REPORT FROM AND ON THE COUNCIL: CITY TO TAKE MORE AGGRESSIVE APPROACH IN PURSUING DEADBEAT PROPERTY OWNERS … USING ‘FREE’ CASH TO FUND TEACHER PAY RAISES? NOT A GOOD IDEA, BUT IT PASSES … plus … RESOLUTION AND RANCOR: SHERMAN-MAZZEO COMPROMISE RESOLUTION STIRS UP SPECTRUM’S SPECTRE
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, WEDNESDAY, NOV. 14, 2012) — City council meetings are a lot like watching a baseball game on TV: there’s a lot of inaction, routine action, and boredom, every now and then punctuated by engaging action. The good plays come in bursts, the way light waves pulse through space (or do they stream in a solid line? Actually, both).
In between routine appointments and a series of no-debate, 11-0 votes on things like property authorizations and easements, the council last night took up three more meaty items that are noteworthy, or as the superintendent of schools might say, “noseworthy.” While the three may be news elsewhere, on THE PLANET they are followups, for we have mentioned each previously and have kept our readers informed as best as possible in a city that boils with the lid securely sealed (or so it thinks).
FINALLY A MORE AGGRESSIVE APPROACH ON DELINQUENT TAXES
Agenda #7: The council voted unanimously to accept a presentation by assistant city solicitor Darren Lee on the tax title assignment process. Lee said there are approximately 300 properties in arrears. He estimated the taxes owed at $2 to $5 million, “depending on how you interpret that.” Well, THE PLANET interprets that simply: Property Owner A owes $7,342. Property B Owner owes $9,328, and so on, until you account for all 300 properties. The sum should be a more-or-less accurate, definitive sum with a range as narrow as the mind of a Tea Bagger and as slim as Don Knotts.
That $2 to $5 million estimate jumps off the page, because essentially, it means the city doesn’t know, within a $3 million range beginning at $2 million, how much money it has coming. Granted, the intricacies of Land Court are legendary, but THE PLANET would expect a more precise figure based on careful study. Is that too much to ask, with millions of taxpayer dollars at stake.
Auctioning to a Third Party
In plain English, the city is proposed selling through auction the rights to pursue back taxes to third parties, who would then hound the debtors for the dough. How much money could the city gather? Lee said he’s not going to be happy with 70- or 80-cents on the dollar. He expects dollar for dollar. In theory, it sounds great. Of course, we know that generally, the type of “investors” who swoop in on others’ delinquency or misfortune looking to make a quick or even slow buck cannot be ranked with St. Charles Borromeo or Blessed Mother Teresa in decency and moral turpitude. They tend to be vultures, and when birds of prey gather, they tend to pick over carcasses in ruthless fashion.
THE PLANET offers free legal advice to the city solicitor’s office: In drawing up the terms for the auction, please make sure the rules indemnify the city from lawsuits. They could come from either the second or third parties, because you know when a delinquent taxpayer gets hounded legally by an “outside” party, it won’t exactly be tea and crumpets in the Palm Room at the Plaza. It could get hot and nasty.
One final comment: Lee admitted the tax title auctions represented “a somewhat more aggressive approach” that then city was prepared to take. Question: Why wasn’t the city prepared to shapren its teeth and get more bulldog on the deadbeats?
Lee said the third parties, having already cleared up back taxes, would pursue deadbeat property owners with far more determination than the city. Again, The question becomes, why? Why wouldn’t the city take all available remedies — the same remedies that third parties will have — in getting the money it’s owed? The answer probably can be found in the time it would take to hunt down a deadbeat through the tortuous maze of Land Court. We understand.
All in all, THE PLANET applauds the city and Mayor Dan Bianchi for at least trying what Lee called “one of the more aggressive options available to us.”
My right honorable good friends unanimously approved Lee’s report, 11-0.
FREE CASH TO FUND A TEACHERS PAY RAISE? NOT A GOOD IDEA
To dip into the general fund — into “free cash,” no less — to fund pay raises negotiated through the school committee in a hold-up process with the United Educators of Pittsfield (UEP) would, even under the sunniest of cynical assessments, be considered a bad idea.
The 9-2 vote (Barry Clairmont and Chris Yon on the side of We The People) last night by our Right Honorable Good Friends, however, comes within the context of two recent actions involving the School Department as a whole and teachers in particular:
(1) The first is the state audit, which we published in full yesterday, that tells us the schools have ignored problems identified years ago in previous audits and that performance, quality, achievement — call it what you will — is getting worse. We urged people to take the time to read the report, available on yesterday’s PLANET.
(2) The teachers blocking the school department’s pursuit of a $10 to $20 million federal grant that would have providing funds for more individualized instruction, technology updates, and other tools to combat the growing achievement gaps that have produced near panic in the local business community.
The School Department and the UEP both showed they don’t care about this city, only about themselves. That’s a sick context to be coming in for a raid on free cash.
Clairmont: ‘Let the Schools First Establish the Need and Then Come Back’
In the light of these two wet blankets thrown on quality education, the council’s approval to take $256,389 in certified free cash to fund the FY2013 operating budget has to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The council didn’t need to approve this money, because, as Clairmont pointed out, the school department hasn’t played ball with taxpayers. Clairmont cited figures that show, on average, that other city departments routinely send more than a million dollars back into the general fund, while the school department, which eats up 70 cents of every dollar Pittsfield spends, returns about $13,000 on average. In 2011, Clairmont noted, the schools returned a grand total of $71.
Clairmont didn’t use the word, but the PLANET shall: cheated. The school department has over the years cheated taxpayers by taking millions in year-end left-over money and — instead of returning it to free cash — used it to fund the following year’s wish list. Clairmont also pointed out that when the school committee went fishing for a new superintendent (unsuccessfully, as it turned out), it cooked up a $20,000 pay raise, sight unseen, for the interim selectee as well as granted 9% pay raises for some in the administration based at the former Mercer School on First and Orchard streets. The administration handed out teacher pay raises in the new contract as if they were candy at Halloween.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Clairmont said. This could become the saying that’s chiseled on the monumental wall someday in the Barry Clairmont School of Public Policy, for it perfectly sums up the mood these day — a heady mix of anger, frustration, resignation, and other greases and solvents — of Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski, The Little Guys.
Solution: Tighten the Belt. Only Problem is, the School Department Doesn’t Do That
Clairmont did more than just rail. He offered a reasonable solution that would work to everyone’s advantage. The at-large councilor said the school department hadn’t made the case that it actually needed the money to fund its operating budget. The better way would be this: Let’s go through the remainder of the year, and if the money is a proven need at that point, the school department could come back with the same request. In the meantime, Clairmont, an accountant by profession and a man who understands how budgets work, said the schools could “move some line items around and find the money.” In other words, tighten the belt, as everyone else has to do.
“Let them come back,” Clairmont said. “If they need the money, I’ll support it then” but not now.
Ward 1 councilor Chris Yon brought home that point about belt tightening. We have seniors on fixed incomes in this aging city, she noted. We have working people struggling to make ends meet in low-pay, low-or-no-benefit service jobs. The school department should for once have to do what the rest of us do when things get tight: make cuts and make do.
Behnke Flim-Flams a Thinly Veiled Threat and Councilors Cave
Kristen Behnke, school department business administrator and chief financial apologist, got up to the mic and defended the blubbery request. Behnke’s a rookie in her first year on the job, but she has learned the Three-Card Monty well. Tighten the belt? she asked. “I don’t know where I would be able to find [the $256,389].”
Oh, really? THE PLANET and any ordinary citizen would be glad to show you how easy it would be, Ms. B.
Then Ms. B brought out the heavy lumber. She threatened “personnel cuts.”
Oh, the humanity.
If the council were not to approve the money, “we would have to look at personnel.” In other words, don’t fund this, you Big, Bad, People, and we will have to let people go, and you can suffer the political consequences. The answer to her threat, of course, is: “Go ahead. Make our day. Lay ’em off.”
School Committee member Terry Kinnas, who put in a petition requesting that the council not grant the schools’ request, pointed out in the open mic portion of the meeting that the pay raises in the recently settled three-year teachers’ contract did not call for pay raises of 3% over three years, a number used by Behnke, Jonathan Lothrop, and others.
It’s not a 3% pay hike over three years. The true number is between 10% and 16% over three years, when you factor in automatic step raises. The teachers union doesn’t count step raises nor does the school department or the rest of the school committee. They see those raises as “entitlement” money, and the way the contract is worded, they are correct. A teacher could ax murder three students in public, and his or her step raises would be waiting for them. They are not based on performance. They are based on seniority, which absolutely cripples performance and productivity.
Kinnas also pointed out that the 10 to 16% pay raises could actually go up. The raises are tied to Chap. 70 state aid. If Chap. 70 money goes up, the pay raises go up. If Chap. 70 money goes down, the pay raises still stay in place. What a country!
When Kinnas’ petition finally came up at agenda item #25, councilors deep sixed it into the wastebasket, having already given the money away.
Once last note: During the discussion of the free cash, several union members came in the chambers and sat up front, in the first or second row. The tenor of the room changed, and the only reasonable interpretation once can give is that the unionites were there simply to put political pressure on councilors to vote for the money.
“Free cash” is not free. It’s money left over that the city didn’t need to operate in a FY. That money, every cent of it, should be returned to taxpayers in the form of tax reductions, but no. We mean, how else could the Schools continue their shell game?
Performance goes into the porcelain commode while pay raises for all go up.
Meanwhile, Mary Jane and Joe, who make half of what the average teach makes without a any benefits, has to suck it up and pay for the damn mess.
RESOLUTION AND REHASH: SPECTRUM’S SPECTRE RISES AGAIN OVER MAZZEO’S OPEN MEETING THREAT
THE PLANET is still gathering information on this last item from last night’s meeting. Keep checking back, for it will be posted in the great upcoming.
That great upcoming will be tomorrow, given the splendid pace of things today, what with chess moves to make and bees to pacify. You won’t want to miss it because it’s a classic. It centers around the resolution petition drafted in a compromise by council prez Kevin Sherman and at-large councilor Melissa Mazzeo.
That petition passed, as we knew it would, but how it got to that point is the real story.
Tune in tomorrow, boys and girls, for another thrill-packed adventure on THE PLANET.
MY LOVE WAS TRUE, AND I WAS FIRM FROM THE HOUR OF MY BIRTH. AND IN MY HEART, A SONG TO LEARN, AND IN MY HANDS A CLOD OF EARTH.
“OPEN THE WINDOW,” AUNT MILLIE.
LOVE TO ALL.