|Pittsfield Councilors Seek New Funding Source For 'At Home' Program|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:58AM / Wednesday, May 15, 2019
|Councilors Anthony Simonelli, Melissa Mazzeo, and Kevin Morandi were three of the four councilors who filed the petition calling for a working group. The fourth, not pictured, was Christopher Connell. |
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The four city councilors who killed the mayor's home improvement program are seeking a resurrection.
Councilors Christopher Connell, Melissa Mazzeo, Kevin Morandi, and Anthony Simonelli filed a joint petition calling on the mayor to organize a working group to find a different funding source. They had voted against the program that eyed to use $250,000 of the General Electric Economic Development Fund to help residents make exterior repairs to their homes.
"If this is so important, and we feel it is and the administration feels it is, then we will make it happen," Morandi said. "If this is so valuable, we can find money to make it happen."
Their fellow councilors agreed, sending the petition on to Mayor Linda Tyer with a 9-1 vote, and with only Councilor Peter White voting no and President Peter Marchetti abstaining from the debate.
Homeowners who earn less than 120 percent of the area's median income would be eligible to tap into zero-interest loans from the city to do exterior repairs such as siding, foundation work, or decks. The loans would be repaid when the home is sold. The eligibility requirements included that they be a two- or single-family homes and be owner occupied.
The goal was to help long-term residents and included a requirement that the homeowner lives in the home for five years or else pay back the loan at 3 percent.
Additionally, the program was specifically geared toward giving greater emphasis on the poorest areas of the city -- the West Side and Morningside neighborhoods. Homes in those two areas would be eligible for up to 20 percent of the increased appraised value whereas the rest of the city would only be eligible for 10 percent. The total loan maximum was $25,000 in all areas while 60 percent of the entire pool of money was targeted to those two neighborhoods.
The overall goal is to improve the aging housing stock in the area, a need that nobody on the council has denied but yet remain divided over the details.
The four councilors had consistently opposed the mayor's proposals throughout the duration of her administration and have been highly critical of this plan. However, the common sticking point in this debate was the funding source.
The mayor favored the GE Economic Development Fund as the most equitable source since it wouldn't be taxpayer money benefiting only a segment of the population. She argued that it would be an economic development component by addressing challenges employers have with finding quality housing for workers, something recently cited by 1Berkshire as being a "cross cutting issue" hindering economic growth in the area.
But the City Council's rules provide guidelines on the disbursement from the fund that General Electric left the city as part of the consent decree when it departed years ago. The four councilors cited the program as not matching those guidelines, such as creating one job per $35,000 disbursed. The councilors feel that fund should be reserved for more direct economic development benefits. So they are asking the mayor to put together a working group to identify other options.
The mayor and some of the proponents on the City Council cited one of three exceptions to that $35,000 figure that reads "an overriding public benefit resulting from the project" and argued under that provision the home renovation project does qualify.
Nonetheless, the four councilors were steadfast in their belief that the funding should come from somewhere else but the mayor said the administration had looked at various options and the auditor advised against them.
"I just don't think sending this to the mayor and putting the working group together is going to find more money or funding sources that wasn't there when our Community Development Department and administration put this together," Councilor Peter White said.
White suggested the councilors take it upon themselves to propose a different type of funding. The four councilors do not make a quorum and therefore can discuss ideas among themselves and bring it to the administration as an option.
Similarly, Councilor Earl Persip said the City Council should have served as that group by working toward a solution.
"The council is the study group. We had opportunities. It got brought to us, we gave suggestions back to the administration, they changed some things," Persip said.
The City Council had three shots at it already -- it first sent the proposal to the Community and Economic Development Committee, debated it at the full council before sending it back to the mayor for re-tooling, and then debated it again before it failed to get the supermajority needed for passage.
The mayor compromised on some aspects of the petition the councilors had troubles with but not with the major issue of the funding.
Connell suggested the marijuana tax, the federal Community Development Block Grant, or finding ways to fund other aspects of government, such as building sidewalks, and using money in the budget for this program. Mazzeo suggested holding off on allocations to stabilization and using that money. Morandi suggest private donations be sought.
"We can come up with other options other than using this fund," Connell said.
Mazzeo said a working group could not only find a different funding source but also that the program could possibly be even further tweaked and expanded, saying that $250,000 is not enough to make a real impact.
"Let's figure out how to fund this type of initiative, as much as we can," she said. "Two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars is really not going to do anything."
In this election year, the move can certainly be seen as a way to shift blame of the program ultimately stalling to the administration. Opponents phrased statements questioning the mayor's commitment to her proposal, essentially putting Tyer in the position of being at fault should she not create a working group. White noted that the conversation seemed to cast the administration as not doing enough and he disagreed.
Simonelli, however, isn't running for re-election and said there is no other way forward at this point. The mayor had said during the previous debate that she didn't intend to bring the program back to the council for a third time.
"The At Home program is dead. Now this is a way. And as some of my colleagues have said, nobody that night was against the program, we were against the source of funding. That is where the sticking point came," Simonelli said.
"The program is dead so if you want to vote down sending this to the mayor, it is a done deal. The program will not be resurrected. This is a way to see if we can bring it back."