Take My Council, Please: Running into Springfield on a Rail…
SPRINGFIELD—Ahead of its summer slowdown, the City Council ripped through a potpourri agenda featuring new ordinances, support for added rail service and derailment of a labor contract. Earlier in the evening, the City Council had unanimously passed Mayor Domenic Sarno’s budget without any cuts. Similar acclimation was in store for the regular meeting agenda but for the second district fire chiefs’ contract vote.
The meeting covered acceptance of several of its big federal grants, including the Community Development Block Grant. The fate of that program remains in the balance as Donald Trump has proposed to remove all funding form the federal budget. But for the current federal budget, which runs through September 30, some funds actually rose.
Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen was absent to attend a funeral out of town.
Just before the Council’s meeting, State Senator Eric Lesser concluded a statewide road trip at Union Station to rally support for his rail study. The study is part of the State Senate’s budget, but it must survive House-Senate negotiations. It faces an uncertain fate once on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
Councilor Adam Gomez, Ken Shea and Kateri Walsh introduced a resolution in support of the study. Lesser’s study would consider the engineering and design challenges to implementing better rail service.
Shea observed solid service in Southwestern Connecticut has been beneficial to that region. “Every community along the line has prosperous development and jobs,” he said. Shea chided The Boston Herald for editorializing such service was among other “luxuries.”
The resolution passed on a voice vote toward the meeting’s end.
In a statement, Lesser praised the move. “The Council is at the forefront of a rising tide of regional leaders that now includes the Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, who all realize the significant economic potential that east-west rail could provide for Western Mass families,” he said.
Lesser added that the Council’s backing bolstered his case to Baker. The study was in last year’s budget. However, the governor vetoed it at the behest of Peter Pan Bus Lines chieftain and Baker fundraiser Peter Picknelly. Baker countered with a bland review all transportation in the 413, but the study died amid the session-end scramble.
Allen’s absence became pivotal to the second vote opponents of the district fire chiefs’ contract had forced. On June 5, the contract passed on a narrow 7-6 margin.
Councilors had rejected two other versions of the contract. By June 5, the city and the chiefs agreed to residency and omit sweeteners that had been included in exchange. Yet, six councilors remained opposed, arguing the old contract already mandated residency compliance.
Opponents have effectively demanded the arguably noncompliant chiefs either move into the city or forfeit their jobs.
Some councilors who had rejected the contract accepted the compromise, which imposed residency prospectively but with no sweeteners. That majority did not exist without Allen, however. All items require a majority of al councilors to advance.
Walsh, an at-large councilor, moved to send the item to committee. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton noted why Allen was missing and encouraged the delay as a courtesy to their colleague. Opponents were unmoved.
Walsh’s motion failed 6-6. Joining Walsh were Thomas Ashe, Michael Fenton, Timothy Rooke, Shea and E. Henry Twiggs. Councilors Melvin Edwards, Gomez, Justin Hurst, Orlando Ramos, Bud Williams and Marcus Williams voted no.
The final roll call mirrored the motion to committee.
During public speak out, contract opponents accused some district chiefs of posting untoward remarks on social media. Those claims were substantiated by The Republican, though Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant disputed separate claims he was notified of the posts.
Beyond that episode, the meeting moved quickly.
Revenue and expenditure and committee reports were accepted without much debate. Councilor Hurst, who chairs the General Government Committee, said discussions on fines for violating wintertime parking bans were ongoing.
Councilors accepted utility reports and a petition for fuel pumps at Springfield Union Station. One report for work at Parker Street and Boston Road included condition that the intersection be repaved upon completion of the work.
Cathy Buono, the head of the city’s Community Development office, spoke about the CDBG and other HUD grants. She said many ended up being larger than originally expected. When Congress passed its continuing resolution, several programs received a bump much to the consternation of Trump.
The grants Buono presented all received approval. They were the CDBG grant: $3,490,000; homebuyer assistance grants: $1,090,000; money for housing for people with AIDS: $453,000; and homelessness grants $319,000.
The Council accepted $620,000 to battle substance abuse and $74,550 for fire equipment. Smaller funds for disaster preparedness, senior services, and other programs received acceptance, too.
A litany of end of fiscal year matters also passed. A bill from a prior year was paid. The Council acceded to a $2.415 million transfer from free cash to reserves. Another $1.377 million moved from various Finance Department accounts to the “PAYGO” projects account. Another $1 million from free cash will shore up the city’s pension fund. Within public works, the Council authorized the transfer of $220,000 for street lights augmented by another $82,500 from across city accounts.
The Council greenlit a $172,000 transfer to plug an underfunded retirement grant, a lease for the Springfield Retirement Board—a distinct legal entity—on Tapley Street and release of excess city property.
On ordinances, the Council granted final approval to taxi and livery ordinance updates. The changes bring the Springfield rules into compliance with a ride-hailing bill Beacon Hill passed last year. The Council passed first step on a petroleum storage fee hike and sent technical changes to the trash fee to committee.
The week before the meeting, the New England Farmworkers Council, a nonprofit, announced plans to restore the Paramount theater. The Main Street frontage of the Paramount was once the Massasoit House hotel. Its rooms and an adjoining structure would become a new hotel, while the Theater, for a time the Hippodrome, would become a performing arts space once again.
Council approval is necessary for a HUD 108 loan. Deputy Director of Economic Development Brian Connors said Springfield can leverage its CDBG funds as collateral for loans of up to five times the city’s annual allotment for economic development projects. This program had been used to renovate the former Holiday Inn into the current La Quinta off I-291.
While NEFWC chief Heriberto Flores indicated the project is still seeking private funds, the HUD loan is the first component. The 81-room hotel’s revenue would pay back the federal loan.
The Council has only one regular summertime meeting between now and September, slated for mid-July. Although Sarno shelved the district chiefs’ contract pending investigation of the social media posts, it could come up again. Meanwhile, many Springfield pols are turning toward Boston and budget negotiations.
The state fiscal year ends next Friday so a temporary budget could be passed as the House and Senate wrangle over a full-year spending plan. Should Lesser’s study make it through but Baker axes it again, one factor from last year will not exist. There will not be the same rush to override gubernatorial vetoes as the formal session does not end until next July.