Take My Council, Please: Breaking Up with Land Is Hard to Do…
SPRINGFIELD—Following a more scintillating conversation with the city’s State Senators on the budget, the City Council held its first full meeting in nearly a month clearing end of fiscal year transfers, committee reports and somewhat embarrassing special act. Following one of the bigger WTF moments for Springfield government, the Council approved special legislation permitting the sale of land on which a third party had built a house.
Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna and Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton were absent Monday night, the latter due to a death in the family. Council Vice-President Orlando Ramos presided over the meeting.
Much of the agenda was fairly uncontroversial prompting a quick meeting.
The Council accepted annual allotments from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, including its Community Development Block Grant. Cathy Buono, from the city Community Development office, told councilors that Washington’s cuts had shrunken many grants. She also added that the multiyear CDBG draft plan was still under review—details on the website—and the public could still offer comments. The grants were approved on a voice vote.
Reports from the committee included updates from Health and Human Services Committee and the ad hoc Workforce Development Committee. HHS Chair Bud Williams briefed the Council on the Health Department’s new lease for a building on Main Street near the Colonial Post Office.
Google Street view of the city’s new HHS office. The actual address is 1145 Main Street.
Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante said that although the new lease was about $37,000 more expensive than its current home, the new location was still a good deal for the city. The owners of 95 State Street—now MGM—are evicting the city due to casino construction, but the old office would have needed an expensive renovation soon anyway.
Williams also motioned to keep in committee a home rule petition aimed at making the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority clear snow from city bus stops. He said negotiations between the city’s disability commission and the PVTA were ongoing.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen told councilors the Workforce Development Committee would be hosting MGM’s workforce development director at its next meeting.
Finance Committee Chair, Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, discussed his committee’s review of the city investment policy. Shea explained, as Treasurer-Collector Steven Lonergan had at a previous meeting, that the policy was a disclosure about how the city conducts business. Banks and other financial institutions that work with the city sign it and thus are bound by its terms. The Council assented to the policy after Shea’s briefing.
The final report was from the Maintenance & Development Committee. Chair Melvin Edwards, councilor for Ward 3, explained a discontinuance—which the Council subsequently approved—for part of Everett Street near Mercy Medical Center.
A series of budget transfers within the city’s public safety agencies were on tap, featuring appearances by Police and Fire leadership. Joseph Conant, the Fire Commissioner, spoke on a transfer from personnel to equipment valued at $200,000. He hoped his department would receive grants to cover the proposed expenses, but if not, the transfer offered him flexibility to prioritize needs. The transfer passed 10-0. At-large Councilor Tim Rooke was absent for the vote. Another transfer for fire department software valued at $18,000 passed 9-0. Rooke and at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe were outside of the chamber during the roll call.
Police Commissioner John Barbieri was also on hand for a transfer of funds, these to hire an outside auditor for the continuing investigation of his department’s evidence room.
The Council also accepted utility reports and low-dollar grants on voice votes. It unanimously approved a Library supervisors labor contract running from July 1 2014 through June 30, 2016. Raises of 2% are included in each year. Supervisors hired after January 1, 2014 are subject to the residency ordinance.
The most bizarre item was a home rule petition, however. Following the 2011 tornado, Habitat for Humanity built homes for those displaced by the storm on property it had acquired. Except one house was built on city-owned property the city. The house became occupied and no one noticed for a year. When they did, the problem had become infinitely more complex. Although the city owned the land, it did not own the house, nor could it dispose of the land without a public bid or auction.
Assistant City Solicitor Thomas Moore and Habitat’s attorney, Timothy Ryan, explained that the only escape route was a special act of the legislature to sanction a sale to Habitat. Moore told the Council that the cap on the price in the legislation was based on an approximation of the land’s value without a building on it. Normally, procurement law would require the city to solicit sale prices based on current value, but that would be distorted because of the house built on it in error.
Allen, the Ward 7 Councilor, had discussed the situation with Moore and Ryan last week and told councilors that he believed there was no foul play here, “My conclusion, it is an honest mistake.”
While surprised like his colleagues, Councilor Shea, an attorney, urged the petition’s passage. Recalling the concept of equity from his law school classes, he said, “Equity does what ought to be done.” In this case, that was passing the petition, which it was on a 10-0 vote. Councilor Ramos abstained, as he often does on home rule bills which inevitably pass through the office of his employer, Senator James Welch.
The Council’s dispensed with the rest of its agenda quickly. An ice cream truck ordinance went to committee and a land transfer to the Conservation Commission passed without dissent.
The home rule petition for the sale to Habitat will need legislative approval by both houses of the legislature and the governor’s signature before beocming law. If the details are aboveboard, the biggest challenge to passage will be competing for attention amid the budget and the hundreds of other bills that have been backlogged since the start of the session in January.