‘THE PITTSFIELD WAY’ — SCHOOL SUPT.’s CALL FOR MILLIONS $$ IN NEW SPENDING NOT GOOD OMEN FOR PITTSFIELD TAXPAYERS … TIME IS RUNNING SHORT TO THE INEVITABLE FINANCIAL DISASTER
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, THURSDAY, MARCH 6, 2014) — Little by little, over many years, the salaries and retirement benefits of San Bernardino’s city workers — and especially its police and firemen — grew richer and richer, even as the city lost its major employers and gradually got poorer and poorer.
This paragraph, taken from a Reuters story on how San Bernardino went kaput, bears eerie similarity to what happened in Detroit, Mich.; Mammoth Lakes and Stockton, Calif.; Jefferson County, Ala.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Central Falls, R.I.; Boise County, Idaho; and other places. If the recalcitrant political establishment in the city of Pittsfield doesn’t do an immediate about-face from previous spendthrift financial practices, it will soon join the list.
How soon is “soon?” Anyone’s guess, but reasonable estimates would be between five and 10 years. It could be later than that, but — especially if no changes are made in reducing spending, boosting income, and reforming post-emplyment benefits packages for public employees — it could happen much sooner. New ways to treat employees, pensioners, and bondholders will have to be enacted. So will belt tightening.
No Time to Wait
In Pittsfield, there is no time to wait. The work must begin with the FY15 budget. With that established, let’s get a little perspective. When the Central Berkshire Regional School District sent its proposed budget to the Dalton Select Board calling for a spending hike that would put the town in hock, the selectmen sent it back stamped, “Too high. Find cuts.” That must happen in Pittsfield. The odds aren’t good, given that the special interests and the politicians are just too damned cozy, each jerking the other off and expecting taxpayers to pick up the tab for all the fun.
New Supt. Jason McCandless, “Jake the Fourth,” seems to have settled nicely into “The Pittsfield Way.” He’s called for a $2 million increase in hiring for FY15. He wants more iPads and technology, more positions created, and millions more in spending. Keep in mind, too, that under current contract obligations, taxpayers would be in the hole about $1.5 million just to keep everything else as is. Thus, when McCandless sends his budget request to the Pittsfield School Committee, the committee should flat out reject it as too expensive. It won’t, of course. The members are lockstep with the school administration and there’s a severe lack of political will, what elsewhere is more colloquially called “balls.” Prediction: No one on the school committee, new members or old, will “dare” speak out against excessive spending.
When our Right Honorable Good Friends on the city council get the school request, they too should reject it out of hand. They should throw it back and insist on belt-tightening. THE PLANET doubts that will happen, either, although one can entertain hopes that someone and more than one will finally stand up to the schools, political consequences be flushed, and say “Enough is enough.” The taxpayers, after recovering from their faint, would fall in love with those councilors who, finally, represented their majority interests.
It Doesn’t Take Einstein
No genius is necessary to predict what McCandless and school business manager Kristen Benehke do. They will present their fattened request as “austere,” talking about the “great sacrifices” the schools are making. They will claim solidarity with taxpayers and say they are aware of their pain. They will tell us how acutely aware they are of the need to appropriate wisely.
It will all be so much balderdash.
Folks gave McCandless a big buildup. They said McCandless was smart and experienced. He’s proven he’s smart, all right — smart enough to know he should play ball with The Suits, the GOB, and all the Special Interests who wish to keep their private gravy trains going with public money. It would take a man of high moral certitude, steel will, and a sharp pencil to put a stop to the nonsense. Alas, from his statements, it doesn’t look like McCandless is that man. That being said, let us quickly add that we’d love to be proven wrong.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
With that preamble in mind, THE PLANET shares this report from gawker.com on “Why Cities Go Bankrupt.” We invite you to read it and pass it along. Be sure to open the hot links, particularly one of the two that references the entire Reuters story. Gawker published its story on Nov. 13, 2012, so keep that in mind when the story speaks of “last year.” The last link contains the entire text.
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WHY CITIES GO BANKRUPT
San Bernardino, California filed for bankruptcy last August. It is a poor city, yes. The economy is bad, yes. But why does one city fail while many others like it don’t?
This excellent Reuters report on San Bernardino provides one strong clue: when you are the poorest city of your size in your state, yet your police and firefighters can retire at the age of 50 with a pension that is 90% of their final salary, you are a strong contender for bankruptcy, sooner or later. One small example of the municipal largesse that eventually dragged San Bernardino into a hole it could not climb out of:
In 2009, patrol lieutenant Richard Taack retired at the age of 59, after 37 years of service. He took home $389,727 that year, including $194,820 in unused sick time and $33,721 for unused vacation time, according to city payroll records. Shortly after Taack retired – on an annual lifetime pension of $128,000 – he was hired part-time by [longtime city attorney James] Penman’s city attorney’s office, at $32 an hour.
That was long after the city had already seen its tax revenues collapse, along with the economy as a whole. Municipal unions seeking opulent contracts are certainly complicit in San Bernardino’s downfall. But the real blame rests with elected officials who voted this entire unsustainable system of lavish payments and pensions into place.
If your local elected officials are math-illiterate, in the pocket of special interests to the point of being functionally corrupt, or both, your city may go bankrupt. A lot of cities meet that criteria.This entire story is excellent. Send it to your city council.
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As the story says, how about sending this along to your city council members?
Financial disaster will be the only plausible financial scenario for Pittsfield if spending keeps rising, the tax base and population keep shrinking, more homes go off the tax roles, property devaluation continues, and the city keeps taking way more than its share of deadbeats that consume resources and contribute nothing in return.
The steps, while not easy to take, are nonetheless clear:
* A freeze on all spending and hiring.
* A requirement for the school department to present scenarios for 5%, 10%, and 15% decreases in spending.
* Reform of pensions and other post-employment benefits.
* Increase city workers’ share of health insurance from 15% (85% now taken up by taxpayers) to at least 30% (which would still allow a more-than-generous 30-70 split). Many companies in the Dreaded Private Sector offer 0% on such benefits; state law requires 50-50. If circumstances are allowed to deteriorate, the split could and likely should go to 50-50.
It’s tough medicine, but the cure is better than the consequence of the financial disease.
Please, all you so-called “leaders,” don’t:
* Once again betray Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski, the Little Guy, i.e., We The People, and don’t
* Let THE PLANET be able to one day soon say, “We told you so.”
“I’m not one to make believe. I know that leaves are green. They only turn to brown when autumn comes around. I know just what I say. Today’s not yesterday, and all things have an ending. But what I’d like to know is can a place like this exist so beautiful? Or do we have to spread out wings and fly away to the visions in our mind?” — Stevie Wonder, “Innervision,” 1974.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.