Take My Council, Please: A Little Something on the Sidewalk…
SPRINGFIELD—In a somewhat wonky meeting on a dreary May Monday, the City Council considered a host of financial measures from grants to appropriations to bonding. While most sailed through the body, there were speed bumps, which may presage a rockier path for Mayor Domenic Sarno’s otherwise sunny budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
At-large Councilors Justin Hurst and Bud Williams and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs were absent from Monday’s meeting. Council President Michael Fenton informed that Hurst and Twiggs had communicated to them that they were feeling under the weather. Williams was scrambling to collect signatures for a state representative bid.
Routine matters like the revenue and expenditure report and reports from utility companies were approved without any trouble. Though councilors had questions about US Department of Housing & Urban Development grants, none of the federal monies were held up. Likewise grants for the animal control office and the Thomas J. O’Connor shelter were expeditiously approved.
The Council also greenlit, without much debate, a transfer of $8.2 million in unexpended bond proceeds (money leftover from borrowing for projects) to several capital projects. Among them are just under $4 million each for the schools and the Central Library, specifically repairs and improvements. The remaining $400,000 would go to Fire Department upgrades and sidewalk and road repairs.
However, acceptance of the city’s annual allotment of Chapter 90 money from the commonwealth broke down into a fight about long-simmering, but technically unrelated public works issue: sidewalks.
“I’m really surprised that the funding that I thought was included in this is not,” at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh said regarding sidewalks and private ways.
Public Words chief Christopher Cignoli explained that the item at hand, Chapter 90 money, was only for fully accepted city streets. DPW does not have a dedicated sidewalk crew and thus must use grants to fund most sidewalk work through contractors. Failing that, city crews use asphalt to fix damaged sidewalks. Cignoli said he has about $6 million of unfunded sidewalk work on his ledger.
That prompted Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos to inquire about bringing sidewalk work back in-house. “It would reduce that list,” he observed.
Cignoli said he had put the $500,000 request to reestablish the sidewalk crew, discontinued under the Control Board, but it did not make the cut in the budget.
Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante said the idea was not tenable when given the size of the city’s deficit when budget planning began.
“I’d love to have a crew out there doing sidewalks and other thing,”Plante added, but, “My job is to say no and to grow in a way that we can sustain it.”
At-large Councilor Timothy Rooke, in a rather brusque if indirect rebuke to his colleagues, rose to confirm that chapter 90 funds could not be used for sidewalks.
Rooke queried Cignoli about the fate of the funds of the Council did not accept them, but the DPW director assured he would simply keep coming back until councilors approved them.
Such doggedness was unnecessary. The Council approved the funds and the related expense of them on a 9-1 vote with only Walsh in dissent.
Cignoli’s other item, a five-year lease for city vehicles—to save money on a per annum basis—passed without dissent. Councilors did send an arbitrator’s award for Police Supervisors to committee after questioning how the city could comply with an award that city officials said violated state law.
The Council authorized $11 million in bonding for renovations to 50 East Street, the former Army Reserve Command Center. The property will pass to the Police Department to house a juvenile assessment center, the tactical response unit as well as hold evidence.
However, the body rejected a bond for $1 million in City Hall repairs on an 8-2 vote. The funds targeted City Hall’s stairs, not the overall Municipal Group. Given the considerably pressing multimillion dollar restoration the Campanile requires, some councilors balked. Council President Fenton and Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez dissented, denying the bond the 2/3 vote of the entire Council required under state law. Nine affirmative votes were needed.
However, Rooke motioned for reconsideration, giving the measure a second chance when more councilors will be in attendance at a future meeting.
At Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen’s suggestion, the Council also sent to committee a measure that would establish a trust fund to help the city claw its way out of the massive shortfall in its pension fund.
“Most municipalities have a pension liability,” Allen said, but “we are 351st out of 350 municipalities.” In committee, Allen explained, the broader conversation to address the issue will begin.
The final items were amendments to the city’s Complete Streets plan to comply with changes to Massachusetts Department of Transportation terminology and the creation of an office of poet laureate in the city. Both were approved.
It may be premature to assume the Council will make cuts to the mayor’s budget, but the skirmish on sidewalks indicates it is possible. Were councilors to broadly agree that the city needs to speed up its sidewalk work, the onus would be on the Council to cut the necessary amount from Sarno’s budget. Still, it would fall on the mayor actually redirect those funds to sidewalks or whatever else may be on councilors’ wish list.