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Briefings: Unanimous Passage, but No Sizzle for Springfield Budget…

Mayor Domenic Sarno addressing the Council at Monday night’s budget vote. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Without dissent, the City Council approved Mayor Domenic Sarno’s $629 million spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The budget included several topline increases in preparation of several downtown projects, most notably the opening of MGM next year. The mayor also touted the budget’s punctuality, bolstered reserves and additional savings for retirement benefits owed to Springfield employees.

At the same time, the entire process from roll out to Council approval seemed decidedly sober. Never one to miss a chance to fete his accomplishments, Sarno’s remarks to the Council Monday night were relatively short and reserved. It matched the positive, but not ebullient tone of the budget’s release a few weeks ago.

Broadly speaking, other than perennial and real dangers related to pension and retiree health insurance, there are no obvious dark clouds on the fiscal horizon. However, maintaining the status quo, i.e. no dramatic cuts or layoff, certainly lacks the panache of a dramatic increase in police or fire staffing.

Both police and fire have active academies and the city is getting ahead of attrition. Thus there will be net increases in both departments’ uniformed personnel. But these represent only small growth in the overall headcount of both public safety agencies. The downtown police investments are a switch for the department, which has historically avoided satellite operations beyond its Pearl Street headquarters. Indeed, Commissioner John Barbieri politely rebuffed a suggestion for substations in the city neighborhoods.

Springfield officials told WMassP&I some weeks ago the less than rapturous presentation of the budget reflected the need to say “no” to a lot of departments. Every year requests from city agencies ask for more and frequently they do not get it. However, outside bad financial times, the answer is often at least “maybe.” That does not appear to be the case this year despite a stabilizing tax base and state aide.

Another X-factor is the national political situation. Deep cuts Donald Trump has proposed to federal spending would hit Springfield hard. Few, if any of these funds support the annual spending plan. Yet, many federal programs pay for the city’s “grey budget” or operations and projects outside formal annual appropriation process. Massive federal spending cuts would cancel many programs, but others would fall onto the regular budget forcing cuts elsewhere.

Springfield CAFO T.J. Plante circa 2014. (WMassP&I)

Nevertheless, councilors praised the budget. Despite several questions, including Councilor E. Henry Twiggs’s about operating deficits at Union Station, members of the body had few bad words. Both the mayor and Councilor Michael Fenton, a noted fiscal hawk, also applauded the work of Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante and his staff.

There is some hope next year might be better. MGM will formally open triggering the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes scheme embedded in casino’s host community agreement. Many of those revenues will end up supporting city spending related to the casino such as policing. Barring a renegotiation of the HCA, those funds will be  nonetheless a reliable addition to city coffers.