Take My Council, Please: Back in Action with Funding & No Games…
UPDATED 1/15/14 10:44AM: For additional comments from Councilor Fenton
SPRINGFIELD—A new City Council tackled a modest, but significant agenda Monday night, the first full meeting since its reorganization and swearing in last week. Despite rather lonely dissents on a couple of issues the tone and demeanor of the meeting was refreshingly cordial and prompt, but also unhurried.
Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and newly installed Council President also noted that freshly minted District 1 (Ward 1/3) School Committee member Rosa Perez was in attendance in the audience.
Matters discussed ranged from final action on minor changes to the city’s foreclosure ordinances (currently stayed by the First Circuit in Boston) to the typical grants and authorizations of any meeting.
Action on items from committee included a deferral on legislation for street vendors in the city. At-large Councilor Tom Ashe, the chair of Public Safety said that some of the principals necessary for his committee meeting had to cancel and that a new meeting would be scheduled.
At-large Councilor Tim Rooke, chair of Finance, also released two items from his committee including an item under suspension. Prior to the Council meeting, Rooke’s committee met on the School Busing Contract which had been deferred for a couple of meeting as councilors raised concerns about the cost and efficiencies in the city’s request for bids. School busing is essentially controlled by the School Department, but is paid for with the non-school side of the city budget. Council authorization was needed to allow the School Department to seek a bid in excess of three years.
Rooke explained in a brief interview after the meeting that officials from the Finance, Law and School Departments agreed to loosen some of the bidding language to possibly entice other bidders into the process and get a lower price for the contract. The Council approved the authorization on a voice vote.
Also approved without dissent was the authorization for deficit spending on snow & ice removal in the city. City engineer Chris Cignoli said that about three quarters of the city’s snow budget had been depleted so far and that another storm or two could erase the remaining amount. The problem was not payroll, but rather supplies, maintenance, equipment and additional contractors who work on bids received from the summer before. The Council also approved the authorization without dissent.
The Council passed first step of a pawnshop ordinance. Like its predecessors from last year, the pawnshop ordinance would restore the city’s original 30 day holding period for pawned goods and order pawnshops to use a New England database to catalog incoming goods. Debate on the issue had reached fever pitch just ahead of last year’s election especially with pawnshop owners’ contributions to councilors coming under scrutiny. The ordinance passed first step although a number of dissenting voices were recorded among councilors.
Grants approved included the annual Shannon Grant for the Police Department and safety grants from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The Council also approved a bond authorization for the Pine Point branch library. Parks, Recreation and Buildings Director Pat Sullivan outlined the plans to turn the shuttered library into a local community center. Plans included moving an adult literacy program to the building, sparing the city the current leasing costs. Sullivan also said the Library Department is putting together an express library program where residents can order and pick up books from elsewhere in the city library system.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen inquired of Chief Administrative and Financial Officer T.J. Plante about the city’s bonding capacity. Plante replied that the bonding situation is constantly changing, but that the Pine Point branch and other projects are slated for a larger bonding issue soon. Allen asked whether FEMA money could be used for this to which Plante said it could, but essentially argued the timing may not work and given the low price point, $750,000, it was just as well for the city to pick up the tab.
At-large Councilor Bud Williams then asked Plante about what obligation the city would have for the projects announced as part of the city’s final settlement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that morning. Plante said that some city money will likely be needed, however, he noted that some projects like the Senior Center have a fundraising campaign while the Police Reuse of 50 East Street could be potentially funded with US Department of Justice grants using the FEMA money as the city’s share of the project. Others, Plante admitted would require some additional city money, but that these project should be removed from the city’s capital repairs schedule soon. That, in turn, will lead to a re-ranking the city’s capital needs potentially pushing up in priority projects like the Campanile restoration or dam repairs at Van Horn Park and Watershops Pond.
The Council unanimously approved a contract between the city and Library workers that clears out the period since the last contract expired at the end of June 2012 and runs until the end of this June. Library Professionals, represented by AFSCME 1596A, will receive no wage increase for the first year without a contract, but will receive a 2% cola retroactive to July 1 2013. New employees will be subject to the residency ordinance. Other changes include establishment of direct deposit and sick time changes. In a brief interview HR/Labor Relations Director Bill Mahoney said that negotiations on the next contract could begin soon, but as that process does not begin before the January before a contract expires it may not be right away.
The Council also accepted a general law establishing a trust fund for the city to manage its post-employment benefits like healthcare and pensions for city employees. This prompted a new exchange between Allen and Plante about the city’s obligations. Allen asked when the city planned to erase its $1 billion liability to retirees. “We’re hoping to have it paid of by 2038,” Plante said noting that an earlier timetable and therefore larger chunks of the annual budget would have been necessary under a prior law. The legislature revised the law extending the due date that retirement obligations are funded.
Allen asked if the unfunded liability affected current retirees’ benefit to which Plante said it did not. He added, in response to another question of Allens, that establishing the trust has no immediate financial impact, it simply allows the city to begin putting aside money. Rooke asked Plante how the city has gotten good credit ratings in light of a liability nearly double the city’s annual budget. Plante said that ratings agencies look at a host of factors, including a community’s willingness to make hard choices to fund that liability and hinted that some more are on the horizon.
The Council approved utility and zoning reports on voice votes and approved technical changes to the city’s foreclosure property and mediation ordinances. The First Circuit recently requested an opinion from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court as to whether the ordinance constituted a tax or not. If so, the ordinance violated Massachusetts law. Pending a final decision from both the SJC and the First Circuit, the federal appeals court stayed the city’s implementation of the ordinance. An earlier district court ruling had found the ordinance valid.
Both changes passed second step and then received final approval with unanimous recorded votes.
First step was also approved to an ordinance regulating inboard and outboard motors.
Finally the council approve on an 11-2 vote a home rule petition that via a home rule petition would rescind a part (chapter 656 section 7) of a 1989 law that requires the city to maintain a 1% emergency reserve fund. The broader law grew out of a fiscal crisis that erupted in the late 1980’s. As written the city can only tap the fund in extreme circumstances, but it must then replenish immediately the next fiscal year.
Plante described it as the other component of the post-employment benefits trust fund earlier in the Council’s agenda. He said the city planned to ask the legislature and by extension the executive agencies that oversee municipal finances to allow the funds, which the city others “can’t use,” to be released and placed in the trust fund.
No debate occurred over the item, but Councilors Fenton and Rooke voted no with all other councilors voting yes. Fenton in a phone interview Tuesday said he voted no because of minimal scrutiny the petition received, noting the importance of funding the city’s pension obligations.
The Council meeting wrapped in only an hour’s time. Left undebated for now were a host of issues including residency and work on Police & Fire Commissions. With Sarno’s announcement of close, internal search for a successor to Police Commissioner Bill Fitchet the Council could be short on time to act on these measures. Nevertheless, despite disagreement, the tone was positive and hopefully conducive to the Council actually asserting its power and rightful role in municipal government.