Take My Council, Please: It’s Fun to Vote for the Y-M-C-A…
SPRINGFIELD—The same night the City Council enacted a new rules for tax incentives, it turned one proposed break back. The moves on tax incremental financing (TIF) were unrelated and yet inextricably linked. A power struggle lay behind legitimate concerns about a TIF connected to the renovation of the old YMCA and a TIF notification ordinance.
Although no item captured the same attention as TIFs, other potentially transformative issues were on tap Monday. For example, the Planning Department presented an update on a bikeshare program that would offer the car-dependent city and region a transportation alternative.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs was absent from the Monday meeting.
Councilors referred the YMCA TIF to committee only last month. However, under Council rules, enough time had passed such that a single councilor could bring raise it for a vote.
The meeting kicked off with committee reports. Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, chair of Maintenance & Development, informed colleagues his committee recommended items related to a project that would link Marble and Central streets.
Among them were a waiver from demolition-delay—the structure was not deemed historically significant—and actions to take Springfield Housing Authority (SHA) property. All passed on unanimous recorded votes.
As this took place amid the YMCA vote, some worried about displaced SHA tenants. Gerry McCafferty, the city housing director (which is separate from the SHA), said assistance finding new housing was available. Springfield must eventually build replacement low-income homes, though it need not be public housing.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst, chair of Public Safety, briefed colleagues on a recent meeting with Police Commission John Barbieri. Hurst said the meeting topic had been officers with controversial pasts appearing on the promotions list. Hurst said Barbieri had no control over who took the test, but indicated the commissioner may promote nobody from that list.
You Can Make Real Your Dreams
Elsewhere, Comptroller Pat Burns reported an improvement in January’s revenue and expenditures report over December.
The Council accepted petitions to accept private ways, install new street sign, and perform utility work. However, it sent an increase in parking meter rates to committee.
Among grants the Council approved were $679,857 for homelessness and $75,000 for a new ramp at the Springfield Central Library. Councilors also accepted smaller library, health and fire grants councilors.
The administration withdrew the district fire chief’s contract. The pact narrowly received approval at the last meeting with Twiggs’s support. A deadlock in his absence would have killed the contract—again.
The Council also sent a $100,000 contribution to a Springfield marketing campaign to committee for further review. Meanwhile a four-year lease for student computer faced no opposition from councilors.
Deputy Director of Planning Phil Dromey introduced an amended memorandum of understanding for the ValleyBike Share program. Since it was originally discussed, a vendor, Bewegen Technologies, has been chosen. Cities’ startup costs are slated to be lower than originally thought.
As with bikeshares in other cities, users can either obtain an annual membership or pay per use. Bewegen is responsible for redistributing the bikes if they become cluttered at one station.
Dromey told councilors bike stations in Springfield would be near Bay State Medical Systems’ buildings in the North End, Union Station, downtown, Mason Square, STCC, and at riverfront locations including the Basketball Hall of Fame. Other neighborhoods could get stations in time. Councilors approved the MOU unanimously.
Besides Springfield and the vendor, participating entities are the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Amherst, Holyoke, Northampton, South Hadley and UMass.
Without much debate, the council gave final approval to a change in city employee leave policy. It also passed a resolution to establish a City Council Facebook page. Offered by at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman, the item echoed one Hurst put forward nearly four years ago. That resolution passed bogged down in who would control it and what would be posted to it.
Noting his own use of Facebook as a councilor, Lederman called it a “really great way to share information.” Though as Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez observed, individual councilors’ pages have attracted misplaced criticism.
The Council’s page, Lederman indicated, would be run out of the City Clerk’s office. It would be “a place where things that are germane to the body as a whole are posted” such as meeting dates and city events.
Hurst praised Lederman for taking “it across the finish line.” The resolution passed on a voice vote.
…When You’re Short on Your Dough
The dominant item of the night was the TIF for the former YMCA on Chestnut Street. The YMCA itself relocated to further down Chestnut, but the old building became apartments. Ostensibly, this was done under a 121A (urban reviewal) agreement with the city, according to at-large councilor Timothy Ryan.
The new owner, SilverBrick Group plans to convert common spaces in the complex to additional apartments. However, that will require relocating some current tenants during that process. Moreover, SilverBrick seeks a break on taxes it would otherwise face.
Aaron Papowitz of SilverBrick, which renovated Morgan Square a few years ago, spoke on behalf of the project along with Springfield’s Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy.
Kennedy explained that over 10 years the developers would save $250,000. There would an additional $250,000 in new growth revenue the city would still recoup. Ryan asked whether state funds were contingent upon the TIF’s passage. Papowitz indicated they were.
The TIF irked some councilors because the owners had already secured financing, bought the property and negotiated the TIF with the city. The TIF therefore seemed superfluous.
Although they had financing, Papowitz said the TIF is necessary to refinance the project to profitability. “It could go bankrupt because we will be cash flow negative,” he said.
“I myself have had a frustration about TIFs too late,” Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen said. But Allen, who authored the TIF ordinance passed later that night announced he would vote for SilverBrick’s TIF.
After the fact TIFs are not new and have become increasingly controversial, including an earlier one SilverBrick obtained.
Councilors Gomez and Williams expressed concerns about evictions. While under federal law those on subsidies must receive assistance finding alternative housing, those without housing aid would not.
Lederman questioned the eviction of renters only to use tax breaks to make the units more profitable for the owners. It’s not clear that is exactly what was happening, however.
“It seems irresponsible especially without guarantees what is going to happen to those tenants that live there,” Lederman claimed.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea admitted there was a lot in play. “There’s some of us that feel the procedure wasn’t 100% followed. Some of us are concerned about the tenants that are in there,” he said before urging passage. “We wind up having to balance these items,” Shea added.
Though the item seemed to want for votes, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton seemingly snuffed it out. Under questioning from Fenton, Papowitz said the apartments and common areas at the former YMCA were in disrepair and increasingly uninhabitable.
“That begs the question where is Code Enforcement?” Fenton replied. Papowitz said SilverBrick was not aware of pending citations from city inspectors.
The TIF failed 5-7. Fenton joined Gomez, Hurst, Lederman, Williams and councilors Melvin Edwards and Orlando Ramos to defeat the TIF. Councilors Allen, Ryan, Shea, Walsh and Thomas Ashe were in support.
Put Your Pride on the Shelf
As Allen’s TIF notification ordinance came up, he mused on adding language cover real estate developments—like the YMCA—in addition to economic develop projects. Yet, amending it would bar final passage Monday night. Councilors forewent amendments and passed Allen’s ordinance as is 12-0.
The ordinance will require the administration notify the Council of a TIF request upon application. An amendment to include real estate could come in a later, amending ordinance.
Finally, the Council considered a proposal to create a chief diversity officer position for the city. Williams, the lead sponsor, defended it against criticism. He said major cities and big companies like MassMutual already had such positions.
Williams took pains to praise Dan M.C. Hall, the city’s equal employment opportunity officer. Mayor Domenic Sarno had pointed to Hall as proof that the new position was unnecessary. But Williams said the new position would include more duties like professional development, monitoring employment data and identifying trends.
“Now it is my intention to send this committee because I feel it is important feature to actually engage with” Hall, Williams said.
Shea and Walsh, while shirking direct criticism of the ordinance, cautioned the position might cost money Springfield may not have. Williams countered that the city has found cash for other positions in the past.
Per Williams request, the ordinance went to committee.
In the aftermath of the YMCA TIF vote, Sarno condemned the Councilfor sending the wrong message. While that may be an overstatement, it certainly opened another front in the battle between the Council and mayor.
Relations are hardly at a low ebb, but a stable majority on the body is making one thing increasingly clear. The era of automatically deferring to the executive is over.