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Take My Council, Please: Fiscal Discilpline, 30 Years Overdue and Still Fresh…

Tonight a somewhat strange thing happened at 36 Court Street.  The City Council fulfilled one of its legal obligations and actually did so by substantial majorities.  Through relatively few votes, the Springfield City Council cut more than $2.8 million dollars from the budget the mayor filed with the city last month.  Among the council’s chief concerns, articulated by City Council President Jose Tosado and Ward 2 Councilor and Finance Committee Chair Mike Fenton, were the significant use of stabilization funds to plug the city’s yawning budget gap.  That chasm was created through rising personnel costs, weak tax revenue and yet another cut to local aid from Beacon Hill.

Even with the cuts, the city will ultimately rely on roughly $7.5 million in stabilization reserves and another $5 million from an overlay account administered by the Assessors’ Department.  Additionally, the city risks losing additional property tax revenue from damaged homes and businesses caught in the June 1st tornado.  Still, with next year’s budget looking even more gruesome than this year’s (and it will be paired with union negotiations with virtually all city bargaining units), keeping stabilization revenue intact is essential.
Tosado made some comments early on encouraging fiscal discipline only a year after he had refused to lift a finger to support cuts last year.  Still, the council president, perhaps knowing his mayoral aspirations remain dimmed by the tornado no doubt used the opportunity to jab the mayor, yet still doing what was right.

Councilor Tosado (Facebook)
Councilors kicked off the budget session with a vote to eliminate funding for vacant positions within the budget.  Although the mayor protested and even trotted out Police Commissioner Bill Fitchet to support funding for heretofore unfilled dispatch positions, the council rejected the entreaties and eliminated the positions.  Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, who would become among the most reliable votes for the mayor’s budget as is, attempted to play to councilors’ political fear of cutting from public safety.  However, the council eliminated the unfilled positions.  At large councilors Jimmy Ferrera and Tom Ashe joined Concepcion in opposing the cuts.

Next the council proposed a broad cut of 5% to “other than personnel services” across city departments.  These items could be anything from support services to office supplies, basically anything that is not on payroll.  This cut elicited some minor protest for the mayor, but, representing more than a million and a half dollars all by itself, it passed the council easily 11-2. It made up the lion’s share of other the budget reductions.  Ferrera and Concepcion dissented.

Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera made an appeal to cut overtime budgets (which would largely come from police, fire and DPW) to save the jobs of eleven or so employees in the budget.  However, the political sensitivities could not be extended that far.  That cut failed 2-11, Rivera and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards casting the two yes votes.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)
Whole swaths of the budget were cycled through without so much as a peep from councilors.  Ultimately proposals for cuts of $100,000 were proposed for Information Technology and Finance each, which will likely result in a handful of job losses.  Concepcion, Ashe and Ferrera were the three noes on the finance cuts.  Cuts to IT were much closer on a 7-6 vote.  Tosado, Fenton, and Ashe joined Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs to make those cuts.
Later on, Citistat, an office intended to find efficiencies in city government was all, but gutted by the council.  Although Citistat has made considerable progress for the city, it has been accused of hyping minor fiscal victories for the political benefit of city officials.  It died an ignominious death on a 10-3 vote, Rivera, Concepcion and Ferrera casting the votes to spare the office.

A measure supported by Fenton to defund the lease for the city’s health department to force it into city property died without a second to bring it to a vote.  At this point at-large councilor Tim Rooke attempted to bring up the lease the city pays on the former federal building where the School Department presently resides.  The back and forth ate up a few minutes of the council’s time, but served to do little, but give Rooke a chance to snipe at the mayor.

Mayor Domenic Sarno (WMassP&I)
The final budget vote passed 10-3 with Concepcion, Ferrera and Rooke casting no votes.  The council then engaged on a series of revenue votes.  However, because technically they took place outside the budget (and the requisite state laws), they were unable to make all the changes desired.  Generally speaking, city councils can not increase appropriations or even change the source for funding a part of the budget.  However, within the confines of M.G.L. 44 §32, the council can cut any item in the budget.  However, because the budget had been effectively closed with a final vote, the council was voting under M.G.L. 40, probably §5B, which calls for up or down votes.  Consequently, the council voted the stabilization funds down and will likely get a new appropriation from the mayor.

As a result of this, the budget fell out of balance, but the city only needs to have a spending plan approved before July 1.  Its budget needs to be balanced, but the formal approval of revenues is not necessary until the city requests approval from the Department of Revenue to draw property tax revenue, a process undertaken in the fall.  Other measures including an increase in the hotel occupancy tax and fees were tabled pending committee hearings.  The imbalances left there, too, can be corrected later.  Revolving funds that require re-authorization, however, were re-approved.

The cuts to the budget showed growth for the city council.  For years, if not decades, the council has often put up only token opposition to the mayor’s budget.  Even the best mayoral budget deserves more scrutiny than that which Springfield budgets were subjected.  By comparison, the council could only agree on half a million dollars last year.

Not all efforts undertaken by the council reflect this positive evolution (consider the slot parlor permit), but this budget vote as well as the Biomass permit suggests an awakening of politics in the city and maybe the region.  Some councilors have attributed the mistakes and inertia in the city to corruption.  This is certainly true, but it also paired with an indifferent abdication of responsibility by councilors (particularly in the old all at-large system) and the counterpart to that–a mayor with all power all the time.  Critiques during the tornado response are as much, if not more about a system where the mayor is the be all and all of city government.  The council was a formality.  No more.

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
Another interesting point is who most vociferously opposed cuts.  Rooke and Ashe’s voters were touch and go so it is difficult to read much into it.  However, Concepcion and Ferrera’s vote are interesting.  Generally Concepcion and at-large councilor Kateri Walsh have been among the mayor’s most reliable votes.  Walsh bailed on the mayor to join the crowd, but Concepcion stayed tight.  In his expressing his perspective,  Concepcion appeared to buy the concerns the mayor offered.  Any more nefarious motives are difficult to divine now.  
Stranger still is Ferrera’s quiet, sulking opposition to virtually all of the budget alterations.  Ferrera has long portrayed himself as a valiant voice shining light on anything iniquitous in the city real or imagined, including in fiscal.  His quests included berating the city departments for not buying inadequate hybrid vehicles to  preventing Springfield from becoming a pot paradise after  weed was decriminalized 2008 here…and the rest of the commonwealth.  Here though, he supported virtually no restraints in spending.

For now, at least, the city has made an important step.  True, there are some unfortunate layoffs that happened as a result.  However, the city in the end made the responsible and perhaps only realistic cuts,  balanced against revenue where possible.  It was also a useful parable about how budgets need to be cut.  There is waste, but the problem is that the city’s state aid has been slashed and local tax receipts can literally not grow. The states and feds are not so restrained in terms of revenue and could do the country a favor if solutions were found with balanced approaches.
Whether the motivations of councilors was a real fear of another fiscal Armageddon or a hope to make the mayor look stupid, the vote was a good one.  Here’s to hoping future votes show this same level of discipline, tact and engagement.