In Final Leg of the Westside’s Race, Finn Found His Footing…
WEST SPRINGFIELD—It was the first election Michael Finn had lost in a 13 year political career. After an upstart candidate zoomed past him in the September mayoral preliminary, Finn, a three-term state representative and former Town Council president, vowed not to go down without a fight.
Towering, but good-humored, the former trial court officer, has leapt up the political food chain since joining the Council in 2003 and later becoming its president. As a Democrat rep, Finn beat back aggressive challengers in Republican years, winning even this center-right town. With incumbent Edward Sullivan’s retirement, the mayoralty seemed a reasonable next step.
“That loss in the primary, what I learned is that I can get up the next day and keep fighting even when you don’t feel like it,” Finn said of placing second behind rival Town Attorney William Reichelt.
As a district councilor and then Council president and even now as rep, the mayor’s office had always intrigued Finn. His election to Council was only the second West Springfield held after it switched over the mayor-council, “I’ve always been eyeing that seat.”
During an interview in his office off the town green Friday afternoon, it was clear he has kept closer tabs on the local nitty-gritty politics and wonky details here than the palace intrigue of Beacon Hill.
“Seemed like a good moment in time,” Finn said of pursuing the mayor’s race. “I drive home from Boston every single night,” adding “I like getting in the mix” of town affairs.
On the trail, Finn has touted the twin advantages and experience in government here and on Beacon Hill, “It definitely opens doors,” he said. “It provides me an opportunity to access the decision makers a bit more nimbly than other folks in West Springfield past have.”
Yet, selling that experience to voters has proven more difficult than anticipated. Finn admitted he got caught flatfooted by Reichelt’s well-organized campaign. Meanwhile, Reichelt capitalized on his youth and newness to sidestep Finn’s claim of experience and wrapped himself up Sulllivan’s mayoralty.
While indisputably in better shape than the older, larger Springfield across the river, the sagging economy of the Pioneer Valley has contributed to a sense that things are amiss here. Finn had good and bad things to say about all three of the town’s mayors, including Sullivan, but taping into concerns about decline that hover over Westside, Finn could run against the status quo.
Leaning heavily on his longstanding plan to provide tax relief and turning Reichelt’s inheritance of Sullivan’s legacy into a liability, the state rep has arrested Reichelt’s momentum and turned tomorrow’s contest in a horserace. Blending in quality of life issues like MGM’s impact and the poor condition of playing fields, Finn gained control of the conversation in the final weeks of the campaign.
Huge crowd at ws park and rec Halloween fest, my kids went as lawn signs, shameless plug I know pic.twitter.com/bTZFcDol9U
— Michael Finn (@RepMichaeljfinn) October 30, 2015
Acknowledging that previous mayors have done well with some of the big issues, Finn said smaller quality of life issues have been overlooked. He described poorly maintain playing fields where his own kids play sports that he sometimes volunteered to mow even after long days in Boston.
MGM’s recent gyrations have also been timely. In light of the gaming company’s antics, Finn suggested Westside should act to protect itself and ensure its abutting community agreement with MGM is secure.
“If they’re doing that over in Springfield, they’re not going to have any qualms about changing the agreement with us,” he said. “You’ve got to be a head of that curve.”
Meanwhile, a string of endorsements from retirees and union leaders to the The Republican even the head of West Springfield Republicans have come in for Finn.
On Nov. 3rd I ask all my West Springfield friends to cast a vote for @michaeljfinn as next Mayor of @my01089. Experience matters.
— Arthur Williamson (@ffawilliamson) November 2, 2015
Yet the real tonic for Finn’s post-preliminary stress has been free cash and property taxes. In debates and in separate interviews, Finn and Reichelt jousted over the numbers and their significance.
Free cash is the net budget surplus a community has at the end of the fiscal year as certified by the state Department of Revenue. Guidelines call for those funds to go toward one-time, not recurring expenses.
Finn has proposed that 25% of free cash go into the budget to lessen the property tax levy thus holding the line on or potentially lowering property tax bills. In mailers and ads, Finn highlighted town budget numbers through FY2014, when free cash peaked at $8 million. Sullivan presided over FY2015 and 2016, when free cash was about $4 million and $3.6 million respectively. The fall was due to how Sullivan recorded debt service and other budget lines, but overall spending appears to have risen, too.
Reichelt has argued Finn’s proposal is fiscally irresponsible and would put the tax break before covering expenses. “He’s talking about using [free cash] against reoccurring things,” running counter to DOR guidelines. Reichelt appears to mean that although DOR may certify free cash to be one number, some of it has already been spent such on contingencies (like snow removal) or other budget lines.
“You’d have to be a fool to offer the tax break before the bills are paid,” Finn replied, insisting his plan took that into consideration.
Some of the dispute may be up for interpretation. Reichelt appears to be claiming Finn would put the free cash toward tax relief in the same fiscal year it accumulated. Finn is proposing to take the previous year’s certification, skinned of all the incidentals that come up, and apply it to the following fiscal year.
Reichelt indicated this could undercut West Springfield’s ability to raise property tax revenue under Proposition 2 ½, but the given how the property tax levy has grown lately, Finn should have some flexibility to work around that.
Finn’s plan may have been oversimplified, but it was also plausible. Meanwhile, he saddled Reichelt, fairly or not, with the $9 million increase in spending under Sullivan.
If this hit a nerve, Finn’s camp points to a Reichelt mailer slamming the rep’s record in Boston as proof.
“Will and I have probably had the friendliest campaign thatI’ve ever been a part of,” Finn said during a Council on Again debate last week before unveiling the mailer that fortuitously arrived in his mailbox before the debate. “To stoop to this level with four days, five days left of campaigning is a clear sign of desperation.”
Reichelt defended the piece in the same debate as “just facts. Nothing negative about it.”
Whether it would carry him to victory or not, Finn has hit his stride. As a cool Finn calmly unfurled the mailer as the seniors in attendance looked on, Reichelt fidgeted in his chair and looked down.
For all the theater and drama during the race’s closing weeks, Finn assured he and Reichelt could bury the hatchet. Whether as mayor or if he stayed on as town attorney in a Finn administration, they could work together “because elections are about choices. It is not a boxing match.”
“He’s a bright young guy. He’s got a bright future,” he said of Reichelt.
Whatever tomorrow’s result will be, Finn seemed as peace, perhaps because he had come back from behind, “I’m very proud of the people that have supported me,” he said at one point.
After coming in over 10 point behind in September, “We’re now five days from the election and I know this election is a coin toss.”