Take My Council, Please: Side Walking a Fine Line…
SPRINGFIELD—A Monday déjà vu agenda consisting largely of repeats from the last meeting made for a relatively prompt hearing. Items that returned either were dispatched with remarkable speed compared to the pace that sent them to committee two weeks ago.
Both the agreement between the city and the Business Improvement District and a $5 million bond for road and sidewalk repairs passed after councilors requested more time to review the items. Much of the rest of the agenda were a series of non-controversial grants and land conveyances. Some included a bit of discussion, but everything passed without dissent.
The sole exception was consideration of a home rule petition to allow the city to raise the threshold at which contracts need to go through the typical review process. Currently, contracts under a certain value may undergo an expedited process or require no contract at all. Most municipalities are held to a lower threshold than other organs of the commonwealth and this law would allow Springfield to operate under that higher threshold, although the true goal is legislation that affects all communities.
However, the General Government Committee had not reviewed the item since the last meeting. Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, the chair of General Government, who had yet to call a meeting, said she still wanted to hold one, thus putting off action for the time being.
The Council accepted reports from utilities and for a zoning change to be considered at its next hearings meeting. It also accepted a grant from Comcast and a donation to benefit Franconia Golf Course. Moneys from the state library commissioners was also accepted.
In stark contrast to the nearly endless debate last meeting about the city’s agreement with the Business Improvement District downtown, the Council took up the measure and passed it without much more than a word uttered. Concerns two weeks ago included the legal viability of the BID and whether the city’s payment to it, $70,000, was too small in light of the value of the city’s property downtown. None of these were considered as the measure passed unanimously.
A diverse slate of property transfers also received Council approval. Viva Development bought an apartment building on Central Street. Praised by Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards for its work elsewhere on Central Street, Viva had redeveloped parcels cleared by the 2011 tornado.
A construction company secured the former Fire Station at the corner of Page Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue. The plan calls for converting the first floor to the company’s new home while constructing apartments in the building’s second story. A side parcel on Pine Street was conveyed to an abutting property owner.
The Council also allowed a bill of $600 from last fiscal year to be paid and took the final step to transfer funds from the sale of Zanetti school to the School Department’s capital account to finance the wireless project for schools.
The only item that prompted a more rigorous review was, again, the $5 million in bonding the Council put off from last meeting. The Maintenance and Development Committee, chaired by at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, examined the proposal shortly before the full Council meeting. In her report to the full body, Walsh said the city has a 15 year backlog for fixing sidewalks in the city. Generally, residents will request a fix and get put on the list. Dangerously damaged sidewalks sometimes get fixed with asphalt, much to the chagrin of residents.
Department of Public Works chief Chris Cignoli said the money in the bond before the Council, where applied to sidewalks, would be done with concrete. He could not say which streets were on the list, however, as the department culls through the requested fixes and identifies streets that cannot be fixed with Community Block Development Grant money.
“The exact list of roadways wouldn’t be done for a month or so,” he said. The CBDG designation affects which funding the city uses to fix sidewalks. More affluent areas like East Forest Park, 16 Acres and to a lesser extent Forest Park, do not qualify for CBDG funding. Sidewalks—and other projects—elsewhere in the city do. The repair work before the Council, being done entirely on the city’s dime, can finance repairs anyway and the focus appears to be on the non-CBDG areas.
That strategy raised the concern of Luna, the Ward 1 Councilor representing downtown and the North End. She said many areas in her ward went without sidewalk repairs for years, ostensibly until CBDG money was available. Luna did not care that non-CBDG money was being used to finance sidewalks in more affluent areas, but, in a follow up interview with WMassP&I expressed concern that the same CBDG money could be fixing festering sidewalks in poorer areas too often was given away to well-connected individuals.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs also asked about utilities tearing up streets to which Cignoli said there are moratoria on freshly paved streets. The only exceptions are for gas lines or critical water and sewer work. He advised councilors to tell him if streets pulled apart by utilities that are not left in the condition they are found.
In the end the bonding was approved unanimously. As 2014 winds down, some additional action is expected from the Council, perhaps on ordinances. Final action, however, is unlikely to come before the New Year. That will leave little time before the tempo picks up ahead of the municipal election and, possibly, a fierce mayoral election.