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Take My Council, Please: The Calm before the Fiscal Storm…

Less than remote concerns growing. (WMP&I/Google images Search)

SPRINGFIELD—A relatively straightforward Council agenda experienced some delays due technical difficulties rather than legislative loquaciousness. For example, the meeting paused briefly as one councilor’s connection to Zoom was severed. Then there were the pauses between recognition of councilors. Overall, though, the meeting proceeded with little drama. Virtually all items passed without dissent.

The vast majority of items were budgetary. Normally the Council would have met two or three times since its last in-person meeting in mid-March. While the body is effectively meeting weekly during its update sessions with the administration, no business is conducted then. Before Monday’s meeting, it had only held one Zoom-based regular meeting.

The meeting had a new twist: more recorded votes. City Clerk Tasheena Davis informed the Council that under state rules for remote meetings, voice votes were no longer allowed. Thus, even routine actions like accepting grants and suspending the rules to pass certain items at one meeting required a recorded vote.

The meeting opened with the March revenue and expenditures report. Comptroller Pat Burns revealed that the initial loss of revenue the city had experienced may have been due to unpaid excise taxes. The abrupt closure of City Hall, amid other COVID-19 chaos, may have prevented residents from paying their car taxes.

While the city is likely to lose several million dollars in meals and hotel taxes as well as permits and fees, the largest chunk, initially, appears to be excise so far. The report for April could be grim, too. The due date for property tax bills was pushed back a month. However, it is reasonable to assume most of this revenue will be recouped eventually as they are not directly levied on economic activity.

If only it were just a Dark Lord hovering over Springfield. (created via WMassP&I and Warner Bros. images)

This fiscal year’s problem may be additional expenses to respond to the outbreak, though much of this may be reimbursed by the feds. The bigger problem may come next fiscal year. State cuts to local aide could blow an $11 million hole in city revenue.

Burns told councilors the city had nonetheless frozen hiring and began identifying accounts for savings to compensate for unrealized revenue.

The Council confirmed the nomination of Joseph DeCaro, a Coast Guard vet, to be Deputy Director of the city veteran’s office. DeCaro filled a position that had been vacant since last year. He serves as the office’s representative on a veteran’s policy committee as well. Although most appointments do not require confirmation by the Council, the operative state law creating the office requires Council confirmation.

Petitions before the Council included a new stop sign on Long Terrace and service zones along Myrtle Street. Both were granted

Much of the remainder of the agenda related to accepting a host of funds. Among them was the city’s regular Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tim Sheehan, the city’s Chief Development Officer, told councilors that the city had the option of delaying its plan for spending the annual appropriations due to the outbreak. However, he said the city declined that offer to ensure it would receive the funds by July 1, which is also the start of the city’s next fiscal year.

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan with Mayor Sarno at the time Sheehan’s appointment…better times, obviously. (via Springfield City Hall)

Sheehan said that the city had submitted its CDBG plan to HUD, which includes funds for civic associations, homeowner programs and projects throughout the city. The total grant amounts to $3.9 million. Councilors accepted it without dissent.

The Council accepted another two grants totaling more than $2.6 million for housing programs. There was another grant for $60,000 from the state that aimed at helping homeless youth.

While most of the funds were routine, there were some COVID-related funds, too. The city accepted $568,340 for its health center that serves the homeless. Health & Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris explained that due to the outbreak, the city’s health center—like many others—is seeing fewer patients in-person. The Council approved the grant.

Caulton-Harris’ department had another grant of $150,000 for substance abuse programs.

Councilors had questions about a $50,000 grant aimed at upping the city’s participation in the US Census. However, the city’s point person on the annual count, Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola, was not on the Zoom meeting. Councilors were curious about the city’s response rate was. Finance officials, who were presenting the grant, did not know.

Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton pointed out at the Census has made response rates available online. Massachusetts’s overall response rate is just over 60%. Hampden County’s is higher at 62%. However, Springfield is behind both at just over 52%. Several census tracts in the city come in well below that, though none appear to be lower than 30%.

Springfield’s precincts boundaries make up ward seat boundaries and, by extension, legislative district lines. (via Springfield City Hall)

Council President Justin Hurst said he would arrange for Oyola to join the Council on a Committee of the Whole Meeting to receive an update the city’s plan to get an accurate count. The Census determines allocations for federal funding and of federal and state legislative districts. The city’s wards—and hence the electorates of the Council’s ward-based seats—are also determined by the Census.

Additional, smaller grants to the city’s HHS, Library and Police departments were also approved.

The Council approved a budget transfer of $21,254 to pay out sick leave in the Planning & Economic Development Department and authorized payment for a Public Works bill from last fiscal year.

In property transactions, the Council granted an easement for Verizon as part of the construction of the new Brightwood-Lincoln School. The body also authorized the sale of an abutting lot on College Street.

The final item was perhaps the most on point related to the novel coronavirus. With social distancing the norm and no sign that risks will evaporate by the September 1 primary or the general election in November, there is a movement to conduct as much of the election in Massachusetts by mail as possible.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin has released a plan that would allow anybody to request an absentee ballot. It would also expand early voting. In-person voting would still be available.

Others want to simply mail ballots to all voters. It is not clear if Massachusetts or any state could switch over entirely to mail voting in a single election. Most that have all mail voting phased it in over years and without the added complication of an infection disease in the air.

Nonetheless, councilors signed onto a resolution that called for the exploration of an all-mail election due to the outbreak.

Council chambers

From another Council in another time. (WMassP&I)

The Council is likely to have at least a few more Zoom meetings left in its roster. While City Hall could begin opening as soon as next week, it will likely be some time before the body can begin meeting in chambers again. But in the weeks and months ahead, it will be facing far grimmer realities as the budget numbers come in, unless Congress catches the fall of state revenue figures.