BIANCHI TO ASK FOR NEARLY $3 MILLION TO BUY NEW BUS FLEET FOR SCHOOLS … ARE TAXPAYERS BEING TAKEN FOR A RIDE?
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, TUESDAY, MARCH 25, 2014) — THE PLANET will be the first to inform you of item #6 on tonight’s city council agenda: “A communication from Mayor Bianchi submitting an Order authorizing the City Treasurer with the approval of the mayor to borrow an aggregate sum not exceeding $2,766,075.00 for the purchase of school buses.”
The first reaction: The last thing Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski needs is the mayor ordering the city treasurer to borrow nearly $3 million.
As for buses, the only bus We The People are interested in at the moment is the one that takes Dan Bianchi out of town. The most ineffectual mayor in Pittsfield’s recent history just does not g.e.t. i.t. With a bill of approximately $400 million in unfunded OPEB liabilities, not counting the regular payments of tens of millions for health insurance premiums for public employees, and a city budget that keep growing concomitant with a corresponding shrinking of the tax base, the warning lights on the city’s dashboard are flashing like bulbs on a Christmas tree: “Danger, Will Robinson!”
Or maybe Bianchi does get it and just doesn’t care. Maybe what his critics say of him is true, that he’s just padding his pension and in less than two years, that as a pol he’s as fake as John Travolta‘s hair, and that he’ll leave city employment only to continue with what is even now his real job, the one he holds at Global Montello Group as manager of natural gas, electricity, and fuel oil. The company still lists him on its website as a manager. Bianchi still maintains his offices at 100 North St., Suite 301. He also disappears for large stretches of time from the corner office often to be seen entering 100 North Street, about a one- minute walk from city hall, if our spies at city hall report accurately.
So there you have it, Bianchi’s request for millions to buy busses. The questions fly more quickly than George Reeves:
* What made the city change its mind about purchasing rather than renting? Hadn’t the previous school committee decided to rent for being more cost effective?
* Who recommended the change from rental to purchasing? Why?
* The current fleet was purchased in 2007. What kind of maintenance have the buses received? Good, fair, or poor? What about drivers? Do they take care of their vehicles? Are the buses truly in that bad shape? If so, why were they driven into the ground so fast? If not, why get rid of them?
* You mean to say the city could not squeeze another couple years out of the fleet?
Supporting Documents Smoke It Out a Bit
In the supporting documents to the mayor’s request on #6, we find a letter from Kristen Behnke, who holds the two-breath title of assistant superintendent for business and finance, addressed to Bianchi and dated March 20:
“As you know, last night the Pittsfield School Committee unanimously approved a contract with New England Transit Sales Inc. of Tyngsboro, MA for the replacement of the bus fleet. Attached to this communication is a summary of the purchase information, a copy of the bid document, which includes bid specifications, as well as the proposed contract with New England Transit Sales Inc. The proposed contract will be sent to New England Transit Sales Inc. for signature, if approved by the City Council. … [T]he School Committee has twice made the commitment to the City Council to fund the bus fleet out of the School Committee’s budget; the proposed contract meets that commitment.”
* Approved by the school committee on March 19 and sent to the council for approval for March 25 meeting, with contracts all prepared, ready to send and sign — Doesn’t that strike you as more than a bit rushed?
* When, prior to March 19, had this particular contract been discussed to a sufficient extent to warrant this rush?
* Does the mayor, the treasurer, and the school department seriously expect our Right Honorable Good Friends on the city council to have had enough time by tomorrow night to make an intelligent review and assessment of this major expenditure, given the hurry-hurry-hurry?
* The plan is to trade-in the current 52-bus fleet for 43 newer buses. Why nine fewer? Did taxpayers foot the bill for nine unnecessary busses for seven years, or is this a reflection of the more than $4 million the Pittsfield schools lost to school choice in the most recent year?
* Was there some “creative” accounting in awarding the bid to New England Transit Sales? Consider: NETS was one of four companies to bid on the contract. It was the highest bidder (Dattco, $3,394,068; Anderson Blue Bird Bus Sales of New England, $3,470,630; O’Connor Bus Sales, $3,545,915; and NETS, $3,645,075). Nonetheless, Behnke’s “Enclosure No. 12” in the support package says NETS offered “the lowest total cost.” How does she perform this miracle? By figuring the trade-in allowance. Dattco is listed as offering $574,719; Anderson, the exact same figure, curiously enough; O’Connor, $754,000; and NETS $879,000.
Think of your own experience. You’ve probably dickered with a car salesman on the value of a trade-in. You know it’s a game — a fakery that benefits the dealer every time. The trade-in value are not real dollars at all. They simply are a deduction from the sales price. Say the vehicle you want costs $22,000. The salesman knows he’s going to make out like a bandit if he clears $15,000. That’s what he actually wants and would price the car in a transparent transaction. So what does he do? He offers you “$4,000” for your clunker. You don’t see a dime of it. The “$4,000” is subtracted from the asking price. It’s one of the oldest cons going.
And, from all appearances, in the capable hands of Behnke, the city fell for it!!
THE PLANET also adds that the school department shall be requesting a city bond for the full purchase price. In other words, the total cost will be considerably higher than the $2,766,075 being requested because of the cost of debt service to the bond. Benhke says in “Enclosure No. 12” (part of the fine print, of course), that “It is anticipated that the buses will cost approximately $570,000 per year … over a five year [sic] term.” That amounts to more than $100,000 above the listed cost to taxpayers: $2,850,000 as opposed to $2,766,075. They don’t tell you that in the billboard version, do they?
Taxpayers, Back of the Bus Please
The city is paying $83,325 each for 36 77-passenger buses, $94,825 each for three “wheelbase” bus models, $94,625 each for two “wheelbase” buses, and $85,825 for two “wheelbase buses” (the only difference in the “wheelbase” buses is the number of wheelchairs they can accommodate).
On the trade-ins, the paperwork suggests the fake game as THE PLANET outlined above. NETS will “allow” $18,000 apiece for 11 of the 52 city buses, $17,000 apiece for 40 buses, and a mere $1,000 for one bus. We wish someone would explain the $1,000 bus. It’s the same make and model years as the other 51. That works out to an average of $16,903.85 per bus for trade-in allowance. Comparing this to the average purchase price of the 43 new buses — $84,769.19 — shows the city getting 20%.
Profit margins being what they are, don’t you have a sinking suspicion that NETS would have been just as happy if the city (Behnke, apparently, or was it Sue Carmel?) had been a better horse trader and insisted on more value for each of the buses? The current vehicles can’t be that run down. In fact, THE PLANET witnessed three city school buses in action today — #103, 130, and 137 — and from the outside seemed to be in pretty good shape.
Folks, the whole thing comes off as a set of tactics in advance of a scheme that someone, or a bunch of someones, want to keep from due deliberation. THE PLANET would advise that, at the least, the council table this motion and put the skids to allow for more scrutiny of what was done on school side.
Better yet, why not run the current fleet for another year or two? THE PLANET suggests it could do so with better maintenance and more careful drivers.
“Charter Objection,” anyone?
“I’ll get on the bus, forget about us, and put the blame on me …” — Tony Orlando and Dawn, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.