Take My Council, Please: Will the Sequels Be Better Than the Originals…?
SPRINGFIELD—Aside from a one-liner admonishing a permit-seeker’s counsel to not interrupt the Council president, the sequels to a few permit hearings last Monday were no better than the originals in the preceding weeks. However, continuances for a pet crematorium and substance abuse treatment facility ensure both will be at least trilogies.
Ultimately, these permit encores were just theater. More substantively, the Council moved forward with pay increases for city electeds. They also formally accepted Springfield’s allocation of American Rescue Plan funds, totaling $93 million. Due to the nature of the feds’ handoff of the money and absent complex Council machinations, the acceptance immediately permits expenditure. However, Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante assured the Council would have a role.
“I have to link everything to the COVID pandemic,” Plante said. “I need to make sure our files our strong to withstand an audit 5-6 years from now.”
The guidelines for the ARP funds are quite broad. Yet, based on the Plante’s comments, the feds will not brook waste or fanciful uses. Plante described a desire to reach out to neighborhood councils for ideas and, by extension, from councilors themselves. If the city cannot defend how it came to some of its spending decisions, it could have trouble with Uncle Sam down the line.
Finance Committee chair and at-large councilor Tracye Whitfield endorsed the acceptance, too.
The city does not have a plan for the bulk of the money yet. It will put $12 million toward the budget beginning July 1 to make up for lost tax revenue. That will leave tens of millions of dollars—and possibly a few million more if the city receives defunct Hampden County’s cut. That could have, as many noted, a “transformative” effect on Springfield, perhaps above and beyond the impact tornado relief had.
The final vote was unanimous. Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila did not vote as he was running late due to his father’s hospitalization.
This was not the ARP money the city received, however. It also accepted a $6 million plus up for housing programs the feds already fund through the Department of Housing & Urban Development. Chief Development Officer Timothy Sheehan said there was no immediate plans for the money, though it could fund direct and indirect grants. Sheehan added Springfield would need to update its federal housing plan was waiting for guidance from HUD.
As she later would on the larger ARP grant, Whitfield smoothed the way for the grant’s acceptance.
“We will not be kept in the dark with how this money is used,” she said. Sheehan, Housing Director Gerry McCafferty and the Finance Department assured they would communicate with councilors about its use.
Among smaller grants, the Council accepted a $200,000 transportation grant from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. It will fund paving of Dwight Street from Carew to Frank B. Murray Street. Another $89,000 in the form of a Byrne/JAG grant also received approval.
The Byrne money had been under review before. Springfield Police Deputy Chief Steve Kent appeared on behalf of Pearl Street to explain it. As Kent explained, the grant was part of a regional anti-gang initiative the state is funding. However, in response to questions from Whitfield, he confirmed they would be going to suppression.
Whitfield had worried that there was too much focus on this tactic—i.e. arrests—instead of outreach. Kent replied that the short-term nature of the grant was ill-suited for alternative methods like community outreach, which can take months to implement. Though she joined the rest of her colleagues in approving the grant, Whitfield urged more focus on outreach and prevention in the future.
Councilors voted to move $5 million in certified fresh cash to stabilization reserve. The city’s savings is now just shy of $50 million, which Plante said the bond market looks favorably upon. The Council also sanctioned moving $1.2 million from FY21’s PayGo account to next the fiscal year. PayGo funds certain capital projects directly rather than through bonding. Moving the funds to next year allows FY21 projects to continue into FY22.
Elsewhere, the Council approved utility petitions for fiber-optic equipment for Big Y’s distribution center. The Council also approved a green infrastructure/low impact development policy. Public Works czar Chris Cignoli said this would affect how the city interacts with developers, but also address issues like the storm drain system.
Councilors kept the proposed speed hump ordinance in committee. However, they did advance a proposal to establish an appeals process for situations where the city cuts off trash removal from a property.
Cignoli said such cutoffs were rare and usually the result of verbal or physical confrontations between Public Works employees and property owners. Some can be consequently resolved—by law property owners then must secure pricy private trash service if city services ceases. No more than 1 or 2 revocations stand each year. That resolution process is incredibly informal, however. Cignoli said an appeals process would be an improvement.
Although nobody referenced this, establishing an appeals process could inoculate the city against due process claims property owners might claim. First step passed unanimously.
Another ordinance did not advance. The body continued Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos’ gasoline bill for dirt bikes. The legislation bars gas station owners from allowing customers to directly refuel dirt bikes. However, councilors had hoped a hearing with service station owners in the city could occur first. Gas stations would face fines if they allow riders to gas up bikes right at the pump.
Ramos said the Council office was unable to set a meeting councilors could attend. Several of his colleagues disputed hearing from the office about scheduling. He committed to trying again to hold a meeting.
On a relatively narrow 8-5 vote, the Council agreed to advance a pay increase for the mayor, City Council and School Committee. Unlike prior attempts, these raises arose from a review committee officials had named.
The bill’s language would allow the Council and the mayor to participate in the legislative process without running afoul of state ethics laws. City officials can only raise their pay prospectively as, hypothetically, the identity of beneficiary is unknown before the intervening election.
Consequently, the bill enacts the City Council and School Committee raises with the terms beginning next January. The mayor’s increase takes effect January 2023 when a new mayoral term would begin. Councilors pay would rise from $19,500 to 28,000. The president’s $500 stipend does not change. The School Committee’s pay would be $18,000 up $5,500. The mayor’s pay would rise $40,000 to $175,000. Current Council and mayor salaries date to 2013.
The bill also creates a compensation review panel to consider future increases, which would partially resolve the problem of when to raise the pay in the future. The compensation of the city’s elected officials has generally followed inflation, but the actual enactment of raises is erratic at best.
Supporting the increases were Councilors Ramos, Whitfield, Timothy Allen, Victor Davila, Michael Fenton, Justin Hurst, Kateri Walsh and Marcus Williams. Councilors Malo Brown, Sean Curran, Melvin Edwards, Gumersindo Gomez and Jesse Lederman dissented.
The final public item was a resolution in support of state legislation to crack down on wage theft. Ramos, who is also a member of the legislature, abstained on the resolution.
Compared to previous pay increase bill, the current legislation seems to more earnestly address the thrust and inertia that usually plagues officials’ salary changes. The relatively muted opposition suggests that even opponents do not feel like putting up the fight at this moment.
Still, during the pandemic and subsequent economic collapse, the raises may seem off. The fractured vote proves at least some councilors agree. With the mayoral raise not effective until 2023, it might be prudent to delay a vote until the post-pandemic recovery is a bit further along.
However, Mayor Domenic Sarno, who has been cool to previous raises, told The Republican he would consider whatever the Council sends him.