Take My Council, Please: Sound & Fury Signifying What?…
For weeks now, tension has been building among city councilors over the mayor’s budget. Even before Mayor Domenic Sarno presented his budget two weeks ago, many councilors were almost livid over the process. Consequently, when the budget faced its annual scrutiny Wednesday evening, it was an utter disappointment to see the process end like a deflating balloon rather than a popped one.
Councilors reduced not even a penny from the mayor’s $551 million budget. In fact, aside form as of yet unapproved revenue measures, which the council could not consider Wednesday, all of the budget was approved except for moneys related to the Quinn Bill.
Without any cuts to speak of, the most meaningful part of the hearing was the rare, public confrontation/airing of complaints between the mayor and members of the city council.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs was absent for all votes due to continuing health problems.
The meeting opened with the mayor’s initial statement and familiar reminders of the city’s dire financial condition. Among the items he reminded the Council of was the drop in city employment since his first inauguration in 2008 and his list of proposals to the state to fix the city’s finances. Those range from the possible exemption of the city-side contribution to the schools to the fanciful exemption from Proposition 2 ½.
At-large Kateri Walsh chastised the mayor for not including the city council in his meetings with Beacon Hill officials. Sarno defended the council’s exclusion by reminding them that he and not them writes the budget and that that is typically how things are done. The comment did not go over particularly well, with Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton rising to say, “In these uncommon times, we have to use uncommon practice.” Notably, according to the then-Springfield Union-News, former Mayor Charles Ryan brought then-Council President Sarno to bailout negotiations with state officials.
Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, who had told the Republican during the committee budget review that he had found $500,000 worth of cuts, expressed his appreciations for the mayor submitting a lean budget. Indeed, Lysak said that if his cuts were passed, he hoped the mayor would use the funds to restore public safety cuts. Sarno expressed no such assurance, but promised to look at it. The mayor also noted that despite tight police budget, crime is down 5%, a number that could not be independently verified.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, who seemed to play pass interference for the mayor best among councilors urged the council not to bicker with the mayor over the process or the result of the budget. This was a response not only to Walsh, but also to Fenton who had asked why the budget was submitted so late.
Sarno said that the tardy submission was due to waiting for state aid figures and also the death of Officer Kevin Ambrose. Although WMassP&I confirmed that the budget had been planned for submission a day or two after Ambrose was murdered, Fenton, noted accurately, that an early June submission was still quite late. Sarno justified the relative tardiness by noting that the budget remained among the earliest filings of the budget in recent memory. While it is true that former Mayor Michael Albano had a terrible record of budget submission (some so late that the Council could have asserted its own emergency authority to write the budget), Sarno’s statement is inconvenienced by the mayor’s own record. In fact according to contemporary news reports from years passed, since Sarno has been mayor he has not submitted a budget later than May 22 until now.
At-large Councilor Bud Williams also defended the mayor noting rightly that Albano’s budget were less than punctual, but he also lumped in former Mayor Charles Ryan into that tardiness. Including Ryan ignores the facts of history, however. Ryan only ever submitted one budget to the Council, and it was a one-month budget pending legislative action on Beacon Hill for the city’s bailout and control board. Throughout the rest of Ryan’s more recent tenure, the executive director and not the mayor, strictly speaking, submitted the budget to the Control Board which approved the measure in a largely pro forma, if not unanimous, vote
Committee reports yielded no recommended cuts and only Lysak offered any at all. After some stalling to properly submit those proposed cuts, the mayor and his finance team suggested that layoffs would occur if Lysak’s 1.5% cut to “other than personnel services” were passed. Other than personnel services, or OTPS, covers supplies and other miscellaneous costs that departments incur. It excludes obviously payroll, but also capital expenses like turnover of fleet vehicles. There was no clear explanation from the administration how this would translate into layoffs. However, it is possible, albeit only if the administration wanted it to be so, that a reduction in certain supplies may violate terms of collectively bargained employee contracts. The police or fire departments may have certain safety requirements per employee that if reduced could prompt a layoff if the city could not meet that requirement. However, the mayor and his staff advanced no such theoretical.
An exchange between Lysak and Shea over the OTPS cuts as well as cuts to the city’s gasoline accounts (as a means to reduce take-home car privileges) grew heated after Shea called the cuts to various department too small. Lysak, in a display of populist indignation, noted that the tiny amounts cut in the budget amount to far more in the poor communities he represents.
In the end, however Lysak withdrew his gasoline motion while his OTPS motion died when Fenton withdrew his second. Fenton withdrew after Lysak accepted amendments from at-large Councilor Tim Rooke and from Williams, to spare the Police and parks respectively from the OTPS cuts. It is unclear how much savings the exemptions would cost, but it may have been enough to make the rest of the OTPS cuts insignificant. The council offered no other cuts to the budget.
On revenues, councilors sought to give themselves more time to digest the budget and not approve the stabilization reserve transfer until later in the year. The Council did just this last year as the budget does not need to be in total balanced until the fall when its sets its property tax rate. Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen made a motion to send the transfer to committee. Fenton opposed the transfer, particularly its amount, (almost $9 million). noting that next year looks just as grim. The reserves may be necessary to make it through the next couple of years when non-discretionary spending will digest the entire city budget.
Sarno said he is looking at other revenues and has had conversations with State House Revenue Chairman Jay Kaufman about readjusting the unrestricted local aid schedule in Springfield and other cities favor. Rooke also took the opportunity to reargue the need for the city to bid out its insurance rather than use the state health insurance pool.
In the end Rooke and Fenton were the only votes against the transfer, which needed 9 votes. Before the final vote was cast, the motion to committee had failed on a 4-8 vote with Walsh and Allen joining Rooke and Fenton in dissent.
Most other revenue measures passed without much controversy. The council approved a transfer from the Property Tax Overlay account to the general fund. The overlay account covers abatements and other tax exemptions in the city and extra moneys from year to year can be transferred back to the general fund.
More controversial was the mayor’s set aside of $1.8 million to cover the state’s side of the Quinn bill during police union negotiations. A state supreme court ruling said that municipalities are not obligated to continue the state’s share of the funding which was cut out of the state budget during the economic crisis. Shea opposed the transfer arguing that the city should not be given the money unless and until there is a contract agreed upon that requires it. Fenton asked whether the city was treating the continuation of state funding as a matter for bargaining. The city’s labor negotiator would neither confirm nor deny, leading Fenton to concur with Shea. The transfer was moved to committee on an 8-4 vote. Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, Lysak, at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera and Rooke were in dissent.
At this point, Allen announced that he had been in negotiations with the mayor to approve a trash fee increase this year of $15 instead of $10 to facilitate reopening of closed city libraries. The added $5 would net $200,000 which could keep at least two libraries open for the next year. Fenton demanded a guarantee that the mayor would submit a supplemental library funding order to the council and mayor declined. He declined again to commit during a brief interview with WMassP&I after the hearing. Sarno instead opted to place hope on negotiations with the Library Foundation and the Springfield Museums Association for additional library funds.
The budget meeting closed with the largely symbolic vote on the budget overall. Luna, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, Shea, Lysak, at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, Ferrera, Rooke and Williams voted in favor of the budget. Fenton, Allen, Lysak and Walsh dissented.
In a post-mortem interview, Sarno thanked the council for its diligence and reiterated his determination to find additional revenues. Sarno noted that the stagnation of local aid, juxtaposed against increases in school aid had the effect of pulling money out of the city side of the budget in an amount exceeding what recovery there has been in the local aide budget. Otherwise, Sarno appeared to be pinning a great deal of hope on a casino, which he said could bring $500 million in investment to the city. However, even if all of that translated into ultimately taxable property in the city (either in the casino and through increases in other properties throughout in the city) it may not put much in the coffers. At the approximate 4% commercial property tax rate, the result would be $20 million dollars in revenue, a nice sum but millions below the true boost the city’s property tax revenue needs.
In some ways the final result exposed the worst truths about the city’s political situation. Although it is true that effectively no cuts were proposed (Lysak’s OTPS cut lacked the second it needed to be brought to a vote), few councilors were even willing to vote symbolically against the budget in contrast to past years. Edwards and Ashe may have been contemplating political considerations as they seek higher office. That is not an excuse, but it is an explanation. Williams and Shea seemed uninterested in the argument that process matters, not so much for this year but next year. Luna’s motivations remain as unknown and cryptic as ever. The rest of the yes votes were among the same that opposed any meaningful cuts in years past.
Perhaps the most troubling vote, namely on final approval came from Rooke. Often hailed as fiscal hawk, the at-large councilor did not offer anything more than the same screed about the city’s health insurance. Whether right or wrong, it is a stand that has taken on the same quixotic nature as his complaint about the school department headquarters. At least his schools HQ argument relied more on fact and less theory. That he voted for the budget as whole, despite an earlier vote against the stabilization transfer, could undermine his credibility as a vanguard for fiscal responsibility. Indeed had he voted against the budget it would have “passed” on a 7-5 vote.