Take My Council, Please: The Wheels on the Bus Go Round & Round…
SPRINGFIELD—Once again a light agenda confronted the City Council Monday evening. Even divisive and controversial concept like a Council Facebook page were not voted on that night. Most of the city and the region’s attention was focused a couple of miles away at Van Sickle School where Police Commissioner-designate John Barbieri offered a public presentation about his vision for the Police Department. For whatever reason, that presentation was scheduled at the same time that the Council was scheduled for the same time the Council is statutorily obligated to meet.
With such a light agenda, much of the Council’s time was spent debating and then passing a resolve opposing changes to a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus line. Other items were boilerplate quitclaim deeds and financial orders.
Several of the deeds were tax title properties which were set to be conveyed to abutting property owners to increase those owners’ green space. One was for Viva Development, which has been working on a project along Central Street, particularly in the area affected by the 2011 tornado.
In addition to the Facebook measure, technical changes to the pawnbrokers ordinance were also held off for another day. At-large Councilor Justin Hurst, chair of the ad hoc Young Professionals Committee said the matter would be discussed at an April 22 meeting of his committee and urged his colleagues with questions to attend. Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, chair of the New Revenue and Workforce Development Committees, both also ad hoc, updated the Council on those committees’ schedules.
The Council approved a bond authorization for the demolition and cleanup of the former Chestnut Street School. Originally slated for redevelopment some years ago, it languished instead and burned in a fire last year. City officials announced they would deficit spend to begin demolition and then pay the debt using bonding next year. Normally deficit spending is only permitted for snow removal, but the city received approval from the state to do so in this case.
Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna asked how long before work would begin and then how long it would take. Budget Director Jennifer Winkler said the work should begin within 30 days and then take about 90. City officials also said the delay in commencement of work was due to the time it took to get bids for the project. The Council had made an earlier approval last year, but again, due to timing another approval was needed Monday.
Utility reports were accepted without debate as was authorization to pay a bill from last year. That item came about due to changes in the city’s contracts with its auctioneers used to sell city owned properties.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards also spoke in favor of their measure which would begin the process of establishing a second cultural district within the city. This one would include the Armory and Maple Heights. The one approved last year encompassed the museums and Dr. Seuss Memorial, among other cultural highlights.
In an odd exchange between Walsh and at-large Councilor Bud Williams, the latter, who made sure to declare his support, nevertheless, took pains to speculate whether it was worth hoping Beacon Hill would approve and fund a second district. Walsh countered that the legislature’s approval is not needed to create the district and establishing the second one would merely make it eligible for existing grants, not subject it to the fiscal caprice of the legislature.
The highlight of the meeting was the debate about a PVTA bus route, namely the G5. The route was slated to receive changes that would make it less accessible to residents in the city. According to the PVTA’s website, the route currently run Longmeadow Street in Longmeadow and down Converse toward the Jewish Community Center. It runs on a clockwise loop from the JCC up Dickinson to Tiffany Street. Turning down Tiffany, the loop is formed with Dwight Road and then Converse Street again. From the intersection of Dickinson and Tiffany, the route goes toward downtown.
The PVTA was formed in the 1970’s as the regional transit authority for the Pioneer Valley. It receives state funds, but also revenue from the communities it serves via assessment on their local aide.
Mary McGinnis, the PVTA’s administrator was at the Council meeting to address concerns about the changes. She said they grew out of a large study the PVTA undertook to evaluate all of its routes. The endeavor took place as the legislature ordered all the regional transit authorities to do the same (the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (the “T”) is not considered a regional transit authority due to its size and scope).
Ultimately, McGinnis said, all of this laid the groundwork for transit agencies’ first boost in funding from Beacon Hill in over a decade ago when funding was cut considerably after the dot-com bust recession. McGinnis said the funding had already forestalled a fare increase and added additional Sunday service. The PVTA study committee held 13 public meetings, five more than are required under state law, McGinnis said, including 3 in Springfield.
During public speak out before the meeting several residents spoke up to oppose the changes that would affect the G5. McGinnis said efficiency was what brought the route to the study committee’s attention and not any broader purpose, implying that the PVTA would lose little if the route remained.
“I didn’t want you to get the impression that what you heard today is what this study is about,” McGinnis said saying the study was about positive changes. Among those were improved frequency, hours of service and new crosstown route. “Crosstown service is the number one issue,” she explained.
McGinnis said of the G5 changes that the mayor’s designee on the PVTA advisory board, City Clerk Wayman Lee, would merely need to make a motion to amend the proposed changes as a May meeting. In all likelihood, she said, that could be what is needed to amend the service changes to spare the G5.
The Council passed the resolve without dissent on the voice vote. The meeting wrapped up within an hour. Some measures including a brand new police oversight ordinance were not ready for Monday’s meeting, but could be coming up soon. Much of the Council’s first quarter this year was eaten by the Police Commission issue, but with Barbieri selected, the pressure to act quickly no longer exists and, frankly, other issues loom now.