BY DAN VALENTI
It is not so much a triumph for The Planet as a victory of the bedraggled taxpayers over the robber-baron politicians who would commit evil in their name.
The Planet did show what a enterprise journalism can accomplish. In this case, our fearless, muck-racking efforts saved Pittsfield taxpayers at least $4 million and likely much more involving what looked more like a scam and a sham than a wheel and a deal for property at 1644 East St., eyed as a new home for the DPW Garage.
Phonier by the Minute
When the city council on Tuesday night (Jan. 25, 2011) wisely put to rest a heinous real estate deal that grew phonier by the minute, they saved citizens the $875,000 purchase price, the $3.3. million estimated for renovation (and probably a low-ball figure at that), plus a likely untold millions more and years of potential litigation stemming from PCB pollution.
As readers of this site know, The Planet got on this, dug out the documents, talked to sources, made what we learned available, and let the sunshine in and the chips fall where they may. Our work would have been in vain unless Mike Ward, Chris Yon, Joe Nichols, Melissa Mazzeo, Gerry Lee, Peter Marchetti, Kevin Sherman, and Paul Capitanio didn’t vote reasonableness into the public record on Tuesday night.
For all sorts of reasons, the city’s attempted purchase of 11 acres of land and a building at 1644 East St. doesn’t, doesn’t, and will not (if resurrected) make sense. The parcel is way overpriced. The land has PCBs on it. There are better alternatives for housing DPW equipment.
Here are some lingering questions on this unholy deal.
* Why did the Boring Broadsheet bury its coverage of the council’s shoot-down of the proposal? Why didn’t it want to trumpet this triumph of The People through their representatives? Who among the Special Interests dictated to the Boring Broadsheet how they should play it? One of our trusty newsroom sources says that at the “Five O’lClock Follies,” which is the newsroom’s name for the daily staff editorial meeting, editors were told if the council approved the deal, it would be page one, above the fold. If not, they would bury the story. The coverage was so far into the B section that a Sherpa guide and a St. Bernard could have found it.
* Why does the BB’s Dick Lindsey keep referring to the building at 18,000 sq. ft. when the deed lists it as 15,600 sf? Just a guess: He took what city hall spoon-fed him. The correct figure puts it closer to the 13,000 sq. ft. capacity of the current DPW garage on West Housatonic Street and shows the deal to be 2,400 sq. ft. less attractive than advertised. When we were given the size, it sounded “big.” What did we do? The Planet checked the deed. There it is in B&W: 15,600 sf.
* Who is behind the reality trust that currently owns and is trying to unload the property? What are the political connections?
* Why was councilor Jonathan Lothrop so upset when the deal didn’t go through?
* Why did councilor Jonathan Lothrop want to go into executive session?
* Why did councilor Jonathan Lothrop act as if a winning lottery ticket had slipped out of his hand and into the sewer?
* What was in this deal for councilor Jonathan Lothrop besides an “atta boy” from Jimmy Ruberto and John Barrett?
* Why does councilor jonathan Lothrop continue to embarrass himself and soil the body politic with his defecating ecstasies?
* Why has councilor Jonathan Lothrop turned his back on not just his Ward 5 constituents but every honest, decent, and hardworking person in the city?
* Why would councilors Peter White and John Krol vote with Lothrop?
* Which local companies would have gotten richer off the multimillions of dollars the city said it would need to make the building serviceable? Would any of that found its way back into friendly pockets?
* Why did the city not complete its inspection and testing of the land at 1644 East St. that showed PCBs? The city says it ran our of money. Really? Could it be that further testing might show the soil is laced with the chemicals, and that if word of this got out, it would prove more than embarrassing?
* Why would the city be so pell-mell sword-and-pistol ready to rush into this hurry-up deal, knowing full well it would be paying 45% above assessed value in a down market and exposing taxpayers and residents to potential ruinous liability?
* Why would anyone on the council want to bring this deal back? There is some talk now about starting over with 1664 East St. Let this talk cease. Any politician who back this deal and who runs in 2011 will sign his or her own political death warrant.
If the city needs to upgrade its DPW housing, it has several alternatives.
* The former Grossman’s property on East Street, on the left past Newell, heading east. The building has been neglected. Its present owner has been an irresponsible no-show. The city could take this building over in a version of eminent domain for next to nothing. It could then demolish any parts of the structure that are not usable. At a massive 44,000 sq. ft., there would be plenty of room for DPW vehicles. The site would have to be tested for pollution, of course, but there’s a good chance the property is clean. A former GE worker whose job it was to dump PCB laced soil says he never dropped any at the Grossman’s site. For many years, the city used the building as a depot for its trolleys. No PCBs could have been dumped there, he says, because there was no need and there was no room.
* Repair of the present facility. Renovation costs of the West Housatonic Street garage would not approach the $3.3 million the city was willing to pump into 1644 East. First, the present garage is doing the job. Is it doing the job of housing vehicles as efficiently as the city would like? No. But the city, that is, the taxpayers, own the land outright. If the current building couldn’t be saved, it would still be much more cost-effective to build a garage there. A metal prefab without bells and whistles could be built inexpensively to house payloaders, trucks, and plows, which do not need room service.
* There are also other potential locations to be examined, and that’s the point. The city wanted to rush into a financially ruinous deal, which was the only option they looked at. In a fair dice game, you don’t see moves like this.
Deanna, Nat, and Paint Peeling
And why, if our spies in city hall are accurate, did OCD Director Deanna Ruffer call Berkshire Regional Planning Commission head Nat Karns in on the carpet for a paint-peeling session? Don’t tell anyone about this, because it’s supposed to be secret … if it, in fact, happened. Um, we think it did.
CEDS. the Community Economic Development Strategy, as The Planet has pointed out in a series of groundbreaking articles is a key part of an area’s vitality. Most successful regions have CEDS plans that work. Failure of local planners and officials to produce a strategy that passes muster with the Department of Commerce can play a major role in a region’s economic failure. Pittsfield has failed to submit a successful CEDS for 10 years. It’s CEDS effort is led by the BRPC.
On the Ruffer-Karns & Co. hoedown, it sounds as if it could have been a hose down. Could First Deputy Mayor Ruffer be angry at Karns because The Planet dug into the specifics of the CEDS failure? Rather than assuming part of the blame herself — she is, after all on the current CEDS committee and sat there for the 2004 and 2009 CEDS failures — did Ruffer mercilessly unload on Karns?
Karns has a good history as a planner, up until the current administration got in and Ruffer came aboard. Since then, he’s been a different man, more muzzled than munificent. Ruffer’s got him on a short leash, and the guess is that, since he’s nearing retirement age, Karns is doing his best to play lap dog. The Planet hates to see a good man go down like that.
The Planet has reason to believe the not-so-secret session took place sometime after the Jan. 11 CEDS meeting at BRPC HQ on Fenn Street and before the writing of the CEDS draft document on Jan. 25.
At the CEDS meeting on Jan. 11, Ruffer had to sit there and hear a different picture of Pittsfield and environs than the one that she fictitiously paints. The meetings mentioned factors why there might not be a, you know, Renaissance, under way. Factors include:
* Aging population.
* Declining population
* Decline in family median income, which translates into sales losses.
*Lack of educational courses that teach employable skill sets.
* Environmental constraints (PCBs, anyone?)
* Lack of growth in the property tax base (like the bedraggled Pittsfield homeownes didn’t know that!)
* Lack of a sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure
There’s more to the Pittsfield profile, but we will save it for another day, perhaps tomorrow. Remember, this is the BRPC listing these drawbacks. Could Ruffer have been upset that someone actually told the truth about why there is no Renaissance but instead listed factors to explain a depression?
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