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Take My Council, Please: Settling for Less, Demanding More…

(WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—In a comparatively—and mercifully—short meeting Monday night, the City Council’s responsibilities were largely financial. Although many of the meeting’s fiscal items veered toward the banal, a wistful to frustrated air fell over the body around two of them.

Councilors had to approve over a million dollar is settlement funds, mostly to settle police misconduct cases.  Meanwhile, it accepted a Finance Committee report that poured some cold water on the heady hopes the opening of MGM Springfield has ushered in. From a strictly financial point of view, neither traipsed toward the cataclysmic. Yet they were reminds of intractable problems and the limits of available solutions.

The meeting began with an unusual public plea for assistance from residents of the Maples, a 70’s era complex perched on Maple Street’s peak. Residents described a host of code violations, including exposed gas lines, cut off heat and a hallway still fragranced by a sewage backup some weeks ago.

The pre-meeting public speak out produced gripping testimony from tenants essentially abandoned by their landlord. In the moment, councilors could do little. However, they promised action.

Tim Ryan in 2017. (via Facebook/Ryan campaign)

At-large Councilor Timothy Ryan suggested the city consider receivership. That process would allow the city to turn over the property to a more responsible caretaker, the receiver. The receiver could make repairs and then place a lien on the property to recoup expenses and an administrative fees.

Councilor Jesse Lederman and Marcus Williams, the chairs of Health & Human Services and Maintenance & Development respectively, said they would hold hearings.

The Council kicked off its meeting with what amounted to an amendment to brownfield grant the Council had accepted earlier this summer. The city must repay the grant, which will facilitate redevelopment of several Tapley Street parcels. The state will take a cut of whatever revenue the city earns from the properies.

The body accepted a revenue and expenditure report, a Comcast utility report, and grants for the library and animal control departments. Councilors greenlit budget transfers to pension reserves, to redeem out Denise Jordan’s unused time, and to pay a bill from last year.  The Council also took final action to repeal the food truck’s ordinance’s sunset clause, in effective reviving it.

Councilors did not act on a hotel tax hike, leaving it to die in committee. Nor did councilors act on an easement for the North End Gerena tunnel due to continued dithering on the state’s part.

However, councilors also received some disappointing, if not unexpected news.  Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen presented a Finance Committee report from earlier this year on casino revenue. Councilor Ryan chairs Finance, but was absent for this particular meeting. Allen explained that Springfield will in fact not be getting its full promised amount in the host community agreement (HCA) with MGM.

Councilor Tim Allen in 2016. (WMassP&I)

That’s not because MGM is reneging or something else happened. To the contrary, it is by design.

Springfield’s HCA with MGM removes the casino from the tax rolls and commits the company to making payments in-lieu-of-taxes or PILOTs instead. Although state casino law mandates HCAs, Springfield opted to structure its as a 121A agreement, so-named after the relevant chapter of state law.

This arrangement benefits the company, which would know its payments ahead of time. That also helps the city.  Not only can it predict the income, but it doesn’t have to figure out how to assess a complex property with no peer.

However, Springfield got some PILOT funds up front to get through cash crunches since MGM came to town. These funds also went toward Union Station and Riverfront Park. Using an intricate formula that considers the property’s value pre-MGM, the city credits these pre-payments against the PILOTs the gaming leviathan owes.

“It’s wonderful what we’re getting this year,” Allen said. “But it’s not accurate to say we’ve got a new $17.6 million,” he added referencing the city’s on-paper MGM-related revenue.

At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield asked the administration to confirm the city was not paying anything back. City Solicitor Ed Pikula confirmed that, but told Whitfield there was some variation on the numbers due to interest.

Problems out of Pearl Street are costing the city money. (via Twitter/@spd_hq)

Finally, the Council somberly approved $1.135 million in funds for settlements. Some was recompense for a child that nearly drowned in a city pool.  Yet, much of it was to settle police misconduct cases. Among them is the brawl outside Nathan Bill’s Bar & Grill in 2015 that included city cops. The city will pay out $885,00 for the Nathan Bill’s case. Herman Cumby, who was gravely injured in the fight, will receive most of that.

Another $75,000 settles a case wherein a may died of an aneurysm while in police custody. The rest will go to Marc Vizcarrondo, who nearly drowned at Camp STAR Angelina in 2017.

During the roll call, some councilors paused in frustration before voting, ultimately unanimously.

Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs asked if the settlements had any impact on disciplinary proceedings.  Pikula confirmed it did not. Pikula also told Councilor Williams these settlements would end the suits entirely.

Ryan, who served on the Police Commission when it existed, noted recent reporting about cops, including some on the supervisory level, taking the Fifth during depositions related to the Gregg Bigda case. Some refused to answer questions entirely.

The feds and Attorney General Maura Healey have opened investigations into the incident. The situation exploded after videos show Bigda apparently threatening recently arrested juveniles after they stole a police cruiser. Civil rights suits have also been filed and a broader federal probe is underway.

“If they can’t answer the questions”—referring to the supervisors—“how are we going to run a very vital, very important department in the city?” Ryan asked.

Pikula proposed that the Council schedule an executive session to discuss the matter in more detail. Council President Orlando Ramos said he would consider one for the October 16 meeting.

Civil suits due to police misconduct have cost Springfield millions over the last few years. It has become increasingly frustrating for councilors to authorize payouts even as reform seems slow.

(WMassP&I)

Moreover, the problems transcend leadership. Police Commissioner John Barbieri, while rightly criticized over some matters, has not shied away from terminating bad cops. Bigda escaped that fate because Barbieri ostensibly did not know about the video of Bigda until it was too late to can him.

Mayor Domenic Sarno has given no indication as to whether he will implement the revival of the Police Commission. Historically both reform advocates and cops have supported its return. Perhaps something more than Pearl Street personnel has to change.

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