Take My Council, Please: The Conception of Priorities…
UPDATED 3/8/13 12:56PM: Photograph of current Springfield Senior Center added.
SPRINGFIELD—During a particularly policy-heavy evening, taking form in both ordinance and other measure, the City Council confronted a host of issue from finance to foreclosures to bonding. However, while some of the more substantive debate seemed appropriate, some of the items that attracted the most attention appeared to be receiving controversy disproportionate to the pressing nature of the city’s priorities.
The meeting included the typical cascade of grant money that various departments secure, a resolution, a collective bargaining agreement and numerous financial measures. The meeting opened with a bizarre soliloquy from Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, which appeared to be about a failure to respect Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, but it was unclear how or what had been done that demonstrated inadequate respect toward her.
The Library, Police and Fire Departments all received grants at the meeting. The police grant was nearly delayed as the representative from the department was absent when the item was called up. He returned by the end of the meeting and a vote to send it to committee was reversed so that it could be approved that night.
The Second of three step for a municipal lien ordinance passed second step. Utility reports and a property transfer were approved without opposition. The Council agreed to the city’s first Collective Bargaining agreement since most employee contracts expired last June. The agreement with building inspectors includes no raise this year and 2% raise next year. Also included, new inspectors will be subject to the residency ordinance.
Also approved unanimously after weeks of discord on the matter, was the transfer of Quinn Bill money from a special fund to the Police budget. The measure had raised controversy before (full details here), but during a Finance Committee meeting before the full meeting acting-CAFO and Finance Director T.J. Plante issued a mea culpa.
In minutes from that meeting, Plante said the city was negotiating up until the Quinn money payout deadline and that there was no intention to usurp the Council’s authority. Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, who had opposed the transfer, said he found the admission refreshing and candid. He joined the rest of a unanimous Council in approval.
A measure to authorize deficit spending by the city for snow removal was sent to committee. Judging by comments from the floor, councilors remained upset by the plowing job after a February 9-10 storm.
Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen introduced a resolution to recognize Hampden County District Attorney Mark Mastroianni’s decision to establish a gun court. Last year Allen and Fenton a crime package to the Council that largely languished over the past year. A resolution urging the creation of such a court, where regularly assistant DA’s and judges would process gun crimes, was in that package.
At the time, funding was tight, but apparently the DA’s office was able to secure money to establish such a gun court at the beginning of this month. Allen said the court was only operating on a part-time basis, but its creation was a huge step forward. Similar courts have had success in Boston’s Suffolk County. At-large Councilor Bud Williams effusively praised Allen and Fenton, noting that efforts for a gun court go back years, and that they actually did it.
Williams, as Chair of Planning and Economic Development, brought a report from his committee, which met earlier Monday, on the Lamar Advertising digital billboard permit. After it became clear that permit lacked the necessary nine votes last week, it had been sent to committee. Williams merely reported on the item, but he did not push for a vote, even though Lamar representatives were in the audience.
Concepcion, too, pulled an item out of committee, as expected. The item was a change in the city’s trash fee ordinance. Originally sponsored by Mayor Domenic Sarno and vigorously supported by Concepcion, the measure would essentially lock in a discount for seniors above what they had received last year. This despite the fact that the trash fee eligibility age for the trash fee fell to 65 from 67 in 2011.
When the trash fee was recodified in 2011, the percentage based senior discount was replaced with a flat discount. The 2011 fee for senior was $50, or $25 less than the non-senior rate. The pre-2011 senior discount was 25% of the non-senior rate, therefore the 2011 discount amounted to a better discount in percentage (33%) and real terms (the last rate paid by seniors under the pre-2011 was $56.75).
In 2012, the trash fee rose to $15 to $90. The seniors likewise rose by $15 as well to $65. Sarno, through his spokesman said he always intended to keep the senior rate at $50. In effect, the change enacted Monday grew seniors’ discount percentage from 33% of the regular fee to 45% and inequitably prevented any increase for seniors year over year. Non-seniors in the city, however, will see an increase.
That did not sit well with Fenton or at-large Councilor Tim Rooke. Both decried the unfairness to non-senior residents. Concepcion warned that he would tell seniors about anybody who opposed this policy, completely ignoring the inequity argument entirely. Fenton and Rooke were joined by Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea in dissent.
Councilors sent to committee a bonding measure that would fund reconstruction of Central High Schools Science labs and replace the school’s roof. Plante told the Council that the money came from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The city was able to shoehorn in a roof replacement for the twenty-seven year old school.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh asked Plante about funding for the renovation of the building that houses ECOS, an environmental educational program based at Forest Park’s Porter Lake. Plante replied that the city is lining up the dominoes of city building projects. Several tornado damaged buildings including Elias Brookings school are slated for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but those dollars have yet to be approved. Once they are, Plante explained, other projects can be funded through bonding, but will get done either one way or another
That was not good enough for Williams or Concepcion. Williams laid into Plante, saying residents are clamoring for ECOS, and a new senior center in the city. Williams even suggested that Central not get done in favor of the other projects. An incredulous Plante asked how he could say no to Central when “I’m using 80% of somebody else’s money.”
Williams also erroneously implied that Springfield has no senior center. It does, in fact, have one in downtown with satellite operations throughout the city.
Concepcion rose and blasted Plante, asking when the city was going to get around to bonding for a new senior center in the city. “I have been waiting for this senior center for four years,” he said. While he made a point to ratchet down his rhetoric toward Plante personally, he declared, “I want my senior center!”
Allen noted the reason why the city has been unable to build a new senior center while Holyoke and Chicopee can is the city’s tax revenue has fallen recently. He added that Superintendent Daniel Warwick told him that the roof would need to be done anyway.
At-large Councilor Tom Ashe and Shea both agreed with Allen noting that it made no sense to turn down the money. Shea said that a failure to upgrade the science lab could jeopardize Central’s accreditation. “It’s irresponsible to turn that down,” in exchange for something we have to fund ourselves fully.
The other controversial item of the night was a revision of the city’s landmark foreclosure ordinance passed in 2011. The revisions only affect the ordinance that regulates upkeep of foreclosed homes. As written, foreclosing banks have to post a $10,000 bond from which the city could draw to maintain the foreclosed home if necessary.
The city was sued shortly after its passage by local banks claiming that the ordinance and a companion foreclosure mediation provision, violated the US Constitution. A federal judge in Springfield sided with the city, but the banks appealed to the First Circuit in Boston. The revisions, a result of mediation between the city and banks, would allow banks to opt out of that program if they act to secure and maintain the property.
During the speak-out at the beginning of the meeting, the public blasted the revisions, particularly the seemingly little notice of changes. Former Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera, who championed the ordinance’s during his tenure, alleged that the changes were not vetted before those entities that helped draft the ordinance. Other speakers worried about the impact on those who are facing foreclosure. Some, like Malcolm Chu, did take note that the aim of the revision was to give some breathing room to smaller banks who were not the worst foreclosure offenders.
Councilor Luna moved to refer the item to committee but a disputed voice vote led to calls for a recorded vote. Before that vote happened though, Assistant City Solicitor Lisa DeSousa explained this situation.
She told councilors that the revisions attempted to go down that middle road between the large and small banks. Other solutions to differentiate banks were unworkable. Specifying size might invite an equal protection or dormant commerce clause suit under the Constitution. Excluding banks by the number of foreclosures might let slip a badly maintained foreclosed property. The opt-out, DeSousa said, would likely not be used by large banks, whose foreclosed properties were often the source of trouble.
DeSousa noted that during litigation the foreclosure ordinance was not being enforced and ending the suit would allow enforcement to commence. Speaking to WMassP&I, she said the settlement was agreed to because litigation costs add up for the city. She emphasized that the banks’s settlement leaves the mediation provision intact, which, like the rest of the ordinance, was upheld in federal district court. DeSousa added that were a bank to use an opt-out and not follow through, it would be breaking the law.
DeSousa’s explanation was not likely to change the minds of the ordinance’s backers. While the lack of communication had clearly irked backers, they also worried that the opt-out provision could jeopardize the revenue stream intended to fund the ordinance. Persuaded by DeSousa’s presentation, the Council turned back the motion to committee, with only Concepcion, Luna, Lysak and Williams and Council President Jimmy Ferrera supporting the move.
With the Council prepared to vote, Lysak invoked Rule 20, a procedural tactic that terminates all debate and action on an item pending a report from the City Comptroller.
From foreclosure to bonding the Council dealt with heavy issues. Where the right decision on foreclosures is tougher to say. However, on perks for seniors, which encompassed the trash fee and Central’s bonding, more disconcerting action is afoot. While Concepcion’s threat on the trash fee caused councilors to (rightly) chuckle, he was being serious. The city’s needs are broad and cut across numerous groups. Governing is about choices, and the question is are the choices the right ones for the right reasons.