Take My Council, Please: Moneyed Interests…
In its first full regular meeting since July (August’s meeting was technically for permitting), the Springfield City Council confronted built-up financial matters and committee reports. Indeed, the Council dispatched the hefty agenda more quickly than it has shorter ones filled more greater banality. Part of this may have been due to the forwarding of some items to committee, a move that faced little opposition because none of the items were particularly pressing.
On all votes, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak were absent. Edwards is still recovering at home from knee injuries and no reason was announced as to Lysak’s absence.
The financial approvals before the City Council included balancing the Cyr Arena’s budget and approving grant funds for the police, dispatch, fire, health and human services and library departments. One million dollars was also approved for the Parks Department’s post-tornado tree-planting project. Additional funds, not on the agenda, were approved at the end of the meeting for the Elder Affairs Department and the Council on Aging.
One financial matter did solicit some protest and a no vote. Department of Public Works Director Al Chwalek presented a measure to move $244,100 out of the city’s contingency fund and into DPW. The money would be used to temporarily hire drivers for the snow season. As Chwalek put it, due to layoffs and attrition, the city has more trucks than it does drivers. The director essentially acknowledged that the need for these funds was known during the budget process, but not put into the department’s budget. However, the move essentially cleaned out the city’s $300,000 contingency fund.
Questioned by Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton as why this was coming up now. Chief Administrative and Finance Officer Lee Erdman did not really have an answer. Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen went further asking how the city planned to really pay for this since another contingency could certainly come up with ten months remaining in the fiscal year. Erdman replied that his staff would look to find funds throughout the year, possibly from free cash, which should be certified later in the year.
Allen, expressing the closest thing to outrage he has ever displayed at the council mocked Erdman’s response, “Basically those are hopes.” He urged better discipline out of the Finance Department and received a commitment form Erdman for a list of alternative sources of funding by November. The conversation ended with a spat between Chwalek and at-large Councilor Bud Williams, who disputed Chwalek’s assertion that street sweeping had actually touched every street this year. The measure passed 10-1 with Fenton dissenting.
Williams’ committee also had a series of economic development measures. Nash Manufacturing, a firm in Holyoke is relocating to a building once owned by Custom Carbide. The Council received a report for a tax incremental financing plan for Nash to move into the old Carbide Building. A similar deal for Latino Foods was put on hold at Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna’s request. Both measures ended up in committee to accommodate Luna and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twigg’s request for a meeting between the developer and the McKnight Citizen’s Council.
Minor zone changes and a transfer of a sliver of Garfield Street to the School Department was also approved. That measure, despite its title, did not involve closing the Oakland Street end of Garfield as had been earlier planned. That proposal is dead.
Other economic development programs that included selling tax-foreclosed properties drew some level of opposition from Williams. He objected to the low sales prices of some buildings on the corner of State and Andrew Streets near Mason Square. Although most of the quitclaim deeds, which need approval from the City Council passed, Williams objected to a $390,000 value property being sold for $10,000. Tina Quagliato, who was presenting the city’s proposals, did not object to putting that deed into committee for further discussion.
Other economic measures included approval of an easement to Western Massachusetts Electric at Bondi’s Island, approval for a new drive-up window at a relocated United Bank in Sixteen Acres (that was technically at a special meeting before the main meeting), and an easement to the owners of the former Blake’s Building on Sumner Ave. Apparently, the building partially sits on city’s property along the sidewalk, but has been allowed for close to ninety years. The owners wanted to sell the building, but the buyers want a new easement from the city before doing so. Fenton, who works at the law firm representing the owners, abstained and the measure passed 10-0.
The vote to hold a citywide referendum on building a casino in Springfield was itself put off. Although it appeared to have support from community leaders and councilors, Allen, the lead Council sponsor of the measure wanted to allow others to air their opinion first. Williams also inquired as to what would happen if the council did nothing. The Law Department’s Anthony Wilson explained that the vote would default to the ward in which the proposal is unless the Council acted otherwise. He also said that there is no timeline that the city has to follow and only that is must do so before an election is held. The law has no other requirements as to timing of Council’s action regarding the vote.
Also sent to committee were a measure by Williams to allow Develop Springfield tax exempt status as it works to rebuild after the tornado. Essentially, Williams argued what nobody else seems to be saying that the city cannot afford to be casino-centric when it comes to economic development. His point was valid, but so was at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh’s request for more information from Develop Springfield. It was at her request that the measure went to committee. The final item was a change to the city’s trash fee, which also went to committee.
If the relative brevity of describing the Council’s action is any indication, Monday’s meeting was fairly simple. However, the hard issues still need voting on and will not doubt lead to more rancorous meetings soon