Analysis: Defunding Springfield Police? No, Defunding a Lease…
Blessed are the viewers of public access, for they shall inherit knowledge of their community’s affairs.
However, even devotees of Springfield government television may have mistaken what was the central issue during this past week’s budget hearings. If one could get past the City Clerk’s potty mouth, one could be forgiven for thinking $1 million dollars was cut from the Police budget. It fits nicely with the national post-Floyd protest zeitgeist and the number is correct.
That is not really true, though. Twenty percent of that million was a mostly mutually agreed upon transfer from police overtime—the mayor wanted $125,000 moved. It will go to the new Office of Racial Equity. The rest, for a police shooting range, did not even come out of Pearl Street’s budget. Rather, that $800,000 cut anchors another showdown over Council oversight of big-ticket spending. In this case, it is an item that ostensibly benefits the mayor’s campaign contributors.
In the first place, that $800,000 is really $16 million. The lease the city has purportedly signed to use the Page Boulevard shooting range runs for 20 years. Normally such a contract would have to come to the Council for approval as any contract longer than three years must. Why that has not happened here is unclear.
The lease will give Springfield Police a place to perform its regular certifications. Currently, they are using a space in the bowels of the headquarters on Pearl Street. The city does not deem the facility, such as it is, safe and appropriate.
The initial press, which some councilors inadvertently encouraged and the mayor egged on perhaps to deflect scrutiny, implied this was about police defunding. As other councilors have emphasized, that is not the case. That has begun to change as a frontpage story in this week’s Sunday Republican illustrated.
Although pockets of “defund the police” exist in Springfield, it is nothing remotely on the scale that has manifested in other cities. Before the budget votes, Springfield councilors have advocated for reallocating resources—as has the Police Commissioner. However, no councilor public plugged blunt cuts.
During marches in the city, activists in Springfield have barely mentioned the budget, focusing on policy, instead. Compare that to Northampton where they haunted city councilors homes in a brazen, if successful attempt, to extract police cuts there.
Not that councilors’ comments have always reflected that well. Though most spoke about fiscal responsibility, several alluded to defunding the police in a press release after the vote. That barely came up during the actual meetings.
However, some were clearer that the problem was the lease itself.
“There has to be more communication between the Mayor’s office and the City Council when it comes to investing in projects of this magnitude,” Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez said. “It is problematic that as the Chair of Economic Development Committee, I was never notified that a $16 million project was in the pipeline.”
The shooting range once belonged to Smith & Wesson, but they sold it to 299 Page Boulevard, LLC, last year. The owners of Northstar Pulp & Paper control the LLC.
Public campaign finance records reflect, as The Republican reported Sunday, that the owners have given thousands in campaign contributions. Members of the family and/or those in their households have contributed at least $12,000 to Sarno since 2017.
The paper reported that other individuals affiliated with Northstar have given too, but most of those predate 2018. In fact, there were no contributions 299 Page Boulevard’s owners between that year an 2013. During that period, the contribution cap changed to $1000 from $500 per year. When the contributions resumed in 2018, the owners began maxing out to Sarno.
As per usual, Sarno has waved this off as merely proof of his support from the business community. Yet, he asserts he does not base decisions on that.
“As my record indicates, I make my decisions based on what is in the best interest of the City of Springfield,” he told The Republican.
This mirrors his insistence of probity while supporting the biomass plant once slated for another part of Page Boulevard. Sarno had received thousands in contributions from the Callahan family which were developing the plant.
From the Council’s perspective, nobody doubts that the Police need a place to safely train to use their weapons. Nor do they object to the idea that Pearl Street’s Chamber of Secrets is a less than ideal place to do it.
However, councilors have also said they heard nothing about this until the budget came to them. This is despite administration claims that a contract obligating Springfield pay the lease was signed in April.
With the city on the hook for $16 million, if over 20 years, it would behoove the administration to let people in on the secret before it became a done deal.
Normally, before the mayor could sign such a project, he would need the Council to approve a waiver to the three-year limit on contracts. There is some claim that the project’s uniqueness allows Sarno to avoid seeking such a vote, but WMP&I has not verified this.
Even if the problem is not the police, the current environment obscures the importance of this scrutiny. Some councilors undoubtedly voted against cutting the shooting range to avoid appearing anti-police. Others voted to cut the money, but wished—bargained with God?—to have a review centered on good governance, not a nearly non-existent defund-the-police movement in Springfield.
The fallout is hard to discern. The Republican reported that Sarno now plans to come back with a smaller annual lease payment. Though, that undercuts the argument that a contract is already inked. (With that goes the threat to popular projects elsewhere in the Facilities budget, where the shooting range appears).
Either way, this classic problem of mayoral flouting of Council oversight has returned—in the middle of a pandemic and set against one of the largest social justice movement the country has seen. Though, both branches bear some responsibility for the confusion around a painfully common situation.
There is much more to know that has been revealed. Even if the budget were not under tremendous stress thanks to COVID-19, residents should learn the full truth about the provenance of this shooting range contract.
Whether the Council knows what it will do with that information, or a lack thereof, is another matter.