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Take My Council, Please: Pushing Paper…

Every now and then the Springfield City Council assembles and does little more than ministerial duties dressed up as discretionary acts.  For example, the city cannot accept a grant or money outside of its own tax base or consistent with a general state law unless the council approves it along with the purpose of the money.  Technically, the city can reject the money or disapprove of its purpose, but seldom does the city turn away money.  Monday was one of those meetings heavy on process and light on policy or politics.  Nothing that needed a recorded vote recorded any opposition.  However, rumblings of future trouble may lie in the background.

The rules of the city council dictate the order in which items may be brought before the council for debate, but that may be set aside if no councilor objects.  Last night featured this en masses as councilors bounced from items on economic development funding to grant acceptances to ordinance revisions.

On the agenda were transfers within departments to purchase a new event tent at the Barney Estate Carriage House in Forest Park, fund an economic development position and pay for additional office supplies in the audit department.  Bracket that last one for now.

Elsewhere the council approved a block of reports on utility work for Verizon and Western Massachusetts Electric.  Grants for the Dispatch department to maintain the facility, Fire Department training, at-risk youths (seemingly not the same as the one in the AWAKE controversy), health and human services, the library and for the construction of a parking garage at Union Station.

Pat Burns, the city Comptroller and a report from the Finance Committee both offered grim pictures for the next fiscal year, but the full details will not be known for a few more weeks.  The City Council also passed the first step of an ordinance to exempt livery vehicles who operate under contract from the state.  This would not apply to “for-hire” livery vehicles like taxis and limousines.  Rather it would apply to buses and vans used by private groups to shuttle people to and from events, for example.  The bill moved to the committee on ordinances where further discussion is expected.

Councilor John Lysak (WMassP&I)

Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak also offered a resolves calling on the Massachusetts to establish a provision in the state’s property tax laws to enable to the city to collect a different (read higher) rate on dwellings with four or more units.  Lysak’s reasons for the measure would be to relieve some of the upward pressure on business property tax rates.  Lysak also notes that it seems ridiculous that multiple family dwellings are taxed lower residential rates while businesses, also investments pay a higher rate.  He justified the higher rate on the thinking that multiple family dwellings also consume more city services than single family residences.  

The resolution drew opposition from some councilors and the Sears family, notable political Illuminati and owners of Sears Real Estate.  The measure was referred to committee, which is itself a somewhat absurd notion since resolves carry little if any weight.  However, Lysak was resigned to the resolve’s fate and stated that he was merely looking to start a conversation.  Among the more bizarre aspects of this situation is that Lysak, allegedly the Council’s only known Republican, is pushing for higher taxes, sorta.  However, it has also been stated by council insiders that Lysak is, despite his party identification, is to the left of other councilors confirmed to be Democrats.

The earlier matter to transfer funding in the Audit Department came about after the acting head of that department explained that money for salaries in her department were being used to office supplies.  The transfer was quite simple, but the money came from salary positions that went unfilled.  Indeed, the acting director described herself as the only employee in the Audit Department.  While much of the council seemed nonplussed by this fact, others expressed some concern that the part of the city charged with ensuring the city is spending its money responsible has less than a skeleton crew.

The other detail that raised some flags occurred during a discussion started after Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen suggested that the Council listen a to a report of the finance committee before taking financial measures out of order in the agenda.  By taking these measures out of order, the council often spent a great deal of time asking questions of officials that would be answered in the report.  At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh correctly noted that Allen could always object and force the agenda be maintained (unanimous consent is needed to go out of order).  At-large Councilor Tim Rooke, the chair of the Finance Committee then offered his report on finances.


What was notable about that report was its suggestion to Allen or any interested party that one attend the budget hearings held before Mayor Domenic Sarno will present his budget.  Allen and others were more interested in budget hearings with department heads rather than just finance officials.  Except, those hearings have not yet happened.  The mayors office confirmed with WMassP&I that none had happened and that none were scheduled.  Thomas Walsh, the mayor’s communication director, did intimate that they would happen, but not when.  However, it has been noted that at this time last year the budget meetings had already begun and the mayor will need to present his budget by mid-May at the latest.

There is a rising concern among councilors, or at least ones given to deep contemplation of city business, that the mayor’s office may limit these budget hearings.  It is at these meetings that some of the most meaningful budget changes occur in contrast to the often blunter and less surgical cuts the council makes while approving the budget.  Combined with the administration’s dire warnings about the FY2013 budget, this may suggest an effort on the part of the mayor to rush the budget and force the council to either unwillingly or blithely accept a budget that may endanger the city’s solvency and rainy day funds.