|Connell Seeks Re-election to Pittsfield's Ward 4 Seat|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
01:21AM / Thursday, August 01, 2019
|Christopher Connell seeks re-election to the City Council.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Christopher Connell knows the phone calls and conversations in the yard will be had when the tax bill comes in.
His neighbors are retired and living on a pension but the property taxes continue to climb whereas their income hasn't. They'll tell him again that if things keep going this way they're going to have to make some serious decisions about living there.
On a recent Saturday, Connell looked out the window and giving the names and short biographies of many in Ward 4 who are in the same position. As the taxes keep climbing, more and more longtime residents are scaling back on property maintenance, losing property value year to year, and considering moving out.
"I want to preserve the people who built this city, the GE retirees and people on fixed incomes. They built this city and went through all of the really hard times. I want to see them still stay in their homes," Connell said. "They start backing off and doing other things with their homes and it is a downward spiral."
He's known many of them since the days he was in college. He was born in Bennington, Vt., and went to St. Michael's College. During his senior year, his mother married the owner of Nash Cleaners on Elm Street and moved to Pittsfield. They owned the cleaners on Elm, a different cleaner on South Street, and a small store near the intersection of Demin and Dawes and he'd deliver dry cleaning to many of the people in the city.
When he graduated, he went into the F.W. Woolworth management training program and started to progress up the management ladder. He then moved to a retail consulting business, helping owners of True Value hardware stores develop layouts, merchandise flow, and operations but it didn't last long. He went back to Woolworth's for a few years and, in 1989, became an area manager for Cumberland Farms in the Rhode Island.
"I wanted to be a district manager. If you stay with Woolworth's, you have to be there 15, 20 years. Cumberland Farms came around and said we'll make you an area manager and give you nine stores after three months of training," Connell said.
At the peak, he was in charge of 45 stores throughout Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts and doing more than $100 million in business. A chronic sports injury, however, made it so he was unable to work and in 1998 he had to leave the job. Four years prior to that, however, he began investing in real estate and turned his attention to that full time. He got a contractor's license, was rehabbing houses — doing "just about everything but stick build a house" — and was managing some 85 properties.
Then his mother was diagnosed with cancer. He knew he had to come back to Pittsfield to be with her. In 2002, he sold off all of the property he owned in the Rhode Island area and restarted his business here. In a few years, Connell was up to managing 150 rental properties in Berkshire County and now has about 40 properties. While managing those properties, he watched taxes continue creeping up while the city's infrastructure decayed.
"I didn't feel like things were getting better," Connell said.
He decided to run for City Council in 2009 but lost to the then-incumbent Mike Ward. In 2011, when Ward opted not to run, Connell was elected to the council and he's been there since and wants to stay.
"One of the main benefits that I have over anyone who wants to run against me is that I have the experience not only as a councilor but in the business world and dealing with big budgets. But also I have time during the day. That's a big thing. If you work full time during the day, this is a hard, hard job to do correctly," Connell said. "When people call you, they call you during the day. If you have to call a department head, they are there. If you work to 5, they are gone."
He said the role serves two priorities — ensuring maintenance and infrastructure things are done in the ward and making citywide decisions that ultimately impact the ward.
"Being a ward councilor is a two-fold position. You have maintenance issues in the ward but you also represent the city. The issues you bring up and represent in the city affect your ward. I don't solely do Ward 4 and say Ward 4 says no. You have to look at how it affects everyone in the city," Connell said.
Most recently, he's been noted as being a budget hawk during hearings, constantly looking to make reductions to the budget here and there — some small and some large. During this council, he was frequently outvoted on those reductions but he vows to continue to fight to keep taxes down and prioritize basic services. For example, he fought a reduction to the tree account because he feels not enough tree trimming is done but at the same time, the budget adds a position in the Purchasing Department. He doesn't feel that is the right priority.
"Any money we can save will be added to them or we use it for things they really feel are important such as infrastructure, crime, the schools. To be making new positions or restoring positions and cut it out of something like the tree account? I don't understand it," Connell said.
He's also looking for ways to bring in income. In Rhode Island, he attended tax lien sales and, before even being on the council, he read the city was owed millions in back taxes. He proposed a tax lien sale but it didn't happen. He pushed for it under Mayor Daniel Bianchi and, in 2014, the city collected some $2.2 million in back taxes. The city did the same in 2018 and he hopes to keep that regular so people don't "get comfortable not paying their taxes and waiting until the house sells" to catch up. He also doesn't want to see homes get so far behind that the city ultimately forgives the taxes just to facilitate a sale of a blighted property.
He fiercely fought the $74 million wastewater treatment center upgrade. He said the consultants had brought back a project that was too big in scope. He felt the project could have been at a lower price tag. He said that stems from his time in retail working with consultants and understanding how they operate. He hoped a smaller project would keep the bills down.
"I knew there were better ways to do it," Connell said.
While the City Council ultimately passed the borrowing, Connell is claiming a small win: the bids had come in much lower than anticipated and he thinks the attention he and other councilors brought to the issue may have influenced that. He wants to stay on the council longer to keep an eye on the expected water upgrades to again try to keep costs down.
Also related to wastewater and water, he had petitioned for a study group to look at the long-term management of the system. He said the group voted to support looking at privatization because other firms would also have other systems to operate and the manpower to provide the needed personnel.
Year after year, he saw the airport wasn't making enough in income to support itself. He petitioned to get an airport study group together to look at ways to boost those revenues so it would be self-sustainable and not pulling from the city's operating budget.
"We did it for six or seven months and a funny thing happened during that, which still amazes me, as soon as we started this, the next quarter landing fees started to go up dramatically," Connell said. "Was it because they weren't being collected before or did we have increased air traffic? I don't know but we were getting to the point of profitability."
He is frustrated that the city didn't competitively bid trash collection after he had personally found other vendors who would have been interested. He said costs could have come in less but the city didn't bid it so will never know.
"We didn't even listen to what other vendors could do for us. I called one of the vendors myself and asked them if they would be willing to submit a bid. Yes. There were two willing to submit bids to the city," Connell said.
He voted against the mayor's proposals for trash pick because he felt that a "cookie-cutter" approach to the issue wouldn't be feasible.
"I know some of it is abused. I get it. I knew some homes abuse it but you can't put a cookie-cutter approach to this trash program because each situation is different, each house is different," Connell said.
He is being challenged on the council by Michael Merriam, who jumped into the ring because he felt the ward wasn't getting the services it deserved. That statement irritated Connell.
"I am very responsive to all of the complaints - trees, potholes. I can't do anything about sidewalks because there is no money for it and that's exactly what I tell people. Obstructions with bushes, line of sight, anything that comes up," Connell said.
Connell mentioned some of the big issues he's addressed. Right away after being elected, what was then
Western Mass Electric had resurveyed Doreen Street and found a number of residents encroaching. They were forcing the residents to take down pools, gardens, sheds, and fences down. He jumped into the fray and stopped that.
Kara, Giovani, and Karen Drive were developed and residents there were paying taxes but weren't getting plowed or trash pick up. The developer was supposed to provide that until the streets were accepted. The developer stopped and the city wouldn't take the streets because of handicapped accessibility issues. Connell had to work with the Architectural Access Board in Boston, with city officials, and with the developer just trying to get the services provided that the residents there pay taxes to receive.
"It took seven years. Last year it was finally accepted," Connell said.
He claims success in getting a sewer line extension to help about a half-dozen homes connect to the city's system and get off septic on Dalton Division. He worked on the Mountain Drive water runoff issues. He had an issue with Eversource doing work on a road and ultimately got the company to pay for damages it caused — something Connell doesn't believe had been accomplished before. He boasts of a number of road projects, tree trimming, and the likes that have happened during his time in office.
"I've run a forklift. I've run a snowplow. I've done paving. I've done concrete work. I put in curbing. I've run a concrete saw. I've done all of that. There is not much they do that I don't at least have done myself or know about," Connell said.
And he'll never forget a Saturday when he received a call from a resident on Pomeroy because of a dead skunk in the roadway. Nobody else in the city was available to take care of it and it was stinking up the neighborhood. Connell got his shovel out, tossed it in a bag, and drove it — with the windows down — to a dumpster he owns to dispose of it.
If elected, his next focus will be on improving Kirvin Park, possibly adding bathrooms there and find ways to address the concerns with crime.