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The Early Word: A Budget You Needn’t Take with Prozac…?

EDITORS NOTE: This story, originally published May 19, 2014, has been republished on May 22, 2014 to reflect additional reporting and details. The below is an archive of the original post, collapsed for visual tidiness. You may access it by clicking the “continue reading” text below.

UPDATED 5:42PM: To reflect a correction. Stabilization funds proposed for the budget is $2.8 million, not 2.1 and budget growth is 1.8% not 1.6%.

Mayor Domenic Sarno file photo. (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno file photo. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Less gloomy than usual, the annual release of the municipal budget by Mayor Domenic Sarno seemingly promised a bit of relief after years of cuts, layoffs, squeezing and, sometimes budget gimmicks.

The early word on Sarno’s budget for Fiscal Year 2015 was largely positive, despite beginning in difficult circumstances. Sarno touted that the his budget only relied on $2.8 million in transfers from stabilization reserves, which was looked on approvingly by City Council President Michael Fenton, one of the body’s most voracious fiscal hawks.

The presentation, held in the School Committee meeting room, the one-time aldermanic chamber when the Council had an upper house, focused largely on the positives, including academy classes for the police and fire.

Flanked by Fenton, Budget Director Jennifer Winkler and Chief Administrative and Financial Officer T.J. Plante, Sarno delivered perhaps the most upbeat budget of his time as mayor, leaving even skeptics at a loss to complain. However, it is also probably the last budget Sarno will deliver before, what, if any field develops to challenge him in next year’s mayoral election.

More details will emerge when the City Council receives the budget tonight, the plan calls for $581 million in spending. A release accompanying the presentation said the city will spend $337 million within the schools budget, typifying the schools’ overwhelming share of the budget the School Committee controls that money. School-related expenses on the city side of the budget include nearly $24 million on busing and another $1 million on adult education and leases.  The upbeat news on the city side is an ironic twist given that the school budget has recently run into some minor financial issues.

In perhaps a sign that this budget was a different, questions from the press were limited and the presentation itself was short. The highlights Sarno mentioned such as police, fire, libraries and, notably, terrace mowing, in some ways reflect the highest-profile controversies in the budget over the last few years since the fiscal crisis erupted and nearly torn asunder the city’s fiscal situation again.

Council President Fenton sounded a positive note on the budget.  (WMassP&I)

Council President Fenton sounded a positive note on the budget. (WMassP&I)

The mayor said the budget-writing process began with a $21 million deficit, and, if the figures provided prove true, was reduced to only $2.8 million, which reserves will plug. Speaking to reporters after the presentation, Fenton said minimal use of reserves was “excellent news.” No layoffs are included in the budget and the accompanying releases suggested that staffing would remain level overall, rather than rely heavily on attrition of the city workforce in lieu of layoffs.

Some hiring is expected. The city will hold an academy class of 26 patrolmen, with the option of 13 more. Critically, the fire department, whose staffing levels have been decimated after ten years of fiscal instability, is expected to hire 20 more firefighters. Not made clear at the presentation was whether, after retirements and other opened slots, these public safety hires reflected any net increase or even maintenance of current staffing in the police and fire department.

Some new hires, such as within Captial Assets, are intended to bring project management in-house and reduced costs related to outsourcing the overseeing of large city undertakings. Library hours are expected to remain at 30 hours per branch. Public Works and Parks & Rec programs also appear to be funded as per usual. No trash fee increase is proposed this year and labor peace may be coming to city as more and more agreements get negotiated. Library workers’ contract is before the Council tonight.

Fenton said the Council would plan to get its budget review completed before mid-June. Traditionally, the Council’s budget approval hearing has occurred in the third and often the fourth week of the month, days before the old fiscal year ends and the city would officially run out its authority to spend. The Council cannot add or transfer budget items during its review, but it can reduce the dollar values on any line the city is not required to spend under state law.

CAFO Timothy (T.J.) Plante (WMassP&I)

CAFO Timothy (T.J.) Plante (WMassP&I)

The improvement in the budget picture appears driven by holding the line on spending (FY15 represents a 1.8% increase over FY14) and better revenues. Although the mayor did not detail the impact of limiting departmental budget growth, he did say that revenues are also up. Last year as the Council set tax rates, Board of Assessor Chair Richard Allen said property values in the city had begun to revriseerse their slide, allowing increased property taxes revenue. Local aide from Beacon Hill also increased.

City budget officials said the paradox where increases in state education aide, which in turn prompt a mandatory increase in the city side contribution to schools, was lower than in past years.

Notably, the mayor and budget officials were less sanguine than usual about the windfall expected if MGM Springfield is indeed built. Overseeing his first annual budget from beginning to end as Chief Administrative and Financial Officer, T.J. Plante said no casino revenues are included in the budget as MGM has not technically gotten its license yet. Both he and Sarno said that while repeal of the casino law could affect the city’s long-term budget planning, should the commonwealth’s Supreme Judicial Court allow the repeal measure on the ballot, any further short-term delays will not affect FY2015.

The news was remarkably good, perhaps too good. Moreover, it should not mask the fact that Springfield continues to have incredible fiscal challenges. The city’s retirement system remains frightfully underfunded and a long term program of re-growing the city’s workforce, particularly its fire department remains necessary. Add to that, the untold millions (if not billions) in capital needs.

The Council’s review may be a bit less fraught than in past years with many popular (read: politically potent) lines protected. Nevertheless, the body will likely take a hard look to make sure the numbers stand on terra firma. While it will formally receive the proposal tonight, some councilors have begun their reviews already. Whether the mayor has a strong opponent next year or not, councilors will be on the ballot next year, too and may be called to account for their oversight (or lack thereof).