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Libraries Built with Trash?…

**This post has been edited for accuracy. ** 

Closed Liberty Branch Library (WMassP&I)

When the Springfield City Council voted 7-4 to approve a higher than requested trash fee in exchange for reopening neighborhood library branches, it was clear the side the crowd was on.  A sustained applause greeted Councilors who took the vote in the face of thinly veiled suggestions that the city was subverting Proposition 2 ½.

The proposal, largely the work of Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen would use the extra trash fee money to reduce the general revenue’s subsidy to the trash removal budget.  With the subsidy reduced, the freed up cash in the budget could be used to nearly level-fund the Library Department and reopen the closed libraries.  The East Forest Park, Liberty and Pine Point branches were closed in July due to budget cuts.

Monday’s votes were heavily criticized by dissenting Councilors, Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak and at-large Councilor Tim Rooke.  Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna and Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion also voted against the proposal.  The remaining seven councilors all approved the measures. Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs were absent from the vote at the Special Meeting.

Since that vote July 30, WMassP&I looked into the trash fee and its history in Springfield.

Councilor John Lysak (WMassP&I)

Lysak said that Monday, a Department of Revenue lawyer told him the city’s move was technically legal.  However, Lysak implied that the lawyer said the move violated the spirit of Proposition 2 ½.  That law, a ballot measure passed in 1980, caps property tax revenue in all Massachusetts communities at 2.5% of the full, fair cash-value of all taxable property in that community.  Due to declines in property values, Springfield’s cap pushed down its property tax revenue by $7 million.  Lysak did not return an email seeking confirmation of his characterization of his conversation by posting time. 

A spokesman for the Department of Revenue, Dan Bertrand could not “immediately” confirm or deny that Councilor Lysak spoke with a lawyer or the substance of that conversation.  Such conversations are often held between municipalities and DOR’s local services attorneys, but are not documented in a way so as to be available for public discussion.  DOR lawyers usually do not to recommend or disapprove of a municipality’s actions, but will offer legal interpretations to municipalities.  Therefore, Bertrand continued, the DOR would not and does not take any official position on the city’s trash fee or its use.

Others, like Bill Dusty at the Springfield Intruder, called the move further evidence of the city’s financial mismanagement.  Like Lysak in previous Council meetings, Dusty questioned the wisdom of the city having many branch libraries open as few as 18 hours a week.

Councilor Tim Allen (WMassP&I)

There is a great deal to unpack from all of this and, more importantly, a great deal of context missing as well.  Among the layers to this onion are: the use of the trash fee to support an alternate service; general complaints about fiscal mismanagement; the need for all of these branch libraries; and calls to use the money for something else.

The complainant that the trash fee is being used to pay for libraries has its merits, especially in the optics, but in reality of the transaction as well.  The trash fee is used to pay for trash removal, pure and simple.  However, Allen insisted both before the Council and before reporters that this solution was temporary.  In Springfield, a land of cynicism, such a promise would be hollow, but Allen has a reputation for doing heavy policy lifting.  Additionally, Allen has leverage to keep the city from abusing the fee in this way.

Allen is working with Molly Fogarty, the Library Director, to investigate the long-term future of the branches and the system as a whole.  There is no wide-eyed naiveté to Allen, who admits that library consolidations and a breakup of the city’s legendary branch system may be needed.  However, Allen, and arguably much of the community that supports the branch system, want the changes happen responsibly and not abruptly.

To compel cooperation from Mayor Domenic Sarno, Allen also has a potent tool at his disposal.  The trash fee is regulated by ordinance.  In other words, unlike appropriations for the city, the Council does not need the mayor’s approval to change it.  Provided nine votes exist to override a mayoral veto, the Council could immediately upend any of the mayor’s budgeting priorities.  Such a move would be a nuclear option, but the votes are there, in theory, especially as a means to keep the fee from being used irresponsibly.

Fogarty also suggested another piece of this situation.  On that Monday meeting, the Library Director said she had not learned about the cuts herself until a few weeks before the budget was released.  Had councilors been involved in the budget process throughout, as the Council had demanded, councilors could have stated in advance the unacceptability of library closures and found a solution before the budget’s release.

Springfield Finance Control Board in 2008 (Heather Brandon)

Another missing detail is that although the trash went up by $15, instead of the proposed $10, it is actually no higher than the trash fee was at its peak when originally introduced.  After some legal wrangling in court, the Springfield Finance Control Board imposed a trash fee in the city in the amount of $90, the same amount slated for this fiscal year.  If that amount had risen with inflation the trash fee would be $102 today.

When the fee was first introduced in 2006, it was challenged in court by State Representative Cheryl Coakley-Rivera among others.  Judge Constance Sweeney struck down the fee because it operated like a tax.  It did so because the funds for a distinct government service were going into the city general fund.  There was also no clear mechanism by which residents could opt out, another difference between a fee and a tax.

While Coakley-Rivera and her allies won, the Board reconstituted the fee in a manner that made it legal.  The revised fee also created a special fund to pay for trash removal.  The fee paid for part of it, while a subsidy from the general fund paid the rest.  Coakley-Rivera flexed her muscle again when she dropped language into a bill revising the Control Board’s enabling act.  That language, under Section 3 of the 2008 law, called for the fee to end last year.

Democratic Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera of Springfield (Facebook)

The language itself was controversial and seen as an unfair meddling by Coakley-Rivera.  However, its efficacy was also questioned.  In any case, the Control Board, already preparing to pull up its stakes, apparently revised the ordinance in preparation of the legislative edict and allowed it to fall before dying out in 2011.

Sarno would trumpet the fee’s decline on several occasions before coming to the Council to prevent the fees expiration.  In May of 2011, the Springfield City Council on an 8-5 vote reinstated the trash fee.  Coakley-Rivera’s clause in the 2008 Control Board law was unable to reach an action undertaken by the Council.

Using the trash fee to pay for other services is clearly a problem.  However, as the city’s gymnastics around Coakley-Rivera’s legal maneuvers show, the trash is already indirectly paying for services.  Ironically, the case of the libraries is in fact a “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” moment.

We see this in two places this year.  Earlier in the budget process, the mayor submitted three trash fee proposals to the Council, as a means to include the Council in the budgeting process.

At no point did the mayor detail what would happen to public safety, but the city’s Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Lee Erdman said the budget planning process would adjust according to whichever solution the Council chose.  Consequently, the Council ignored and ultimately voted down a fee increase in June.  However, throughout the whole process, it was clear that the trash fee held the budget in the balance.

Later when the mayor submitted his budget to the Council, it assumed that the trash fee would go up $10.  The Council was told here, too, that failure to raise that fee would lead to layoffs, not merely attrition, within the fire and police departments.  Given this, residents must ask themselves, whether they are more upset because there is an explicit rather than an indirect tie between the fee and non-trash removal services.

City Council during an undated meeting (WMassP&I)

However, that also goes to another point.  Some have argued that trash collection should simply be privatized and its true cost passed on to residents.  Putting aside the fact that its full cost would raise an outcry from poor and better-off residents alike, no private contractor has ever succeeded in outbidding the Department of Public Works.

It seems hard to argue that the trash fee is terribly good policy.  Indeed, under ideal conditions it should be abolished, although earlier imposition of fee may have helped the city today.  The trash fee for libraries stopgap measure is no way to run a railroad either, but only if it becomes permanent.

For now, it is a political win for Allen, who got a resounding applause and the thanks of adorable children on TV praising the re-openings.  However, time is short for Allen to find a solution while trying the bridge chasm between the city’s branches of government.