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Take My Council, Please: Education Economics…

 *Update: The US Senate ratified the President’s New START treaty with a united Democratic caucus and 13 Republicans including Mass. Senator Scott Brown.  Media outlets report the margin may have been higher absent the DADT vote, but it passed nonetheless, capping a tremendous lame-duck session for Pres. Obama.  9/11 First responders health bill also passes.  SC Sen. Lindsey Graham possibly sums up the lame duck Congress best when he told the Hill, “Harry Reid has eaten our lunch!”


Monday marked the last official meeting of the 2010 session of the Springfield City Council.  The 2010 is notable, obviously, as it is the first time since the city of Springfield adopted a strong-mayor/council form of municipal government that it had ward-based council seats.  The meeting was relatively uneventful.  The agenda was fairly brief with only a few items that would conceivably yield any controversy.

Perhaps as a sign to the uneventful nature of the meeting only one speaker Daniel Morrissey, an attorney from the Forest Park neighborhood, stepped up to speak. He addressed a language access ordinance.  He spoke on behalf of the Pioneer Valley Project, a Springfield-based community group for the region.

The concept of adopting a language access ordinance has appeared in the Valley Advocate in months past.  Essentially, the idea behind the ordinance is that immigrant groups in Springfield are not receiving the services they requires from the city’s police, fire, and EMS departments due to language barriers.  The ordinance, which is currently being drawn up by the city’s law department, would require training for city’s emergency operators and primarily the police department to properly assist non-English speakers either by finding translators or through some other means.

J. Hancock Building, Boston (WMassP&I)
After Morrissey’s presentation, PVP Director Mollie Fox explained that the ordinance should not cost the city much if any money as it would primarily be in training.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts already provides translation services for city emergency dispatchers so the operators would only need training on referral procedures.  As for the police department, since it should not be difficult to find Spanish speakers in the department (as it is the primary language barrier), again training would be the issue.  The PVP’s take on the situation was that immigrants have felt shut out from law enforcement because they cannot communicate with police to report crimes and assist in solving them.  Similar ordinances exist in cities like Philadelphia.  While the PVP was not aware of a similar ordinance in Boston, given the close eye the Justice Department keeps on that city’s voting procedures, multilingualism may already be on that city’s mind.  The PVP was informed that the ordinance was still in the Law Department and that they keep in touch with the appropriate subcommittee to advance the ordinance.

The issue that took up much of the council’s time was a question of funding a reorganized bus schedule to facilitate longer school days at Kiley.  As part of the commonwealth’s successful application for Pres. Obama’s Race to the Top education funding, Kiley Middle School was selected to receive the funding to work on students’ reading skills.  The school department and commonwealth chose to pursue a program that included a longer school day and supposedly, additional busing was required.  To pay for the busing beginning in January, the city needed to appropriate about $365K to pay for the buses.  Although busing in some form is generally required under state law, the cost is borne entirely by the city and on the city side of the budget.  Little if any school department money or state school aid is spent on busing.

M. Marcus Kiley Middle School (school website)
The money request was made in light of continuing negotiations for a better busing contract with First Student, an Ohio school transportation firm.  The cost for additional busing was set based on the per-bus contract.  However, assistant superintendent Warwick and Finance Department director T.J. Plante attempted to assure the council that next year’s contract would look to reorganize the schedule to minimize the increase in busing costs.  While Kiley is presently the only school in the project 9 more will join next school year, further increasing busing costs.  Doubling the $365K and multiplying it by 10 would overestimate the final additional cost to busing.  However, it will almost certainly cancel out the $4 million the city  Warwick claimed the city saved by reorganizing the school boundaries to permit more walking students.

In an exchange with at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera, Plante reiterated the city’s intent to renegotiate its busing contract with First Student and using its right to put the contract out to bid and find a new vendor.  The exchange turned odd at times, with Ferrera going through a list of options with Plante whose pauses could be read as either annoyance or confusion by Ferrera’s determination to know what would happen in negotiations that had yet to happen.

The Council Chamber, post meeting (WMassP&I)
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen brought up concerns about using the city’s Reserve Funds to pay for this.  He wondered if instead partial payment could be used now, and the rest paid with Free Cash, which will be certified earlier next month.  Plante seemed okay with that proposal.  Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton asked if the funds were mandatory.  Warwick insisted the city had to appropriate the money or the state would pluck it out of its local aid contributions.  At-large Council Kateri Walsh voiced objection to changing the vehicle for appropriation with a temporary withdrawal of funds.  Tim Rooke, also an at-large councilor, raised a complaint from past years about the state’s refusal to pay for busing as it had promised many years ago.

Unfortunately, Tim Allen’s motion to make a temporary payment collapsed on a technicality (he accidentally changed the source of funding and only the executive, that is the mayor, may do that) .  Before he could make a new motion, at-large councilor Thomas Ashe made a motion to vote on the money as is.  The motion carried with only Fenton dissenting for not trying to use a temporary appropriation until Free Cash became available.  Even Ferrera who appeared to wrangle over almost every detail with Plante, voted for the measure.

Other than the busing money, the other matters were fairly routine.  Property owners on Clayton Street requested the right to use a tax foreclosed property they wished to purchase for their disabled child’s jungle gym.  The Council formally accepted individual contributions that over time had exceeded $5,000.  The Department of Elder Affairs, who had been gathering the money, intended to use it to give seniors a ride on buses to Bright Nights.  The Council also accepted money from the Springfield Library Foundation for the Mason Square library, recently reacquired by the city.

Pres. Obama’s signature for the Health Care bill (wikipedia)
Money was voted on to pay leftover bills for professional services, namely legal consulting on health care law.  Councilor Ferrera questioned why the firms used were outside of Springfield.  The representative from professional services explained that the law firm specialized in health insurance law and was sought in light of the federal Health Care Reform bill.  Ferrera seemed nonplussed and dismissed the notion that the best advice might be available in out-of-city firms.

The final matter was a request from the Veterans Commission for an additional $50,000 to tie the commission over until free cash became available.  Veterans Commissioner Daniel Walsh, husband to Kateri noted that the commission had received a spike in applications and the commonwealth mandates that they process them.  Eventually the final total could reach $800,000, however, he said they could wait until free cash was certified.

Informally, after the meeting, Jose Tosado was selected to remain City Council president for the next year all, but assuring his run for mayor next year.  Kateri Walsh was selected to be Vice-President.  Thereafter the meeting adjourned to UNOS Chicago Grill at the Riverfront.  Tradition, it seems, held that the city council president-designate, after he/she is so designated, pays for the council to go get wasted.

And there you have it folks, the 2010 session of the City Council all wrapped up.  WMassP&I will provide a more in-depth account of the council session in our annual “Year in Springfield,” but note that the meeting was just how councilors like it–short and sweet.  However, there exist some lingering issues.  Sources in City Hall dispute the school department’s claim that the city had to provide the busing money or suffer legal retribution or appropriation by the state.  There is hinted that a lack of understanding or downright malfeasance may be afoot in the busing issue.  There remain questions about the trash fee’s future despite resolutions earlier this month. WMassP&I hopes to be there the upcoming year to give you all of it!