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Sarno’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Passes 11 to Fenton…

Department Heads crowded the Council chamber for the annual budget vote, to defend their budgets if need be. It wasn’t needed. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—For the second year in a row, Mayor Domenic Sarno’s municipal budget achieved passage without any modification from the City Council. The $594.9 million spending plan was touted for needing no reserves or layoffs to bridge deficits. However, councilors did express reservations about the city’s yawning long-term pension and retiree healthcare obligations.

With the chamber packed with department heads and members of the subcabinet, the Council approved the budget on a 11-1 vote without even cycling through the department requests . Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, the body’s president, cast the lone dissenting vote. Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna arrived late to the meeting and missed the vote to enact the budget.

Mayor Domenic Sarno (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno (WMassP&I)

In his opening remarks Sarno emphasized, as he has at most airings of city finances, the challenges past and present the city has confronted as well as increased spending on public safety. Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante explained the $18 million gap at the start of the budget process was filled in with a mix of spending cuts and anticipated revenue from MGM.

Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen asked Plante about “Any risk in that revenue given the potential delay of the implementation of MGM affect the revenue in this coming fiscal year.”

City Solicitor Ed Pikula said the city is only receiving pre-payments from MGM not tied to construction at this time. Plante indicated that revenue from MGM pulling building, about $2 million dollars, may fluctuate based on the pace of construction, but that was expected to happen even before MGM announced it may open its facility later than anticipated.

City Solicitor Ed Pikula (via Twitter/@attyemp)

Notably, Sarno made a least a little news when he said he and Pikula remain in contact Cid Froelich, the attorney who negotiated the agreement for the city on the city’s behalf.

At-large Councilor Thomas Ashe asked the city’s public safety chiefs, Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant and Police Commission John Barbieri, to share plans to address an anticipated wave of retirements.

“I want the Council to be aware that we need to be continuing these academies,” Ashe said.

Conant said his department would be holding several mini-academies in tandem with the state’s regional training program. Barbieri told the Council the Police Department would hold a larger academy on its own, but also participate in regional ones too and, at a minimum, have a stock of cadets to draw from to fill vacancies created by retirements.

The overwhelming vote for the budget without cuts or even any proposal for cuts was a surprise as concerns about costs those pension and healthcare costs had arisen in recent weeks. With the budget funding popular line items fairly well, the political will to reduce the budget may have simply not existed during an election year.

Plante, rear right, & budget staff at a meeting last year. (WMassP&I)

Plante, rear right, & budget staff at a meeting last year. (WMassP&I)

Responding to Allen’s inquiry about the city’s pension and retiree health insurance liabilities, Plante assured the city was saving money by using the state group insurance pool. The city’s pension fund, ranked the least funded in the state, was working on clawing out from the bottom of that list, he added.

The city’s Retirement Board had wanted to hike the pension contributions, but Plante said he told them that doing so this year would lead to cuts in jobs and services.

Sarno defended the Board’s position, but said they understood once the situation was explained to them, “They’re doing their due diligence too and I commend them.”

Fenton told the Council he and Plante have been planning a presentation about the challenges these liabilities post for the city.

City Council President Michael Fenton.   (WMassP&I)

City Council President Michael Fenton. (WMassP&I)

But Fenton remained skeptical of the budget due to the looming liabilities the city faces in future years. “We rank the worst in the commonwealth,” he told WMassP&I explaining his vote after the meeting. To get the city’s long-term fiscal house in order, he argued the city should conduct an immediate review of all spending and fees (i.e. revenue it controls).

“Given our track record,” Fenton said, alluding to the city’s near-default a decade ago, “it is unacceptable to be last in the state in any financial category.”

Following the budget vote, the Council approved for another year the revolving accounts for the trash fee, Mattoon Street resident permit parking fees and other non-tax revenue streams.