Take My Council, Please: The (Thirteenth) Day After…
SPRINGFIELD—Not quite two weeks after voters went to the polls, the Springfield City Council got back to work grinding out its last meetings of the new year. Tackling a modest, but diverse agenda, the tenor of the meeting was largely restrained and positive.
Council President Jimmy Ferrera, an at-large councilor defeated for reelection, invited Ward 8 Councilor-elect Orlando Ramos to sit within the rail of the Council chamber for the duration of the meeting. At-large Councilor-elect Justin Hurst, Ferrera explained, sent word he could not make Monday’s meeting, but looked forward to attending the remaining ones this year.
At-large Councilor Tim Rooke was absent from Monday’s meeting. The agenda featured a number of items he sponsored and those were referred to committee. Among them was refiled legislation to regulate street vendors and a boat motor ordinance.
Much of the agenda was financial orders. At the top of the list was an appropriation that added to already planned purchase of new fire equipment. The source of the funding was the settlement with Columbia Gas after last year’s Thanksgiving explosion. Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant said that funds for his department had been scarce and that this particular piece of equipment could be tasked to multiple uses.
Some of the funds for its purchase (the full cost being $975,000), had been appropriated apparently from the sale of the fire training center on Grochmal Street and this transaction would provide the final piece of funding. The measure passed unanimously.
Grant money for the Fire Department to modernize fire inspector equipment was approved. Other grants and outside income approved Monday included moneys from the Library Trust, a literacy grant, grants for enforcement of tobacco and alcohol restrictions. The council accepted grants for refugee resettlement and a police department grant slated for use in the South End and approved Smith & Wesson’s improvements to the Veteran’s Memorial adjacent to the manufacturer. Also quickly dispensed with were utility reports.
The Council also confirmed nominees to the Water and Sewer Commission and the Historical Commission. Otero, speaking briefly before the Council noted that while she did not have direct experience on water/sewer matters, she had worked on bodies charged with maintaining large capital improvements.
The Council confirmed Benjamin Murphy and Paul Shutlis the Historical Commission. Murphy was already an alternate on the commission and with the Council’s approval became a formal member of the body while Sultis took Murphy’s place as an alternate.
Reconstruction of the intersection of Sumner Avenue and Allen Street will be undertaken over the next few months. Work appears focused primarily on upgrading the existing infrastructure, but also making it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Funding is coming out of the city’s Chapter 90 account, funds set aside by the commonwealth for roads. The project requires the city to secure some temporary and permanent easements and the Council approved both the funding and the eminent domain taking to obtain them. Both orders passed without dissent.
The Council gave approval to an agreement with the downtown Business Improvement District. The agreement had been held up by at-large Councilor Bud Williams who wanted to review the matter in his committee. As passed, the agreement calls for the city to pay its dues to the bid for FY14 while negotiations go on for future years. The approval passed 10-0 with two abstentions, Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak.
The Council also approved a bond authorization for various school projects. The Massachusetts School Building Authority according to Chief Administrative and Financial Officer T.J. Plante in a follow up email, has already approved 80% reimbursements. The more than half of the $6 million authorization will go to replace the roof of the High School of Science and Technology. Other schools included Margaret C Ellis, Springfield Day and South End Middle School. With Council approval, the city must front the cash, by borrowing if necessary, and then the MSBA pays the city back.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen asked Plante about the city’s plans to purchase the South End Middle’s building, formerly Mount Carmel Elementary School. Currently, the city rents the facility from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. Plante said plans to purchase the building were underway, but that the building was being appraised and the city was hoping to pay less than the nearly $1 million it had set aside to buy the school.
Allen then inquired about the wisdom repairing the roof of a building the city did not yet own. Plante replied that the city is almost certain to use the building for the foreseeable future whether the city buys it or not, justifying the repairs either way. In response to another question from Allen about the city’s bonding capacity, Plante said that the city had retired some debt recently allowing it to take on the $6 million now. Annual bond repayment is at about $30 million now. The Council approved the measure unanimously.
The Council gave unanimous approval to a Tax Incremental Financing agreement for Titan Roofing which relocated to Springfield recently. Under the agreement, the city will continue to receive the same amount for the property Titan purchased (about $41,000), but agreed to forego the taxes on the improvements Titan made to the building. Over five years, the city would begin collecting the tax revenue from those improvements.
In addition to Rooke’s items, a home rule petition on residency requirements for teachers and an ordinance to reduce tax bills for seniors who volunteer time with the city were both sent to committee.
Finally, the council took action on two ordinances. The Council took second and final steps to approve an ordinance championed by Councilor Lysak. It would prohibit the sale of electronic cigaretts or other like “nicotine delivery products” to minors. State law currently does not prohibit the sale of such products to those under 18. Debate is ongoing as to whether e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes. Second approval was by voice vote and final approval was unanimous.
The Council also gave first step approval to a demolition delay ordinance. Councilor Allen said the idea had been batted around the Historical Commission for some time, but got traction after Mercy Hospital demolished the historic Allis Mansion this year. The ordinance would not apply to properties within the casino overlay district. Lysak inquired whether a casino operator could purchase property anywhere in the city and then shirk the ordinance. Council Attorney Anthony Wilson said that could not happen as the overlay district is a specific area within zoning ordinance subject only to Council revision.
Under the ordinance, the building commissioner would notify the Historical Commission whenever he receives a request for demolition permit of a property more than 100 years old or on the National Historic Register. At that point, the Commission would have a year to designate the area a historic district pursuant to the Massachusetts Historic Districts Act. Were the commission not to do so, the demolition permit could then be issued. First step was approved on a voice vote.
The Council meeting concluded in just over an hour, driven in part by a lack of controversial items and seemingly few questions on the substance of the items. After a fairly tumultuous two years, the twilight of this Council term could end on a softer note than it began. Of course two regular meetings still remain scheduled for next month.