Take My Council, Please: Financing and Informing a Democratic Society…
SPRINGFIELD—Amid the City Council’s adoption of Mayor Domenic Sarno’s $616.6 million budget was a short, typical, but potentially significant regular meeting earlier Monday night. Financial measures awaiting approval for weeks passed as did legal changes that could impact direct democracy in the city.
The Council also lent its voice to environmental matters, issuing perhaps its last consequential word on the proposed Page Boulevard biomass plant. The Council called upon the city’s Public Health Council to hold a site assignment hearing and backed legislation that could address natural gas leaks.
With the Council’s budget meeting scheduled for 8 p.m., only an hour after the regular meeting began, much of the agenda proceeded quickly.
Since reversing itself shortly after the institution of ward representation in 2009, the City Council has vocally opposed the biomass power plant. In 2011 it rescinded the plant’s permit, which the Zoning Board of Appeals later concurred was needed for the facility to be built. That effort was undone by a Boston Land Court judge whose ruling was sustained by a state appeals court.
The Public Health Council is the only institution that could yet halt or prompt further review of the plant being developed by Palmer Renewable Energy, which the Council called for Monday.
The Council also backed a resolution calling on State lawmakers to approve legislation that would prevent gas companies—in Springfield’s case, Columbia Gas—from passing along the cost of the leaked gas to consumers.
Both resolutions passed on a voice vote with support from groups like Arise for Social Justice, Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition.
A resolution urging an expansion of the bottle bill also received Council approval.
The Council received utility and road reports as well as updates from the Finance, General Government and Maintenance & Development committees.
Financial orders rolling over for weeks also achieved approval. At a prior meeting the Council had been asked to allow the School Department to approve four year leases for each of the next four years. Each year a quarter of school computers are leased/replaced. As originally written, the order seemingly created an indefinite cycle of four-year contracts, in apparent violation of state law. The current approval only allows a four year lease for computer being replaced this year. The School Department would need to return to Council approve in future years.
Federal homeless grants totally $1.2 million were approved among other smaller grants for the health, elder affairs and animal control departments.
Among the transfers approved were additional funds from within parks and from the contingency fund to increase maintenance of city terraces.
The Council reluctantly granted approval to $244,666 to cover deficits created by the state’s refusal to fulling pay grants promised to the city. Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante told councilors the problem stemmed from paperwork issues that affected multiple municipalities as well. Another tongue-biter was funding a $5317 arbitrator’s award to the police supervisors’ union that city officials said violated state law. The administration decided a legal battle over it would be more costly.
Both items were funded out of free cash, the surplus from last year’s budget as certified by the state. The grant deficit transfer passed 11-1 vote with Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton in dissent. Fenton and Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams cast the two nays on the 10-2 vote on the arbitration award. At-large Councilor Justin Hurst was absent for those votes.
The final financial order, a preview of the larger battle that came over pensions during the budget meeting, was a transfer of $480,991 for the city’s future healthcare obligations to retirees.
The Council gave final approval to an increase in engineering fees, such as those utilities and others pay when they tear up and/or utilize city rights-of-way. Such fees have not been raised in years even as others across municipal government have. After passing second step on a voice vote, the amendment to the fees, which took the form of a city ordinance, passed on a unanimous recorded vote.
One intriguing item on the agenda also received approval Monday night. Following last years’ several nonbinding questions, but also the prospect of the city enacting the commonwealth’s Community Preservation Act (CPA), Fenton urged acceptance of a state law that would order the city to distribute information about municipal ballot questions to voters’ residences.
Like the pamphlets the state distributes for ballot questions that appear every two years, this law would order the city solicitor and election commissioner to draw up a summary of the ballot. The document would also feature arguments for and against the question as already happens for the state questions. Fenton, who ceded the chair to discuss the measure on the Council floor, said the measure came up in the context of his investigation in the CPA, but noted it would apply to any question put before city voters. The Council accepted the law on a voice vote.
Other items including regulations for taxis and a resolution on the foundation budget for state education funding remained in committee.
The speedy meeting was in stark contrast to the lumbering budget review Monday night. Councilors ultimately approved the budget without any cuts, but there has been a whiff of greater financial scrutiny coming out of the whole body and not just budget hawks like Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen and Fenton.
Indeed, even though Allen’s bid to cut the budget and put the savings toward the city’s massive pension shortfall failed Monday night, Thursday afternoon, Sarno seemingly joined the cause himself. He announced plans to dedicate a slice of future free cash to the city’s underfunded retirement system.