Take My Council, Please: Citizens United & Disgruntled…
The Springfield City Council inched closer Monday night toward an increase in the fee and a deal has emerged to reopen closed neighborhood library branch. The discussion reopened wounds leftover from this year’s eleventh hour budget process. Elsewhere the Council approved some reports and grants and passed resolution with both national and local considerations.
Due to continuing poor health, Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs was absent.
The meeting opened with a report from the Council President Jimmy Ferrera’s Casino Site Committee. At-large Councilor and Planning and Economic Development Committee Chair Bud Williams reported out Mayor Sarno’s nominees to the Springfield Housing Authority. Angela Robles and Thomas LaBonte were both confirmed on unanimous votes.
The Council also approved cleared an old lien and delivered a landlocked piece of property near Congress and Dwight Streets. Chapter 90 state road funds and reports from Planning and from Western Mass Electric Company were accepted.
The elections money is part of broader efforts to remind voters about the odd Thursday September 6 primary election the Legislature approved to avoid a conflict with a Jewish holiday. Notably, the primary election, set by the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts government, is also on the same day President Barack Obama is expected to accept the Democratic nomination for president. The Council accepted the grant and also approved the city’s polling places along with a warrant to hold the election itself.
Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe presented a resolution opposing the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The Citizens United decision affirmed that corporations are people and can spend freely from their general treasuries influencing elections. That decision also led to a lesser known decision in the Appeals Court for the DC Circuit that enabled the secretive, massive and free-spending Super PACs. The resolution also called on the Massachusetts legislature to pass its own resolution urging Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.
Ashe noted that this decision has perverted the democratic process by allowing corporations and the wealthy to have disproportionate influence in elections. “This is not the way the system was designed,” Ashe said. Fenton added that the decision corrupted the principle of “one man, one vote.” “This decision calls into question that reality,” he said. Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak urged the resolution go farther and urge changes to cut back the influence of lobbyists, special interests, etc.
For Fenton the resolution was not a particular surprise politically, but Ashe’s support is notable given his current race for the Democratic nomination for Clerk of Courts. There is no evidence to suggest anything cynical about Ashe’s move. However, Ashe’s support for the resolution could provide him a boost with some on the left, including women. One of Ashe’s toughest opponents may be current Assistant Clerk of Courts Laura Gentile.
Lysak had a resolution himself calling on Palmer Paving to replace Veteran’s Gravestones that had ended up in some gravel they had purchased. Some councilors worried that this measure looked like hitting the a company owned by the same family behind the proposed biomass plant.
Taking the second step to amend the city’s trash fee ordinance took up much of the meeting. Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, who led efforts on the Council to reopen closed libraries, announced that a formal deal had been reached with the mayor’s office. Under the deal’s terms, the trash fee would rise by $15. Ten of those dollars are anticipated revenue increases in the mayor’s budget. The other $5 would be used to reduce the city’s subsidy to its trash removal fund from the general funds.
Due to notice requirements the Council could only consider the second of the three steps needed pass an ordinance on Monday night.
Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion objected to using the trash fee to reopen the libraries and condemned the libraries closing altogether. Interrogating Library Director Molly Fogarty, Concepcion asked why the sale of rare books could not be used to finance the branch reopenings. Fogarty replied that the library is required to spend such funds on new books, videos and other media.
Concepcion persisted asking why the city could not look to the Library Foundation. Fogarty explained the Foundation manages moneys largely set aside specifically for the Mason Square branch only.
Lysak, by comparison asked whether it was actually efficient to have more branch libraries open only 18 hours a week. Fogarty admitted that longer term, consolidations are an option. However, that would require grant money to build a larger facility equidistant between two smaller branches.
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards questioned Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Lee Erdman about local aide and its impact on the budget. Edwards asked then why the city’s financial position was worse if local was level-funded. Erdman explained that the city’s property tax revenue fell while its non-discretionary obligations grew.
Edwards also asked Erdman about the hiring of consultants to recover disaster funds from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and to assist the city during the casino process. Erdman noted that the disaster aid consultant’s costs would be added to the other costs the city hopes to get reimbursed from FEMA and its state counterpart.
The casino consultant back and forth grew a bit testier. Edwards asked why the city was hiring a site consultant when Ferrera had established a committee of volunteers. Erdman explained that the city hoped to get some reimbursement from the developers themselves. The CAFO did admit that that money was built into the current FY2013 budget, which Edwards condemned especially in the context of the trash fee and libraries. Edwards did not make any proposal to strike the consultants fees from the budget during the Council’s budget meeting.
Edwards inquired about the city’s new license plate recognition program intended to catch excise tax scofflaws. Erdman said the city did not know for sure what it would yield for revenue, but the city estimated receiving $500,000. City Collector/Treasurer Stephen Lonergan noted that the program only started a week earlier and that it was impossible to know what the city could glean at this point.
Lysak suggested the city not raise the trash fee now, but rather wait until a month or two before the city bills the fee in March. At that point City Comptroller Pat Burns noted that the city had to have a balanced budget before it sets its tax rates later in the year. The discussion quieted at that point. Allen rose again to remind Councilors that this was merely a short term solution while the Council works with the mayor to find a longer term solution next year. Second step passed on a voice vote with some audible dissent.
There are serious problems with using the trash fee, which is officially a fee for service, to support other city services. Trash removal is one of those non-discretionary costs of the city as mandated under state law. However, the funding for that trash removal is channeled through an account funded by the trash fee and a subsidy from the general fund to cover what the fee does not. Raising the trash fee does not then, technically pay for other services, but allows a reduction in the general fund subsidy, freeing up money for other uses.
Hikes in the trash fee seem inevitable absent greater state aid or sudden burst in property tax revenues. However, bolstering those increases to cherry pick which services can remain has the potential to scramble the city’s finances. In this particular case, there seemed to be sufficient support in the city to eat a higher hike to save the libraries, but that tradeoff is only worthwhile if it remains a short-term solution as Allen suggested. However, to confine this to a one-time circumstance, the mayor must make good on promises of further council involvement in the budget process and the Council must respond with the necessary fortitude to demand and secure what their constituents want out of their city.