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Take My Council, Please: Trash Talkin’…

Welcome to a new series on Western Mass Politics & Insight.  “Take My Council, Please,” will be a series on the Springfield City Council.  Whenever possible, we will give you news and analysis from City Council meetings plus interviews and updates.  The meeting for 12/6/10 began more or less on time at 7:30.  Prior to its formal start, there was the customary speak out.  Two items dominated the meeting, the trash fee and the Palmer Paving Incinerator, although several others, largely routine, took longer than they should have.

Of the nine speakers at the pre-meeting Speak-out, seven spoke in opposition to the biomass incinerator or otherwise demanded more environmental reviews.  Among the speakers were Springfield activist and blogger Michaelann Bewsee.  All of the speakers spoke to the indefinite science behind the plant as well as insufficient information the company has given both on the original project and the amended plans.  Originally the plant would burn construction waste and now would only burn wood chips.  More on the incinerator in a bit.

Mayor Sarno (city website)
The main event of the evening was actually the trash fee.  Competing proposals to rescind and to extend the trash fee were on the agenda.  Mayor Domenic Sarno submitted a home rule petition to the City Council, which if passed (home rule petitions need 9 votes), would go to the legislature for approval.  The petition was needed due to Rep. Cheryl Coakely-Rivera’s amendment to a 2008 city finance bill that required the city to discontinue the fee on June 30, 2011.  There is some confusion as to the effect of the amendment, as it referred to the Finance Control Board’s first order, later struck down by a judge and not the second, which was was approved.  Still further confusion remained regarding the finance bill itself as it seemed contingent on the city’s repayment of the control board loan.  That loan is now fully paid back.  Nonetheless, legal experts agreed a home rule petition was necessary.

Councilor Tosado (facebook)
Tosado’s resolution would rescind the fee effective June 1st, later amended, bizarrely 31 days into next fiscal year on July 31, 2011. Both bills were seen as political given the Mayor’s intention to run for reelection and Tosado’s widely expected run for the mayoralty himself.  However, Tosado’s was the more nakedly political and irresponsible of the two.  If Tosado does run, as his City Council Presidency expires in January, he will lose a prominent platform.  Therefore, gimmicks like this are helpful to take the spotlight, and he can take much of the credit for himself.

The trash fee has never been popular.  It was imposed in the throes of the city’s fiscal crisis by the Control Board.  While residents groaned about it, most accepted it as a necessary evil, one that prevented losses of other essential city services.  While the trash fee ostensibly pays for only trash removal, it effectively contributes to overall revenue.  The city can only cut the budget on trash removal before it actually stops trash pickup, which would run afoul of environmental laws.  It has have the added benefit of pushing the city to improve recycling rates, which have risen considerably since single-stream recycling was introduced.  Nonetheless, Springfield residents sucked it up quite admirably, willing to see it as a fee for a service.  This blog’s editor, spoke on the issue directly warning about local aid cuts and noting that repeal benefits slumlords who pay the same fee as responsible homeowners.  You can read the full statement here.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)
And yet the trash fee and the home rule petition went down in flames.  In no small part this was due to the ineffectual explanations of the mayor and his staff as to why it should remain.  Tosado pointed out that the city has come out of the last few budgets with a surplus and has $44 million in the bank.  Consequently the trash fee seems unnecessary.  However, Sarno and his merry men did not explain how the city can have money and yet need more  Ward 2 City Council Michael Fenton noted a “Tale of two Springfields”: one with lots of money lying around and the other with a structural deficit.  Fenton and others supported referring both trash fees to committee pending a better fiscal explanation from city financial officials.
What Sarno failed to emphasize enough in his pursuit of “good governance,” however, was that the issue is not what the city’s picture is today, but what it will be when the legislature doles out local aid.  With the state facing a shortfall of as much as $2 billion, local aid is all but certain to be cut.  Some estimates suggest the city could lose as much as $30 million in non-school aid, which would devastate the budget.  That is the argument Sarno should have made and reminded councilors that unbearable cuts may be needed, with or without the trash fee.  It would be all the worse without the trash fee, which is projected to take in $3.7 million this year.  Consequently, the motion to committee was all the more a reasonable request pending the state’s local aid numbers.

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
However, committee referral was shot down on both measures.  At-large councilor James Ferrera interrogated the mayor, almost to the point of disrespect.  He asked the mayor if he had any support from the local delegation for the legislation, noting Rep. Coakley-Rivera’s continued opposition to the trash fee.  Any politician worth their salt will decline to voice support for a divisive measure like the trash fee until it has been formally requested.  Why have a pro-fee statement on record unless there is a reason to?  Ferrera then pronounced that the mayor’s measure had no support on Beacon Hill, specious reasoning to say the least.

Fenton, Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, and Ward 6 Councilor Keith Wright abstained from both votes on passage, rightfully claiming that they had been insufficiently informed as to the city’s true financial condition.  At the meeting itself, Ferrera asked city clerk Wayman Lee if councilors could be made to explain their abstentions.  The clerk said no and councilors discouraged members from doing so.  The mayor excoriated the  abstaining trio for not supporting his measure, but the 5-5 vote on extension would have failed with their support as the petition needed 9 votes.  Tosado’s motion later passed on a 6-4 vote.  During the votes, Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion appeared disoriented and unsure of which measures he was voting on.  Prior to her votes, At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh echoed the concerns taxpayers had brought to her, namely that the trash fee had been accepted, but that taxes were what needed reduction.  At-large Councilor Tim Rooke, apparently cognizant of the impending fiscal woes and no friend of Sarno’s, also supported the trash fee.

Tosado’s motion would take effect July 31 next year, but with Coakely-Rivera’s measure still on the books, the June 30th, 2011 date still controls.  Tosado spoke about money being wasted, but Tosado has a shaky record on fiscal restraint and his tenure stretches back to the Albano era.  He and Rooke are the only two councilors that served while Michael Albano was mayor.  Rooke has since apologize for the council’s lack of oversight.  Toward the end of the debate, Tosado engaged in a petulant tirade about some councilors’ desire for due diligence saying that “they are not here” everyday.  To be sure, there is no such thing as too much due diligence, especially when it is Tosado’s motion, six month’s early, which is mugging for the spotlight…and camera.
Councilor Walsh (masslive)
Many of the speakers on the incinerator stayed in the audience throughout the entire meeting to await the council’s vote on a resolution on that issue.  Many of them agreed with Walsh’s view that the trash fee had been accepted and constituted far too big a loss of revenue especially in light of impending local aid cuts.

The rest of the meeting went by with less rancor, if still colorfully.  The city council revisited an earlier decision to sell land to Springfield College, with several councilors changing their votes.  Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, who voted against the previous approval for sale remained concerned by the amount of land owned by non-profits and the lack of access for the community at large.  He accused the colleges of depressing real estate values to their advantage.  Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards echoed concerns about non-profit land purchases and its effect on tax revenues, but acknowledged there often were few commercial bidders for land like the property at 150 Hickory Street.  Tosado got into the game mentioning efforts to encourage or require payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT), which the legislature would be unlikely to ever approve.

Councilor Ferrera, showing his trademark foolishness passed off as curiosity, grilled a local state emergency preparedness official who was explaining a grant the city was formally accepting.  Questions included, who are you and what do you do?  Questions  already answered when the official introduced himself.  The charade did not end until Tosado, in his high point of the evening, jumped in and reminded the council they were accepting money.

Councilor Lysak (campaign website)

The council approved a $1 million dollar transfer from savings for the mayor’s tax reduction play.  That plan passed this evening with significant business property tax cuts and modest residential tax cuts.  A proposal sponsored by Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak sought a home rule petition for the city to raise its illegal dumping fee to the cost for the city to remove the garbage up to $5,000.  Criminal penalties for severe cases would extend the fine to $10,000.  The petition was modeled on a similar law in Worcester.  The measure passed with the nine votes needed for home rule petitions.

Finally, the council passed a unanimous motion that called the developers of the biomass plant before the council to fully explain their incinerator project.  The audience members had patiently waited throughout the meeting to see the resolution’s passage, but at least they were treated to some Springfield Political theater.  The resolution also called for environmental reviews the commonwealth has thus far not required.  The increasingly questionable science has drawn the ire and suspicion of residents particularly those near the plant’s location on Cadwell Drive.

So there you have it.  Including speak-out, Monday’s meeting clocked in at nearly four hours.  Filled with surprises, political pandering, and elected buffoonery.  We hope to bring you TMCP, as a regular feature so stay tuned.