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Take My Council, Please: Who Gives a TIF?…

The gang at 36 Court Street got together once again, but for the most part without the trademark mischief.  The Springfield City Council met again for only the first of two times this week to consider a roster of formal acceptances of grants, approve tax incremental financing approve a permit it lacks the power to approve.

The grants to animal control and the Department of Health and Human Services were accepted late in the meeting, but with nary a word of explanation, an oddity for the council.  The grants to HHS were in excess of $1.2 million in total.  The council also approved the emergency appropriation for the October snowstorm, although Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton warned the city may need to issue a type of short-term bond to pay for the disaster pending disaster relief funding from FEMA.

Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs spoke about a couple of item that concerned him although no official action was taken at that meeting.  Early on in the meeting he asked that the council investigate or rather asking Code Enforcement to investigate a halfway house going into his neighborhood.  Twiggs’s objection appeared to not be the fact of the halfway house, but rather the fact that it had been established as something other than what it ostensibly was.  The second measure, sponsored with Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, called for assistance to Community Block Development Grand and HOME projects that affected by the June tornado.

The tax incremental financing projects were by far the most contentious items of the evening—or at least one of them was.  The first was an agreement for a TIF to Custom Carbide, which is currently at the corner of Tapley and St. James Avenue.  The company is seeking a TIF, apparently only to finance the move to Dwight Street in a tax-exempt formal postal building.  According to Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, the company could move elsewhere as its clients are as diverse and far-flung as Boeing, but wanted to stay in Springfield.  The TIF passed without dissent.

Councilor Allen (Facebook)

The second TIF was less fortunate, indeed its fate remains uncertain.  F.W. Webb, a plumbing supply company wanted to purchase the last bit of the former Smith & Wesson Industrial Park land off of I-291.  Although there is some confusion as to the dollar amount, the TIF called for a 50% break on the taxes on the building for 10 years.  The promised jobs were minimal and total employment at the site was guaranteed to under 20 jobs with the potential for a few more.  Including a sale price of about $1 million and un-exempted tax revenue, the city stands to gain about $6-7 million over ten years from the project.  The project had been in the works for about two years and had surfaced earlier this year, but languished in committee for several months.  Allen, the chair of the council’s economic development committee, presented the project and recommended.

However, Fenton said he could not support the project because the property should be used for a project that will attract more jobs.  By comparison, the Performance Food Group facility nearby has hundreds of employees.  Fenton also noted that there are no assurances for more jobs or assurances that union labor will be preferred during construction.  Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera noted that a similar project with the same company included considerably more concessions from F.W. Webbs, but no TIF was provided.

Councilor Ferrera
(Urban Compass)

At-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera blandly offered perhaps the vaguest words of support for the project with a hearty, “I think this is a good project.”  He noted that F.W. Webb is a national company and that that should mean something.  Alluding to a cabal of businessmen who meet (quite possibly in Bill Gates’ basement?) Ferrera said that businesses talk among themselves.  Approving this TIF to save less than 20 jobs would show these masters of the universe that Springfield is serious about attracting business, Ferrera argued.

At-large councilor Kateri Walsh offered less insipid, if not terribly illuminating, words of support, praising the company like she would her own family.  It fell to Allen to support the project with, well, facts.  He acknowledged the downfalls of the project, but felt that the advantage the sale had in clearing the Springfield Redevelopment Authority’s debt.  Moreover, he suggested that if expansion at the site did occur, the TIF would not apply.

The TIF was approved on a 7-6 vote with Fenton, Rivera, Luna as well at at-large councilors Jose Tosado and Tim Rooke and Ward 8 councilor John Lysak in opposition.  The decision seemed final, but a last minute call for reconsideration from Luna led to the item being put in limbo until the next council meeting.

Massachusetts State House (WMassP&I)

The council then moved onto consideration of a home rule petition to install cameras at traffic intersection to catch red light runners.  The item had been referred to the Public Safety Committee chaired by at-large councilor Thomas Ashe.  The report came back favorably and referenced similar home rule petitions from Pittsfield and Worcester.  Ferrera, who started the ball rolling on this, praised the measure citing anecdotal success elsewhere in the country and again noted Pittsfield and Worcester, whose petitions have successfully became inert on Beacon Hill.  The home petition ultimately passed.  Civil liberties concerns aside, the measure is difficult to vote against politically.

An eminent domain measure for a traffic project came before the council as well.  Only the council can authorize eminent domain and municipal authorization is necessary for the traffic project which would involve the state.  Although there was some concern from one of the property owners, both the appropriation for eminent domain and the authorization itself passed 13-0.

The council moved on to vote to approve a permit for a car lot on State Street that it had rejected at last week’s hearings meeting.  However, like the Internet Café permit earlier in the year, the city could not use its parliamentary procedure to reverse itself under the state’s umbrella zoning law.  Councilors practically made jokes about the vote as City Clerk Wayman Lee openly warned councilors that his office will not formally issue the permit regardless of their vote.  The permit was approved, though not really, by a new vote 12-1.

Finally, HHS head Helen Caulton-Harris came before the council as it took the first step to pass an ordinance to allow the Public Health Council to charge fees for site assignment.  Essentially, site assignment is a component of the Public Health Council’s efforts to protect public health as it relates to projects such as the biomass plant.  However, this ordinance goes beyond the biomass plant.  If passed the Health Council could charge the developers for independent analysis of their plans and also charge them to hire a hearing officer to consider site assignment.  However the measure is not unique to biomass.  The measure passed on a voice vote as it traveled to the ordinance committee.  Two more steps remain before final passage.


The F.W. Webb project showed an area of legitimate disagreement and that is clear as it divided Allen and Fenton, who typically are of like mind on most issues.  F.W. Webb should be thankful that it had articulate supporters and not just vacuous ones.  However, if only one vote flips by next meeting, they will lose the fight.  As sad as it was the council insisted on voting for the State Street permit even though they were told they lacked the authority, at least the council had at least a semblance of self-deprecating acceptance that they, in fact, could not make it up as they went along.