Take My Council, Please: Now for Some Upper State-ments…
On Monday, the Springfield City Council authorized participation in Community Choice Energy Aggregation (CCA), a state program that lets communities choose their source of electricity. Distribution would remain with Eversource. But rather than let it buy electricity itself, the city could make such decisions. Other communities have joined the program, often to secure greener sources of energy.
Authorization triggers a process that will take time to complete. The Council took other actions that, once their processes reach completion, will have more immediate effect. The city is seeking a new historical district on upper State Street, roughly between Walnut and School streets. The reasons echo those that animated other new districts. The body advanced pay increases that had been looming for years.
All councilors attended, but Councilors Malo Brown, Zaida Govan, Justin Hurst, Maria Perez, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield participated remotely.
Monday’s meeting took place in two unusual contexts. The first was the meeting immediately followed the tax-rate setting meeting. Normally, the tax meeting—nominally on something called the “tax factor” or how much of the property tax levy will fall on residential properties versus commercial ones—does not fall on the same day as regular meetings.
The Council ultimately took Mayor Domenic Sarno’s recommendation. Others demanded more weight be put on businesses to relieve residential taxpayers, citing escalating tax bills. However, there is no easy correction. A major cause of rising bills is that residential values are stable or rising while commercial property continues to crater in value. Even the most radical proposal would save the average residential taxpayer less $50.
Also different was that for the first time in 11 years, somebody in the chamber was formally a candidate for higher office—municipal office that is. Days before the meeting, Hurst, an at-large councilor, announced he would run for mayor.
Indeed, Hurstwas among those who panned the mayor’s tax factor. Later in the week, he called for the city to use a windfall from a settlement with Eversource to cut property tax revenue and, hopefully, bills.
Otherwise, the regular meeting was prompt and quick. No items engendered controversy. Few had much debate.
Councilors accepted an unremarkable revenue & expenditure report from Comptroller Pat Burns. Elder Affairs grants of roughly $353,000 and $79,000 received councilors’ approval.
While authorizing receipt of $71,500 for recycling programs, Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen asked about the financial status of the recycling program. A few years ago, after China stopped importing recycled materials, recycling costs in the United States exploded. That pushed Springfield’s recycling program into the red.
However, on Monday DPW czar Chris Cignoli told Councilors that since then, demand for recycled material has shot up. He indicated that while prices vary and a profit for the city is not consistent, the situation has improved considerably.
Councilors greenlit $65,500 from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funds for coronavirus testing and vaccination of the homeless. Another $44,000 grant accepted on Monday will go toward anti-tobacco initiatives aimed at youths.
The Council’s first historic preservation item of the night was not the district. Rather, the body passed second and third step on an amendment to the demolition delay ordinance. Under an ordinance passed nearly a decade ago, demolition permits for buildings more than 100 years old pause for nine months. The hope is preservationists can find an owner who will preserve the structure. The law has mechanisms to suspend the delay for unsavable buildings or those with no historic value.
The bill the Council passed on Monday changes the threshold from 100 to 75 years. In other words, a demolition permit pulled on January 1, 2023 would pause nine months if the building were constructed in 1948 or earlier. Under the old threshold, only buildings from 1923 or before trigger the ordinance.
Robert McCarroll, the chair of the CPC chair and a former historical commissioner, said the Springfield Preservation Trust, of which he also is a member, had sought the change. Several historic buildings did not fit the old threshold. Both McCaroll and Vincent Walsh, the current Historical Commission chair, said the commission has seen relatively few requests to suspend the delay. About half receive approval.
The Council approved the amendment without dissent.
The Upper State Street Historic District also passed without dissent. Walsh told councilors historical districts tough the new one on almost all sides. Another factor is the city is planning on spending ARPA funding in the district and like the CPC, it wants to see to preserve the investments.
Although not always required, the CPC has sought historic designation for building that receive Community Preservation Act monies. Historic preservation is one of the things CPA money can go to.
The new district includes several notable Commerce High School, Wesson Hospital, and the Verizon Building which Monarch Life Insurance originally built as its headquarters in 1937.
The ordinance passed first step on Monday. It will go to mayor after the Council votes on the item again, likely at the last regular meeting of the year.
The other big ticket item Monday was approval of the CCA. Championed by Council President Jesse Lederman, the item will let Springfield put together a plan to seek greener sources of energy for city electricity customers. The item had been before the Council before, but returned to the Sustainability Committee for further review. That panel’s chair, Councilor Perez, brought it back with an effusive endorsement.
The CCA was only the second only environmental win in as many weeks for Lederman, who is also eyeing a mayoral bid. Last week, the state upheld its revocation of the biomass plant’s permit.
The final ordinance the Council acted on will raise the pay for the mayor, Council and School Committee. Past pay increases have sparked intense debate, but after a presentation from Vanessa Otero, a member of a pay advisory board, the Council approved the increases with almost no debate. It passed unanimously.
If the ordinance receives second and third step from the Council and the mayor signs the bill—or lets it become law without his signature—all municipal electeds in the city shall receive an increase. The mayoral salary will rise $40,000 to $175,000. Councilors’ pay will rise from $19,500 to $28,500. Members of the School Committee shall see their pay rise $5,500 to $18,000. The Council President will continue to receive an additional $500.
The new salaries would not take effect until 2024. The incumbent Council and mayor cannot raise their own pay, but they can raise future councilors and mayors’ pay.
Councilors went on to approve payment of an old Election Commission bill and, after some debate about hot meals, authorize transfer of $100,000 to Elder Affairs for its lunch program. The body also accepted nearly $4,000 in donations for the city’s animal shelter.
A separate resolution calling for the mayor too look into stipends for boards and commission also passed the Council.
The final item of the night saw the Council go into executive session before voting to approve $265,000 into the legal settlements account. The executive session was ostensibly about settling a police misconduct suit. It passed 10-2 with Councilors Hurst and Whitfield in dissent. Councilor Brown was absent.
The swift passage of the pay increases was a diversion from the previous, tempestuous attempts to raise pay. Prior proposals were simply too high, city politicos say. But nine years after the last pay hike, when an attempt to peg these salaries to inflation failed, these increases were reasonable.
Despite the potential impact of both the CCA energy measure and new historic preservation tools, the brevity of the meeting highlights agreement on the Council. However, the tax factor meeting was just as long as the regular meeting, a reminder that acclimation may not be the rule. Indeed, with councilors getting into the mayoral race, that bonhomie will likely only get rarer.