 billion planned southern Massachusetts East-West line), the Northern Tier would be remarkably cheap.

One advantage? There's no need to lay new tracks. Aside from certain track upgrades, the major construction for the Northern Tier would be stations and crossings, thus its remarkably short construction phase of two to four years. In comparison, the Hartford line, running from Hartford, Conn., to Springfield spans barely 30 miles, yet cost $750 million.

In contrast, the Northern Tier would stretch over 140 miles for just over double the price.

So what can we do? A key obstacle to the Northern Tier passing through MassDOT is its estimated ridership and projected economic and environmental benefits. All of these metrics are undercounted in the most recent study.

Crucially, many drivers don't use the route that MassDOT assumes in its models as the alternative to the rail line, Route 2. due to its congestion and windy roads. In fact, even as far west as Greenfield, navigation services will recommend drivers take I-90, increasing the vehicle miles traveled and the ensuing carbon footprint.

Seeking to capture the discrepancy, a student-led Northern Tier research team from Williams College has developed and distributed a driving survey, which has already shown more than half of Williams students take the interstate to Boston. Taking the survey is an excellent way to contribute, as all data (which is anonymous) will be sent to MassDOT to factor into their benefit-cost analysis. This link takes you to the 60-second survey.

Another way to help is to spread the word. Talk to local family, friends, and community members, raising awareness of the project's benefits for our region. Attend MassDOT online meetings, and send state legislators and local officials a short letter or email letting them know you support the Northern Tier Passenger Rail Project. If you feel especially motivated, the Williams Northern Tier Research team, in collaboration with the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA), would welcome support.

Living far from the powerbrokers in Boston, it's easy to feel powerless to make positive change for our greater community. But with your support, the Northern Tier Rail can become reality, bringing investment back to Berkshire County, making the world greener, and improving the lives of generations of western Massachusetts residents to come.

Thomas Huckans, class of 2026, is a political science and astronomy major at Williams College, originally from Bloomsburg, Pa.

Survey: This survey records driving patterns from Berkshire county to Boston, specifically route and time. It also captures interest in the restoration of the Northern Tier Passenger Rail. Filling out this survey is a massive help for the cause, and all responses are greatly appreciated. Use this link.

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