|Corner Office Convos: Mayor Linda Tyer|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:59AM / Tuesday, September 05, 2017
Mayor Linda Tyer, seen earlier this year, expects to roll out several initiatives this fall.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It has been quiet in city politics this summer. The City Council held just two meetings in the last two months. There haven't been any major ribbon cuttings or announcements.
But that doesn't mean nothing has been happening. Mayor Linda Tyer says her administration has been working behind the scenes over the last months on a number of initiatives she expects to roll out in the coming months.
"September and October are going to be very exciting months for the city of Pittsfield. We've got a lot of things we've been working on over the summer months that will come forward now to the City Council, things like formalizing the agreement between the city, PEDA, and PERC, completing the job description for the business development manager and getting that through the final process so we can post the job and start looking for somebody to fill that position," Tyer said.
The big news this past spring for the city was a new partnership with the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority and the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corp. to share a business development manager. That is coupled with what the mayor dubbed "the red carpet team," in which an array of city and private officials come together to meet with businesses and provide a unified menu of assistance to help them grow or move to Pittsfield. The city also brought back Deanna Ruffer to head the Department of Community Development, a moved eyed to bring a greater focus on economic development to that office.
This summer, the administration has been working with the two partner organizations to craft a job description for the new business development manager, who will serve as the point person to meet with businesses, find out their needs and desires, and put together packages to help. That shared position between the three agencies also requires the crafting of an intergovernmental agreement, which has been in the process this summer as well.
"I've said at length that it is important for our small businesses that are here now to know they have access to these resources," Tyer said.
One of those local businesses already here and looking to expand is Laminated Technologies Inc. Owner Christopher Kapiloff was one of the first to experience the city's red carpet team approach. His company has locked into a massive contract that will require a $3 million expansion. He has been offered space to build in other parts of the country, where he'd be paying less in labor and electricity, but he has ties to Pittsfield. He met with the team asking for help in making the numbers work.
Tyer said on Friday that she's formalized a proposal to help keep the company here and will be putting forth a request to the City Council to use some of the General Electric Economic Development funds for it. The hope is that the company's expansion can take place in the city, providing more jobs and economic activity.
"We've worked closely with them in putting together a proposal that I think is supportive of them and fair to us for what we want to use economic development funds for," Tyer said. "We're really looking forward to that conversation with the City Council."
And Tyer has somewhat eyed her next focus when it comes to economic development: the outdoor recreation economy.
Years ago, the city identified that it was missing out on the economic activity brought on by the strong cultural institutions in the North and South County and put forth an effort to strengthen that economy in the city. Tyer says outdoor recreation is essentially the same concept — the city is not getting enough out of a piece of the economy that is already here.
"How do we create an outdoor recreation economy that compliments the art and culture economy that is here now? I really believe strongly that this is an asset of our, this beautiful natural environment we have here that we could be capitalizing on in a way that showcases our city, showcases our region, brings in an economy that is certainly vibrant," Tyer said.
Outdoor recreation is something enjoyed by people of all ages and Tyer wants to tap into that economic activity.
"To me, it is an obvious next economy, sort of the way 12 or 15 years ago to the obvious economy Pittsfield hadn't tapped into is the art and culture economy and we managed to build great momentum behind that," Tyer said.
The mayor is also starting to plan out a new initiative when it comes to fighting blight. The city currently has a code enforcement program and performs a number of demolitions each year, but that's not enough to raise property values significantly. Tyer is now kicking around the concept of a new program to help residents make improvements to their homes.
"Is there a way for the city to put together what I am referring to a home improvement initiative? We would obviously seek partnerships with state agencies, local business leaders, and financial institutions. But how can we use our own resources to provide a program that would allow people to have access to greater funds for home improvement projects, specifically exterior," Tyer said.
That concept is in its infancy but Tyer said a focus would be on helping people repair porches, windows, paint, or repair roof — construction work that spruces up the appearance of the neighborhoods, helps residents with those needed projects, and increase property values. She is also still determining whether such a project will be limited to a targeted area or citywide.
"One of our big challenges fiscally has been our stagnant property values. Demolitions along are not going to get us out of that," Tyer said.
The city has pretty much hit its levy ceiling, a limit on the percentage of property values any municipality can tax. The limit does not come with the possibility of an override vote, and the city is just barely under that cap. Tyer said part of the reason why the ceiling hasn't gone up much is because property values have remained mostly flat.
"This is a fiscal challenge we are going to be confronted by for a period of time, our forecasting shows that. We've just got to always be thoughtful about how we can continue to provide service to our community with these limited resources," Tyer said.
"Some of it has to do with modernizing some of our old systems."
Tyer said some of the ways to continue keep service levels up is to find more efficient ways to provide it. She said in the next four months or so the City Council will be getting a proposal to move to an automated trash collection system. She said that program "put a check mark in a number of boxes" from increasing recycling to keeping the city cleaner to saving money.
"We're going to need to do a lot of education and public relations around this. But this is one of those important strategies around how do we modernize our systems so we are using our limited resources most effectively?" Tyer said.
When Tyer took office it was estimated that she had about three years before the city hit this point. But as she was planning her second budget in the beginning of this year, the health insurance premium went up dramatically — leaving the city will little room.
"We knew it was looming but I didn't expect it to collide as quickly as it did and confront me in my second budget. We saw that it was coming and we did some planning to prepare ourselves for it through the Community Compact and the long-range forecasting, improving the budget document," Tyer said.
Approaching that ceiling led to a number of layoffs — particularly in the School Department — but also hastened Tyer's efforts to find more efficient and creative ways to provide the services.
"It most definitely sharpens our focus. What are our top priorities? We don't have the flexibility of doing things that no longer work, or doing things that don't have the largest return on our investment. We have to focus our resources on what is the most productive work that we can do for the people of Pittsfield?" Tyer said. "Every day the department heads and managers are looking for ways to be better at the work they are doing."
One of those changes coming before the City Council, and what has been taking up some of the administration's time this summer, is a restructuring of the information technologies department.
"We wanted to really set it apart from finance, give it its own footing, give it a director's position that participates in our senior management level meetings and planning sessions. We are moving through that process now. We created the job description and that will be coming back to the City Council for Sept. 12," Tyer said.
She has also been planning on entering Bloomberg's Mayor's Challenge, which is a nationwide competition — with financial rewards for winners — to craft new and innovative ways to run city government.
She withheld much of her idea but says she'll be working with stakeholders to finalize the plans before the Oct. 20 submission deadline. Tyer hopes the city will win it all and bring home $5 million but said the process of working with department heads and community stakeholders has already proven to be helpful management wise.
"There has been some really great work around assessing community strengths, what are our most pressing issues. It has been a good brainstorming, think outside of our everyday routine, what do we envision for our future exercise," the mayor said.
Tyer has a luxury that other mayors had not had at this point in their terms: She can start thinking about the next two years. Tyer is in her 20th month of being the city's first four-year mayor. At this point in time, most of her predecessors were gearing up for re-election campaigns.
But the City Council is up for election, so that brings a level of unknown to the process. While the councilors may be campaigning, she expects them to remain working throughout the fall on those next initiatives.
"We have an 11-member body that is seated now and we have work to do. We are going to keep putting work in front of them. They have an obligation to continue doing the work while being in the midst of an election. I believe the 11 members that are there believe in that commitment and will continue to work on the things we put before them," Tyer said.
"I think the candidates that are running are engaged, paying attention, and learning as much as they can, and reaching out to their constituents. I'm observing what people are saying about what they believe in and they value and they imagine for our city."
Despite having an opportunity to campaign for candidates that will support her initiatives, Tyer says she is taking a seat in the press box for this election. She said she will be keeping a neutral stance and listening to the candidates but won't advocate for any particular candidate.
Well, except one.
"The candidate I will stand behind 100 percent is Peter Marchetti. He has been a colleague, friend, adviser. I consider him a partner in leadership and he absolutely, 100 percent, has my support. Without a doubt people will hear me talk about Councilor Marchetti," Tyer said.
"But other than that, I'm just going to be like all the other citizens of our city, observing what everybody has to say."
While blight and economic development plans are still unfolding, Tyer had taken aim at her top priority in her first year in office: crime. Recently, the mayor reviewed statistics that showed the crime rate has decreased by some 18 percent between 2015 and 2017.
She said those numbers aren't just a result of a $1 million investment in the Police Department or the $600,000 to implement a gunshot detection technology, but a culmination of decreasing unemployment rates and effective mentoring programs.
"There are a number of things happening all at the same time that I believe are attributing to this improved situation. It is the number of community activists that are engaged in community mentoring programs, and it not just one there are several. It is certainly related to the unemployment rate in our city and better interventions in opioid addiction. We hired 15 new police officers in the last year and a half, we brought ShotSpotter online - those are strategies law enforcement can use to strengthen their presence in our community. There are a lot of things that I believe are at play here," Tyer said.
"It is a positive outcome but I am not in anyway naive enough to think we will get to a situation where we have no crime in our community. But, when there is good news we need to celebrate that and acknowledge all of those involved."
As the leaves fall and a cooler air takes over the city, Tyer hopes to see some of these new initiatives start to heat up.