Take My Council, Please: An Appeal for a Troubled Paradise…
SPRINGFIELD—With its annual review of the city budget looming ahead, the City Council flexed its muscles Monday night turning back or sending to committee several financial orders. It may be too early to assume the Council will cut Mayor Domenic Sarno’s $616 million budget, but Monday definitely showed councilors have different priorities—both political and substantive—than the administration.
Beyond financial orders, the Council devoted time to Puerto Rico, the US possession to which many city residents trace their ancestry. Put forward by the city’s two current Puerto Rican councilors, both items passed without dissent, providing a contrast to more fractured votes on other issues.
At-large Councilor Timothy Rooke was absent during Monday’s meeting.
Several items were sent back to committee including rules for taxi-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. It returned to the Public Safety Committee for more deliberation.
Another ordinance, which would raise the city engineering fees (for using rights-of-way), received first step approval, but a filing snafu prevented other components of the package from passing. Department of Public Works Director Christopher Cignoli also a moratorium for non-emergency repair work on recently paved streets and changes to the city’s engineering manual.
Council President Michael Fenton allowed the fee ordinance to proceed, but said the other two would need to be resubmitted. Cignoli said that would did not present a problem.
The revenue and expenditure report was approved with a few questions about the city’s free cash. Comptroller Pat Burns said the current report showed a surplus due to property tax bills due May 1.
Burns was spoke on free cash transfers for various uses. One, which would begin to address the city’s mounting pension liabilities, remained in committee. Another, to finance settlements judgments for the Law Department was approved, but not before a motion to go into executive session to discuss the lawsuits failed 6-6.
The Council unanimously approved one transfer to cover a deficit the state created by refusing to pay out grants from seven to five years ago. A second transfer went to committee so the Council could investigate the matter further.
Grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development sailed through as did smaller grants. Reports for zoning and utilities were accepted, too.
The Council jumped ahead to consider the Puerto Rico resolves which concerned two different aspects of the island: the government’s debt crisis there and the clemency for Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist arrested and imprisoned on ostensibly trumped up charges.
The Lopez Rivera issue has been part of the Puerto Rican experience for decades but the debt crisis is somewhat new. A cratering economy and mounting debts have prompted the government in San Juan to appeal to Washington for relief.
“Puerto Rico faces a serious fiscal and humanitarian crisis,” Gomez told his colleagues. The issue transcends Ward 1 politics. Gomez noted his predecessor Zaida Luna originally introduced the resolve.
Ramos, the Ward 8 Councilor, described the island’s history including the granting Puerto Ricans US citizenship in 1917 and the adoption of its constitution, which allowed the island some measure of self-governance. He also observed the disadvantages Puerto Rico has experienced historically, including its municipalities lack of access to the bankruptcy law mainland cities utilize.
The issue was commandeered briefly by at-large Councilor Bud Williams, a newly minted candidate for the 11th Hampden House seat. Williams incorrectly called the legislation a “bailout” like it those for other countries. He did not specify which countries the US has bailed out.
Rather, Congress is considering bills that would allow Puerto Rico’s municipalities to utilize municipal bankruptcy laws. No federal tax dollars would be expended, though bondholders might lose out.
Detroit and Central Falls, Rhode Island have used the same bankruptcy chapter to renegotiate their debts. Puerto Rico’s central government is unlikely to get similar relief as no state governments has access to bankruptcy laws.
The bankruptcy resolve in support was followed by one urging the release of Lopez Rivera, who staunchly advocated on the island’s independence from the United States. His association with Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña or FALN, contributed to his conviction for seditious conspiracy. FALN has been tied to bombings and killings in the US.
Lopez Rivera was not conclusively tied to any violence perpetrated by FALN, thus many Puerto Ricans deem his continued incarceration unjust.
“Oscar is an icon, a unifying force,” Gomez said.
At-large Councilor Thomas Ashe compared Lopez Rivera to the Easter Rising in Ireland, the centenary of which had been marked in Springfield over the weekend.
Both resolves passed on a unanimous voice vote.
The remaining finance items would not see such comity. The Council rejected a $1 million bond to repair the steps and sidewalks around the Springfield Municipal Group. The item had been rejected two weeks ago on an 8-2 vote—2/3 of the full Council was needed—but Rooke called for reconsideration.
The item faced stiffer headwinds Monday as councilors that previously supported the measure opposed it on reconsideration.
Parks, Recreation and Building Executive Director Patrick Sullivan pitched the repairs as necessary to preserve the City Clerk’s document vaults under the stairs. Sullivan also said the sidewalks near Symphony Hall were old and a potential liability to the city.
Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, also the chair of the Finance Committee, said though he voted for the bond on May 2, but would not again until the budget was approved. Ramos, too, reversed himself.
“It is not the time to be approving a $1 million bond,” Ramos also looked to other needs like parks and neighborhood needs, “Why aren’t we bonding for that. Why aren’t we bonding for sidewalks.”
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea pled with their colleagues to consider the longer term liability to the city. “There are a lot of other items we can hold up in the budget,” he said arguing the repairs were too important to delay.
A motion to committee failed 7-5. Allen, Gomez, Ramos Bud Williams and Councilor Marcus Williams supported the move to committee. Ashe, Fenton, Shea and Councilors Melvin Edward, Justin Hurst, E. Henry Twiggs and Kateri Walsh were opposed.
The bond itself failed 7-5 too, four short of passage. Allen, Fenton, Gomez, Hurst, Ramos and both Williamses voted in the negative. Ashe, Edwards, Shea, Twiggs and Walsh supported the bond.
Though voted down, the mayor is likely to resubmit it in the coming weeks.
A police supervisor labor contract stayed in committee and an authorization for a four-year lease for the School Department’s computers was sent there. The order appeared to authorize rolling four-year leases for computers in perpetuity, which would seem impossible under state law. Another resolve about the state’s Chapter 70 educational fund allocation also remained in committee.
With budget review set to begin next week, councilor clearly has finances on their minds. There is a division, however, among councilors skeptical of the mayor’s budget between actual deficit hawks and those that want money spent elsewhere. If the Council cuts the budget, only the mayor—with the Council’s approval—can reallocate the money elsewhere. Thus, it is impossible to know whether the last few weeks of financial saber-rattling will mean substantive cuts.