PITTSFIELD SCHOOL DEPARTMENT IS HIDING DATA, STRAIGHT INFO ON CURRENT BUS FLEET … QUESTION IS, ‘WHY?’ ANSWER (AS IT USUALLY IS): TO KEEP TAXPAYERS BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT … TULLY, MORANDI, J-LO, CLAIRMONT, & KROL COMMENT ON THEIR VOTES
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 16, 2014) — THE PLANET continues now with one of the most important stories affecting Pittsfield at this time: the vote on school buses. Millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake. Interestingly, it’s been a story both distorted and underreported by the mainstream media, led by the all-incompetent organ, The Boring Broadsheet. We continue to do the job The BB is afraid to take up. Call it an “organ transplant.”
The Pittsfield Schools want to replace the 53-bus fleet, consisting of 2007 model vehicles, with a brand new 42-bus fleet at a cost of $5 million (the cost of the new fleet, minus trade-in value, plus the $1.2 million still owed by the taxpayers on the existing buses). Never has Kristen Behnke, bag lady of the Pittsfield School Depeartment, given taxpayers an honest assessment of the current fleet. Neither she nor anyone else who wants to foist an unnecessary purchase on taxpayers has claimed the buses are unsafe, worn out, or incapable of serving another two or three years, as Ward 7 councilor Tony Simonelli pointed out in his comments to THE PLANET.
The school department also has not made other data available on the current fleet. What are the mileages for each of the 53 vehicles? The maintenance reports? The diagnostics? Have the vehicles been properly maintained? This is hard data that can be used to provide objective, unemotional information on the fleet — probably why The Suits will not share it, for the evidence thus far suggests the current vehicles have plenty of use left, at least a couple years or more.
Meanwhile, THE PLANET heard from other councilors involved — and not involved — in this vote.
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Lisa Tully had what’s clearly her finest moment as a city councilor when she voted against the new borrowing (on top of the old debt!). We asked her for thoughts following the bus vote. Tully thanked THE PLANET “for being the first media outlet to contact me directly on this important issue and the reasoning behind my vote.”
We asked Tully if she would pledge to her constituents that she will not change her vote: “No,” she replied. “I cannot pledge that I will not change my vote. I am not infallible. If I make a wrong decision I will rectify it. The school department did not address my concerns to my satisfaction at the Council meeting” [PLANET’s underline].
“I cannot pledge that I will not change my vote.” There’s a ton of wiggle room in that statement, enough to make any citizen uncomfortable. Tully says she has not been squeezed by anyone to switch her vote: “I cannot be pressured nor expect to be.”
We would remind our Right Honorable Good Friend the councilwoman that if the PSD has not made the case by now on the basis of data, reason, and logic, it will not do so in the future. Or has the PSD deliberately hidden information? THE PLANET, on behalf of Ward 1 constituents as well as the vast majority of taxpayers, urges Tully to remain steadfast in her position.
Kevin Morandi of Ward 2, responding to our request for comment on his vote, had this to say:
“My reasoning is: [The] city still owes $1.5 million on buses that will be traded in. There isn’t really a plan after FY 15 to pay off buses other than a verbal committment by School Dept. to do so. Where will money come from out of school budget?
“There are not enough options on table. The only option on table was to buy 43 new buses. Wasn’t any written research on privitizing or leasing made available? It’s about fiscal responsibility. I feel we have to tighten our belts as a council on what can the taxpayers of Pittsfield afford. There has to be a balance. We have a elderly population in the city with many who are on fixed incomes. We all have to live by budgets at home ,and I feel the city should live on one also because the taxpayers are paying for it.
“Over $2.7 million for new buses, school budget increase of at least $1 million dollars proposed, city dept. budgets will be increased, water and sewer rates increasing. The city’s streets need a lot of attention as we have a lot of miles of roads and sidewalks that need repairing. I can’t see putting brand new buses on roads in disrepair. Out of 52 buses being traded in, and only one has over 100,000 miles. As long as buses are being maintained and have passed inspections as councilors were told, I would like us to hold off and pay some debt down before the city takes on more.
“I have heard from some taxpayers and residents after the vote commending me on my vote. I haven’t gotten any negative feedback about my vote. I don’t think anyone of us can say we won’t change our minds, as there isn’t any guarantee in life, but I feel very confident about the vote that I cast on the new bus issue on April 8. In closing, I haven’t been pressured at all about changing my vote.”
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THE PLANET also heard from three councilors who supported bonding and replacing the fleet.
An interesting, if incorrect, reading.
“The funding failed,” said councilor-at-large Barry Clairmont. “President [Melissa] Mazzeo appeared confused and didn’t seem to know whether the order passed or failed. Solicitor [Kathy] Degnan was missing, once again, from the meeting. Therefore, there was no legal guidance available. We had to take a five-minute recess to allow the President to figure out the outcome.”
“Without eight votes the measure is defeated,” said Ward 6’s John Krol. “I will defer to a closer reading by the city solicitor to clarify, but this is my understanding. I only became aware that Nick would be abstaining as the debate on this issue took place. At that point, I knew it was definitely in danger of being defeated as I listened to the comments of my colleagues and counted potential votes.
“Regarding the bus issue, it was clear that the school administration had done its due diligence considering all options, including privatization and rotating in a portion of new buses for the fleet (rather than replacing the entire fleet at once). Upon the administration’s research and an auditor’s full analysis, it was clear that the most cost-effective strategy is the one they proposed.”
One other council source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “We looked like fools again. My only question is, was this what the mayor wanted? He openly appeared to be for the funding, but it was his people that killed it. Either he wanted it dead, or he can’t line-up his own. In my opinion, either way, the mayor appeared to fail last night.”
THE PLANET shall continue our coverage of this issue. We shall continue to refute the unsupported claims that it’s cheaper for the city to buy and maintain buses than it is to privatize. The opposite is true. Simonelli’s facts give part of the reason. Morandi spelled it out as clearly as it can be done: It’s time for the city to tighten the belt, same way that taxpayers have had to do, over and over again.
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“First and foremost, as I stated at the Council meeting, I am philosophically opposed to the Pittsfield School Dept. owning their own bus fleet. When I asked Ms. Behnke, she confirmed Pittsfield is the only district in the County that does). Beside my philosophical belief we should not [be in] the transportation business, I would like to provide you some facts.
“According the the school department line item fact sheet, FY14 anticipated final expenditures are…bus drivers: $743,262; supervisor: $41,208; mechanics: $120,634; operations & maintenance: $249,600; handicap transportation: $88,322; gasoline: $287,248. (I may have overlooked other expenses). My understanding is that bus drivers, monitors, supervisors & mechanics all receive various benefits/pensions as well (cost?). As we know, these expenses will certainly go up.
“According to Ms. Behnke, in 2005 the auditors stated owning our buses would be cheaper than privatizing. While no study has been taken over the past 9 years, the auditors felt the same results would occur, if they performed another study today. According to Supt. McCandless, if the City owned 40 buses or less, it may make sense to privatize. The school committee is looking to purchase 43 buses, (close to 40?). Doesn’t this warrant another look? In addition to these expenses, the City is currently responsible for paying off over $1.2 million for the current (53) buses that the Committee wishes to trade-in. Should we bond $2,766,075 when over $1.2 is still owed? FYI: bond payment for the $1.2 million isn’t due until 2020.
Ms. Behnke stated the plan was for the school dept. to include $550,000 in the budget for the next 5 years in order to pay off the $2,766,075. I believe this to be an “addition” to the school budget, not reducing the budget by $550,000 … and putting it towards the buses. So with the addition of $550,000 on top of the anticipated $1.5 million for negotiated raises, the school department budget for FY16 would automatically be a $2 million increase over “whatever” the budget will be for FY15, and continue on until payment is complete.
I believe it is important to note that at no time did Ms. Behnke (or Supt. McCandless) say the buses were in critical condition, putting the children in danger. The reasoning was basically the buses were 9 yrs. old, and to get the best trade-in value by doing it now. I believe it was actually stated that the current fleet could last several more years. My question is, why couldn’t the school dept. hold on to (at least) 1/2 of the current fleet, and stagger the purchase of new buses, as was originally promised several years ago?
Regarding your question if I had been approached by anyone to change my position, the answer is no. On the contrary, I have received several phone calls and emails as well as people coming up to me in support of my vote, including several former City Councilor/officials.