WILL CITY OF PITTSFIELD STAND UP FOR TAXPAYERS OR COWER TO THE UNIONS? plus, PCB EXPERT TO SPEAK IN AREA MARCH 1, and, ANOTHER LOCAL CULTURAL CEO BITES THE DUST
BY DAN VALENTI
Pittsfield taxpayers, get ready for another snow job.
The storm we refer will affect only the taxpayers of the city. The politicians and the unions won’t have to move a flake. That’s when the mayor presents his budget, and the council, having lied told you there is no room for substantial cuts, approves it. The rubber stamp emerges from Uncle Gerry Lee’s drawer, ink pad opens, and the right hand comes down on the bloated document.
Big Three Unions Must Be Fed More Pork
They will set you up for this exercise in monetary trickery by predicting dark, dank, dire scenarios of lawmakers if even so much as question the budgets of the municipal union’s Big Three: schools, police, and fire. They will tell you (because the unions have dictated to them!) that if the schools, cops, and firemen don’t get more money (let alone cut $1), schools will be boarded up, criminals will overrun the streets, and Pittsfield will start burning. Not so, of course.
To their credit, union leadership has done the job for its members this past quarter of a century. Blame for this situation lies squarely with deadbeat politicians, the bums taxpayers elect every year to hose us down. In the 1980s and ’90s, while Pittsfield’s notorious barroom politics turned off most healthy, well-adjusted, and psychologically secure citizens — opening the process for cronyism and sycophantism — the blank checks emerged.
Without citizen oversight, politicians craving votes caved to virtually every union demand. This began a relentless building of salary and benefits that would rival the building of the Great Pyramid of Egypt.
Sitting Fat and Pretty on Doo-Dah Street
It’s how teacher Kristen Pearson makes $78,479. It explains the $95,835 salary of school special ed supervisor Lee Steele (correct, it’s not spelled “steal”). A few more: Jeffrey Coco, police officer, $105,638; Stanley Caesar, $88,894, and Irene Zelinski, $81,907. To these salaries, add about one-third the amount to cover benefits.
In all, Pittsfield has 138 employees making more than $74,290 (not counting benefits). To see the complete list, consult the Dec. 23, 2010 edition of The Pittsfield Gazette. What, you think the Boring Broadsheet would publish this type of useful information? Virtually all of these fat and happy employees are from schools, cops, and fire. Of the 23 employees who top $100,000 in compensation, 22 work for the police or schools. The exception is fire chief Mike Polidoro ($114,312.51).
The Planet spares you the remainder of the ugly deatils.
Uncapping Pension Benefits! or Happy Days Are (Not) Here Again
One of the trick moves came in the 1980s, when the city council uncapped benefits. It used to be that no pension could top a reasonable figure (we don’t recall the specific figure, but it was aaround $30,000 a year). When The People weren’t looking, the council changed the rules. They made it that the final three years of a city employee’s salary would determine pensions.
Thus began an out-of-control process, as most cancers are. The unions also “ordered” the politicians to make reform of the dirty process extremely difficult to near impossible. And isn’t funny when they needed to change the rules in favor of the unions, the city council and mayor found a way, with help from our representatives to the General Court in Boston. However, if anyone mentions reform in favor of the taxpayer, we hear how the task is simply IMPOSSIBLE. Yes, they think We The People are stupid.
Thus, reforming the system isn’t impossible. The unions and pols have made it “near impossible,” but that just says it CAN BE DONE.
Learn from LA
Pittsfield isn’t the only community reeling now from escalating public employee costs. It’s happening across the country, and cities and towns on the verge of bankruptcy are fighting back. In these places, a more balanced political system has produced politicians who have some spine.
In Los Angeles, for example, the mayor and councilors are fighting to get municipal labor unions to renegotiate contracts. Current policy legally forbids officials from rolling back a retirement benefit for an existing worker without providing another benefit of equal value. The process is unsustainable without gigantic tax increases on already hard-put citizens. Unions there don’t care, and they’ve threatened to fight the city.
If the current system remains unchanged, LA’s taxpayers will have to pay nearly $1 billion in additional pension benefits in the next five years. This mountainous extra expense will not buy one textbook, one patrol car, one fire hose, or one paper clip. LA’s average retirement age for police and fire is 51 years old. The retirement fund will soon take up 20% of the city’s entire budget.
At least in LA, officials are prepping for the tough battle. City Administrator Office Miguel Santana presented to the city council the dire numbers. The council say it’s on board, and so, apparently, is the mayor.
Pittsfield Politicians: Scared of their Union Owners
What do we see in Pittsfield? Nothing. The one wild card is that Mayor Jimmy Ruberto is a lame duck. This might give him the courage to take on the unions. It’s a slim-to-none chance, but it’s at least a chance. Let’s conduct a thought experiment. What if Ruberto announced his intention to renegotiate new deals more friendly to taxpayers with each of the Big Three unions? How would the city council respond? Would any one of them support that effort? Would Lee? Peter Marchetti? Jonathan Lothrop? Peter White? Would Mike Ward? Melissa Mazzeo? Joe Nichols? Kevin Sherman? Paul Capitanio? Chris Yon? John Krol?
Don’t Get Mad. Get Madison
In Madison, Wisc., Gov. Scott Walker isn’t backing off his plan to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Walker took this step because his state faces severe economic problems if existing union rights are left alone.
Break the union deals, not the taxpayers’ backs, Walker is saying. That must become the rallying cry for the city of Pittsfield. If the present crew once again whiffs on its chance for reform and TAX RELIEF, the bums must be voted out of office. In this election year, only candidates who will stick up for The Little Guy will deserve support.
PCB Expert to Speak March 1
Anyone who’s interested in PCBs and how they affect health should mark Tuesday, March 1, on their calendars.
At 7p.m., the Housatonic River Initiative (HRI) will present Dr. David Carpenter with a program on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and their health effects. HRI says Dr. Carpenter is one of the leading experts on PCBs. With his colleagues, he has studied exposed populations around the world. Some of his work has included PCB blood serums levels and their relationship to disease, volatilization of PCBs in the air, and exposure at hazardous waste sites including rivers.
The forum will be conducted at the Great Barrington First Congregational Church, 251 Main St. on Tuesday, March 1st at 7 PM. There is no charge for this event.
According to HRI, Carpenter is an internationally recognized expert in PCBs and public health. He is a neurotoxicologist and professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Toxicology in the School of Public Health at State University of New York, Albany. He has worked successfully with many communities across the country to help them assess the degree of human exposure to a range of contaminants, including vast experience with PCBs.
Carpenter has been an editorial advisor to many scientific journals, hosted a 170 station syndicated Public Health Radio Show, and former Chair of the School of Public Health at SUNY Albany. Prior to joining the University at Albany, Dr. Carpenter was a Research Physician at the Wadsworth Center for Laboratories and Research. Dr. Carpenter received his M.D. at the Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. He has 220 publications, 37 reviews and book chapters and 12 other publications to his credit.
Ad Museum, Ad Nauseum
Regarding The Planet scooping the Boring Broadsheet, that is never our prime intention when prowling for stories. They are the big daily. We are the little website. They have 30 people in the newsroom. We have one (plus our spies in the field). They have a staff of 130. We have three.
That being said, we do beat them to a lot of what’s happening. We do it because we have contacts in the right places. Nearly always, we have the truth of the story when they are scared of running it (for example, the near-purchase of the city of 1644 East St.). Often, we have the story when or before they do and decide not to run it (for example, the non-story of the possible sale of Berkshire Living magazine).
We also got wind before the BB did that the head of the Berkshire Museum would be pulling the rip chord and bailing out. It wasn’t big enough of a story. It still isn’t, except to note that with the departure of museum head Stuart Chase on March 11, it makes just the latest in a troubling trend for an area that bills itself as “American Premier Cultural Resort.”
Since Sept. 1, the executive director of the Colonial Theater, Hancock Shaker Village, and now the Berkshire Museum will have called it quits. Chase told the BB’s Clarence Fanto that he was leaving to pursue other “interests and challenges.” Don’t believe a word of it. The Planet is hearing otherwise on this apparently not-so-friendly divorce.
Is there something in the water besides PCBs? File this under “A” for “ad museum, ad nauseum.”