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Pittsfield FinCom Supports Pot Tax For Roads, Disagree on Details
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
01:04AM / Friday, February 08, 2019
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The Finance Committee agree with the intent but disagreed on the details.


Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell pushed the idea as a way to reduce the amount of money the city borrows every year to pave roadways.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It may not be the marijuana tax. It may not be 50 percent. It may not even be a stabilization account.

But the City Council's Finance Committee agrees on developing a funding mechanism for road maintenance in the future.

The conversation came from a petition put forth by Councilors Christopher Connell and Melissa Mazzeo. The two pitched the idea of taking 50 percent of the local tax the city receives from marijuana sales and stashing it aside in a stabilization account specifically for road work. 
 
"I am not talking about filling potholes. This is for road construction," Connell said.
 
He said the city has borrowed $11 million for road repairs in the last four years. In the last three years, the city borrowed $2.5 million per year and in 2016, borrowed $3.5 million. 
 
But many of the roads won't outlast the payback.
 
At first, Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood said the road work was being borrowed over the course of 20 years. But on Thursday, he said, after further review, it appears that the road work specifically had been borrowed for 15 years. Nonetheless, Connell said with some of the roads they'll have to be reworked before the borrowing is paid off. 
 
"Before the 2016 roads are paid off, we are going to have to do them again," he said.
 
Connell's petition was backing a simple idea: borrow less each year for road repairs. The total revenue from the marijuana tax is unknown, with a wide range of optimism and pessimism on the totals, but Connell said half of whatever comes in is still money the city wouldn't be borrowing.
 
The conversation on Thursday got somewhat convoluted as it meandered between debt service, the cost of construction, what classifies as road work, and the ins and outs of how such an account would be structured. 
 
The city had already decided to dedicate half of the revenue from the marijuana tax to the general stabilization account. The other half is currently eyed to go to the city's general fund and used as revenue. 
 
In the views of Kerwood and some others, that revenue is better kept in a more flexible manner than a rigid stabilization account. Kerwood said there are a lot of priorities in the city that need to be paid for and in any given year that could change. He'd rather see the marijuana revenue go toward the general budget, lessening the reliance on the tax levy.
 
"The more we can rely on other revenue sources like local receipts and state aid, the less we have to pull from the local tax levy," Kerwood said.
 
Money could be dedicated to the budget for road work or money could be allocated to public safety or other post-employment benefits. 
 
"There are a lot of competing priorities we have," Kerwood said.
 
Councilor at Large Earl Persip agreed and cited sidewalks as a priority that hasn't been fully addressed and could be with these funds.
 
Another issue being foreseen is structuring it as a stabilization fund. Stabilization funds require a supermajority to withdraw money from.
 
Kerwood said he could envision a scenario when there is a large project to be done in one ward of the community and those funds would be a good resource. But, then there are six other ward councilors who will want their share, making it difficult to extract those funds.
 
"It requires a two-thirds vote to take the money out and that is, at times, difficult to get," Kerwood said.
 
Kerwood also added that all appropriations to the account must come by order of the administration so even if the council wants the money to go there, if the mayor doesn't support it, then it will be an account with no money in it. 
 
But yet, he said the concept isn't a bad one. He spoke on behalf of Mayor Linda Tyer saying it is a conversation the administration would engage in. 
 
"While we are willing to have a conversation, I don't think we are at a place where 50 percent is a good number at this time," Kerwood said.
 
The Finance Committee unanimously agreed with the intent of the proposal. The committee plans to develop the concept further and is hoping the mayor's office will do the same. The hope is that collaboratively a better plan to fund road construction will develop.
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