Take My Council, Please: Full of Sound & Fury…
SPRINGFIELD—With a light agenda primarily of grants, routine ordinance updates and some borrowing, the City Council trudged through its meeting, although disposal of the items seemingly hit a few snags, limiting what could have been a more expeditious meeting.
A bond for school infrastructure and a fire department related ordinance passed. Another bond, a home rule petition relating to contracts and authorization to make a payment to the Business Improvement District were sent to committee. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, according to Council President Michael Fenton, was out of town and thus absent from Monday’s meeting.
Chief Administrative and Financial Officer T.J. Plante and School Superintendent Daniel Warwick presented an item to finance an improvement of schools’ wifeless network infrastructure. Currently, the School Departments infrastructure lacks the bandwidth to support a device for every student.
Plante explained originally free cash was going to finance the work, but the state Department of Revenue did not certify free cash as requested. Instead, the city will bond and simultaneously reduce the school department capital budget to finance the work. It is not expected to result in any net loss to the city or school side of the budget. The council passed the related measures unanimously.
Another item, a grant from Health New England for the city’s evening gym program, passed on a voice vote. Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna asked why Gerena School was left off of the list. Parks & Recreation Director Patrick Sullivan said Gerena’s program there was funded separately. Sullivan, responding to Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos, said the funding would keep the program running through March.
Much of the rest of the agenda was fairly boilerplate. Public utility reports were accepted all at once. Grants for emergency management supplies and the Fire Department were approved on a voice vote.
Elder Affairs Director Janet Rodriquez Denney was on hand to discuss grants to fund senior work programs, help seniors choose Medicare supplemental plans, facilitate senior outreach and fund senior centers. All passed on voice votes.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen asked Denney if she was getting the funding she needed. Denney replied, prompting laughs, that she could always use more money. She said some grants increase along with the elderly population, while others do not. She noted that Springfield’s population continues to age, while many city elders live in poverty. The average senior income, she said was $895 a month.
The Council unanimously approved authorization to refinance bonds. If conditions remains as they are, the city could yield $1.5 to 2 million dollars in savings. Property transfers were approved without dissent. At-large Councilor Thomas Ashe reported his committee was looking at new regulations for door-to-door commercial solicitations.
The Council granted second and third steps to an ordinance raising Fire Department inspection fees. At prior meetings, the fire officials said that most other department’s inspection fee schedule had gone up, but the Fire Department’s had not. The final vote, which was recorded, passed 12-0.
The Council also approved, without dissent, transferring funds to the Code Enforcement Department to hire another inspector, bringing its ranks to seven plus a senior inspector who divided his time between office operations and inspections.
The home rule petition to switch the city’s contracting process from the one in the charter to the state’s Uniform Procurement Law did not adavnace. Presently, any contract valued at $5000 or above must receive about a half a dozen signatures from the relevant department up to the mayor. State law provides a $10,000 threshold, but the city’s charter takes precedence. The state law also only requires contracts valued above $35,000 be advertised. Ostensibly, the city’s threshold is lower.
Plante said the purpose of the law was to relieve some bureaucratic red tape that makes procurement inefficient. The goal, he said, was not necessarily to help only Springfield, but to prompt a discussion of amending the law for all municipalities. Any city that uses a model charter from the general laws or a home rule charter with similar language could benefit from a law such as the one Springfield seeks.
At-large Councilor Bud Williams, the body’s consummate political performer, steered the conversation toward residency, prompting a perplexed Plante to assured this proposal did not affect employees. Williams then suggested this might mean less oversight of tax dollars. For what it is worth, Williams voted to approve the city budgets that ultimately required the state to bail out the city’s finances.
Allen rose to add that Plante’s suggestion made sense, but that data on the subject would be helpful (an assistant city solicitor about 25% of contracts would be affected). Plante said a referral to committee was unlikely to affect chances for passage, thus the Council sent the petition to committee.
Debate on the mayor’s much-vaunted road, sidewalk and blight bond descended into complaints about the city’s tendency to patch broken or unsafe sidewalks with tar, rather than concrete or brick. Plante presented the bond, but no DPW official was not on hand to answer councilors’ technical questions about the unsightly black splotches on sidewalks.
Ward 6 Coucnilor Ken Shea wondered if the use of tar was a Control Board regulation put in place when money was tight. Plante did not have an answer, but suggested the real problem was that the city had not been bonding to reduce the backlog. The measure went to committee so councilors could hear from the DPW about the repair strategy and schedule for streets and sidewalks reconstruction.
Springfield ironed out problems with its BID a few years ago, but a court recently dissolved Northampton’s BID raising new questions about Springfield’s. The city’s new BID director, Christopher Moskal, said Northampton’s problem dated to its BID’s formation and did not foresee the same problem in Springfield. However, he noted he was not present for the 1998 formation of Springfield’s BID.
Williams offered a rambling critique of the city’s role in the BID, which was focused a bit, by at-large Councilor Tim Rooke, who objected to government taxing business and then exempting itself. Moskal noted that businesses, not the government formed the BID, although they do so under a state law. Properties within the BID are assessed a fee based on their building’s value. That fee, in turn, goes to street cleaning, spot repairs, seasonal lighting, among other work to keep the downtown clean.
Brian Connors, from the Department of Planning and Economic Development, said that the city’s contributed $70,000 (a number admittedly less than if the full assessed value of city property were used). To Rooke’s point Connors said, all non-profits are exempt from the fees. Shortly thereafter, the item was sent to committee.
The full length of the debate on some of these items was pared down for this report. Overall, this was not a very long meeting, but the short agenda, with its thornier items sent to the committee, should have been executed more quickly. Substantive, even if repetitive debate is never a vice, but when it becomes political theater it is just a reminder that the Council could spend its time more wisely. Whether Monday’s debates was more substance or performance is subjective.