PLANET’S COVERAGE OF ‘THE MYSTERY OF STONEHENGE’ SPURS HEALTHY DISCUSSION FOR CITY … AT ISSUE: THE LOOMING FINANCIAL CRISIS FOR PITTSFIELD and ‘LEADER’ships WIMPY LACK OF ACTION … THE FY’15 BUDGET COULD AND LIKELY WILL TELL ALL
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, MONDAY,MARCH 17, 2014) — On this St. Patrick’s Day, THE PLANET hopes it has spurred enough of a discussion on the vampiric effects a plethora of “non-profit” and “not-for-profit” commercial enterprises have had, are having, and will continue to have if left unchecked on the poor, bedraggled city of Pittsfield. In addition, we hope the debate will lead to some good.
We can say that while the green beer flows, at minimum the issue has had an airing, something that wouldn’t have happened if left to the bold, fearless, independent “coverage” of the mainstream media, particularly our good friends at The Boring Broadsheet. For some puzzling reason, The BB has not seen fit to say a peep. Hmmm … wonder why?
At maximum, and we’re reaching, the discussion we spurred would lead to an honest, independent analysis of the whole “not-for-profit” situation in Pittsfield. In practicality, the “max” outcome will not happen, because Pittsfield has turned into that place where the doable seems like Utopia, and remember, folks: Utopia is never an option, particularly in Podunk.
This is a city whose citizens continue to be sold out, ripped off, knocked up, and beaten down by its political leaders — precisely the folks elected to office to protect them from that very thing.
As you likely know, THE PLANET forced this wider discussion through our coverage of the “hostile takeover” of a single-family residence at 71 Stonehenge Drive, which less than three short years ago used to be the home of Angelo Stracuzzi. A “non-profit” business out of Hartford, Conn., the Corporation for Independent Living, purchased the home. It then turned around and “flipped” the property in the form of a 30-year lease to Berkshire Family and Individual Resources out of North Adams (yes, it, too, is a “non-profit” agency). BFAIR has a nine-year contract to operate a four bedroom group home at 71 Stonehenge. It’s curious to note that the average salary of the two top execs of CIL and BFAIR is about $200,000 a year, not counting bennies and perks.
As we previously reported, this will make 46 group homes in Pittsfield that take millions off the tax rolls. Pittsfield government, in this case the ineffectual Dan Bianchi and Company, then shift the burden of lost revenue from itself to taxpayers, homeowners and small businesses that already gasp for air from the stranglehold that the city’s already-excessive levies have placed upon them.
Since Bianchi refused to lower the cost of government and shrink its size in his first two budgets as mayor, THE PLANET sees no hope that he shall do so again. The only hope, and it’s thin as a wafer, lies with the school committee (fat chance) and the city council. It’s only a matter of time before the financial stranglehold turns fatal.
We’ve heard many times the spurious argument that Pittsfield current problems were not created by Dan Bianchi. The mayor inherited all of the woes. THE PLANET responds this way to this “Woe Is the Mayor of Pittsfield” (WIMP) theory:
* First, we agree with WIMP. The mayor did inherit certain woes and many wonders, as far as that goes. No this address has ever contended that.
* Second, to say of an inherited problem that “I didn’t create the problem” is an irresponsible and immature dodge, one that a true leader would not use — nor would his or her followers and apologists. Every mayor in taking the job inherits a certain amount of baggage. You understand that going in, and you expect to take on your bequeathal with good grace and action, not with whimpering and “woe is me.”
* Third, we remind one and all that prior to becoming mayor in 2011, Bianchi served on the city council for a decade. He had plenty of chances to stem the loss of blood. He whiffed on most of those chances. Thus, his decade of tenure even before stepping foot in the corner office places upon him a proportionate share in the creation of Pittsfield’s current economic woes. They are not all his inheritance. At least some is his creation. He is also well into his third year as mayor. When will he stop blaming Jimmy Ruberto?
* Fourth, at some point a leader has to disregard the genesis of a problem and begin to tackle the problem itself. For example, a true leader would recognize what the mayors of many cities across the country have realized, that the onerous deals politicians created over the years with its public employee unions have become unsustainable and that the only reasonable outcome short of insolvency is to tighten the belt. That means elimination of fat and, if necessary, renegotiation of the benefits packages of public employees.
In short, a true leader who finds him or herself in a stagnant or shrinking economy does not continue to feed the fatted calf. He puts it on a diet. A true leader takes action to reduce, not increase, costs. Neither Bianchi, his department heads, the city council as a group, the school superintendent, nor the school committee have shown any indication that they will take the necessary actions to save the city. Conversely, all signs point to a “business as usual” budget for FY15 — millions more for the school department, an increase in administrative fat, and another added notch on the belt that strains to contain the budget’s expanding waistline.
None of this is good enough.
Did you hear us: NONE OF THIS IS GOOD ENOUGH!
However, as long as the majority of citizens roll over and play dead, as long as average citizens let their anger or their apathy keep them quiet, the more the skunks will put another one past them.
Apologists for the size of the city budget are the same ones advocating for more increases in the next year’s spending plan. They will say, for example, “but there’s not much discretionary money in the budget” and point out something like “85% of the school department budget is tied up in salary.” Indeed, this year alone, even if everything else remained flat (which it won’t), chump taxpayers will have to cough up another $1.5 million just to provide the negotiated pay increases for school staffers.
THE PLANET has many times, though, offered ways to save money. Let us count some of them, some quick and obvious ones, off the top of our head.
1 — School Department Administration = Things are so top-heavy that the PSD headquarters on Mercer Street has begun to sink under the weight of the innumerable superintendents and administrators. THE PLANET submits there’s lots of fat to trim there with no risk of hitting a major artery or bone.
2 — Revision of the Health Insurance Split = Taxpayers pick up 85% of the tab for workers health insurance. That’s what THE PLANET calls heavy tipping. State law says the city must pick up at least half. Those who toil in the Dreaded Private Sector are lucky (a) to have any health insurance. Moreover, (b) if they do, it’s usually 50-50 or 60-40. There are exceptions, true, but they are getting fewer and farther in between. THE PLANET would propose a petition to readjust the split to a more realistic level of 60-40, phased in over three years.
3 — Pension Reform = Health insurance isn’t the only benefit received by employees and retirees. Past contracts over the years have added what Peter Arlos, the Aging Greek God, used to call “a pyramid of benefits” for public employees. As we’ve seen in many cities across the country, these deals can break the financial backs of once-prosperous communities (case in point: Detroit, Mich., and San Bernadino, Calif., and many more). Through home rule petition, Pittsfield could gain the power to readjust the opulence of these deals downward. Currently Pittsfield has an OPEB obligation estimated at more than $400 million.
OPEB stands for “other post-employment benefits” not counting — yes, not counting — pension obligations, which in Pittsfield can be as high as 80% of a worker’s top three salaries. OPEB benefits include medical, dental, vision, hearing, life, long-term-care, and disability insurance.
Various trends have made OPEB a ticking time bomb for the city, including retirees living to older age, dramatic increases in health care costs, low eligibility requirements, and high benefit levels. The fair treatment of public employees and retirees, always a valid concern, now has to be equitably balanced not just with the financial health of Pittsfield but of its very survival.
This is the discussion Pittsfield “leaders” refuse to have because of politics. Too many fatted calves want to preserve their booty.
As a state, Massachusetts taxpayers face an OPEB liability of $16.7 billion as of Jan. 11, 2013 (source: “Commonwealth of Massachusetts Special Commission to Study Retiree Healthcare and Other Non-Pension Benefits,” available online at mass.gov.). That same report, by the way, includes this hum-dinger: “National data shows [sic] that most private sector employers that offer retirement benefits require their retired employees to pay the full cost of their [health insurance] premiums” [PLANET's underline].
5 — Hidden Dollars — We all know that every department budget in a municipality contains slush. Call it ‘rainy day money,’ a ‘contingency account,’ or whatever cliche you wish — every department has fat. THE PLANET’s recommended principle going into the new budget season is to recognize this and publically resolve that, philosophically:
If there is even as little as $1 of excess hidden anywhere in the budget, that $1 should be found, identified, and cut. No exceptions.
So we put this question to the mayor, the city council, the school superintendent, the school committee, to every department head, and to everyone in a leadership position who can affect and determine the course of the city of Pittsfield’s FY15 budget: “Who among you will stand up for fiscal sanity? Who among you will vote in favor of the long-term economic survival of the city and against the short-term temptations of the bankrupting status quo? Who among you will be Men and Women instead of mice?”
Come on, we can’t hear you. Squeak up.
“If I cannot carry forests on my back, neither can you crack a nut.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his poem, “Fable.”
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.