Take My Council, Please: Rules of Engagement…
The following Post refers to the 6/17/12 Council Meeting postponed from its originally scheduled date on 6/10/12 due to the death of Ofc. Kevin Ambrose on that day. We apologize for the delay in its posting.
Less than twenty-four hours before Mayor Domenic Sarno released his budget, the Springfield City Council met to debate among the final financial transactions of the 2012 fiscal year and prepare other measures for the next. The actual substance of the mayor’s budget, not revealed to councilors until a half hour before the mayor’s formal announcement on Tuesday, was not exactly the issue. The elephant in the room was the discomfort councilors felt over the process and, consequently, their inability to give the budget due diligence.
Much of the meeting was dedicated to accepting grants and approving reports of ordinance changes that would raise additional revenue for the city. The Council approved transfers from within the budget to the DPW for signs & signals, professional services within Capital Assets and the police department’s gasoline fund. One measure, however, was sent to committee, a transfer from finance to PayGo. Questions arose over the use of some of that money for a senior center, especially in light of sharp cuts coming to the city’s budget.
Reports for zone changes were also approved without much debate including two boilerplate reports from Western Massachusetts Electric Company.
The City Council also formally accepted a number of regular grants and moneys that come annually from the federal government and the commonwealth. These moneys, particularly the city’s Community Development Block Grant, have fallen as a result of budget slashing, including as part of recent budget deals President Barack Obama has made with Republicans who have argued (with no evidence) that sharp budget reductions now will improve the economy.
The Council’s bid to increase its own term to four years was tabled once more as one of its lead sponsors, Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, was absent again due to his health. Another measure, the discontinue (make a dead-end) Garfield Street as part of the Forest Park Middle School renovation was withdrawn by the Board of Public Works.
The debate then moved to the raising of fees for numerous City Clerk transactions, building permits and animal adoptions. Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Lee Erdman warned the Council what the impact of not approving the fees would likely include more cuts to services and/or layoffs. However, he was reminded by Pat Burns, the City Comptroller, that if the Council approved the budget without the enhanced revenues, the council could cut the budget to balance it. Or, Erdman continued, the council and the mayor could wait until the tax rate was set later in the year to balance the bduget. The city is required to have a balanced budget, but does not need to have one until it sets the tax rate. Failure to do so would prohibit the city from collecting property taxes.
At-large Councilor Tim Rooke began an exchange with Erdman asking why the Council should approve these fees when they have not been told what the consequences of not approving them would be. Erdman answered that the Council had been given several months to review the fees. Rooke was undeterred saying the fees “should nto be in the budget unless approved by the Council, first.” At-large Kateri Walsh called the budget inclusion of the as-of-yet unapproved fees (which were in the budget presented the next day) “a leap of faith.”
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea disagreed, noting that some of the fees, like the Building Department fee increases had the effect of keeping that particular department’s staffing levels consistent. He urged passage so that the Council could move forward.
Before the council were not the ordinances themselves, but rather reports on the ordinances. The change in ordinances could not undertaken that day because there had not been proper notice as required under state open meetings laws. Consequently, final passage on any of the fees would have to wait until the next council meeting.
However, one fee did get held up. The City Clerk, who made the bulk of the fee recommendations, suggested the Council raise the tag sale fee, but also the limit on the number of sales a resident could hold at their address. City Clerk Wayman Lee recommended a jump to eight from two under current ordinance. That spurred Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton to object, worrying about “runaway tag sales.” Lee argued that a failure to raise the tag sale limit would only leave people holding such sales illegal. The implication of Fenton’s argument seemed to be that those who would hold illegal tag sales, probably do no pay the fee under any circumstances. Moreover, there appeared to be a fear among councilors that such “runaway tag sales” may be dealing in stolen goods.
Fenton moved to amend the order to ratchet down the number of tag sales to three from eight, still one more than under current ordinance. However, the council deadlocked on a recorded vote leaving the measure un-changed at eight tag sales a year. At-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera, Rooke, Fenton, Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, Shea, and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen voted to reduce the limit to three. At-large Councilors Thomas Ashe and Bud Williams, Walsh, Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak voted against the amendment.
The failure of the amendment prompted Fenton to pull-out Rule 20. Under Rule 20, all debate on a measure must end until the City Comptroller can prepare a report on the impact. Lysak had sniped at Fenton before Rule 20’s invocation for not attending the subcommittee meeting the former chair where the questions of financing were discussed. However, Fenton was undeterred saying he felt uncomfortable allowing excessive tag sales that could blight neighborhoods without knowing whether the financial impact could justify it.
The Council closed the meeting with the acceptance of $300,000 for tree replanting in areas affected by last year’s tornado. With the exception of the tag sale fee, most of the fees will likely pass easily at the next meeting. Still unresolved is the trash fee and the hotel tax. However, even those measures, critical as they may be to the budget, pale in comparison to the tension building ahead of the Council’s formal debate of the full financial document itself.