Take My Council, Please: Getting over the Hump Last Week…
SPRINGFIELD—Last week the City Council enacted legislation to create a process to install speed humps along side streets that have become speed corridors. As the nation faces a spike in reckless driving—in ever heavier cars—road safety has begun to gain new salience. This has been especially salient here where several have died crossing State Street.
The ordinance councilors passed will not apply to heavily trafficked roads like State Street. They could begin appearing on smaller roads. The speed hump bill was part of the agenda at the October 17 meeting. As the Council works toward more and more normality, it has reflected a bit in the completion of the agenda. However, it was on the light to-do list.
Councilors Malo Brown, Justin Hurst, Kateri Walsh & Tracye Whitfield participated remotely in the meeting.
Ward 2 Councilor Michael, the chair of the Government Committee, said in his panel’s report that the dumpster permit ordinance would not return to the floor. Outreach on the subject is ongoing. An ordinance for administrative warrants would also have more review.
Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila, chair of Public Safety, spoke on plans for the city to buy the former Friendly’s on Sumner Avenue. He said the Forest Park Civic Association was in support. The property will be used for parking and other traffic purposes related to the adjacent Sumner Avenue School. The item received approval later in the meeting, but was reposted for the hearings meeting on October 24 to clear any procedural hurdles. The item was added to the October 17 meeting under suspension.
City Comptroller Pat Burns presented the final report on the $5 million legal settlement fund the Council had approved last year. However, about $3.2 million was never used. The funds will become part of free cash.
Councilors approved utility reports for gas an electric work on Newbury and Sheffield streets respectively.
The body also approved a measure that would raise the base upon which pensions are paid out. Springfield has struggled with fully funding its pension obligations, a legacy of decades-old mismanagement. While Springfield is climbing out of that hole, the item before the Council would raise a benchmark the Springfield Retirement Board uses to calculate annual pension.
The mayor’s measure is not a cost-of-living adjustment. COLAs are part of the system. However, this would give retirees and average of $30 dollars more a year. It will cost the pension system about $6.7 million over 10 years.
Burns, the comptroller, said this will increase the city’s annual payment to the system by about $600,000. However, that would be spread among the city, the school department and independent entities Springfield controls.
Councilors expressed reservations about the scheme. Backfilling the pension liability has been a priority for several years.
“I am not against it, I just want us to be mindful of the decision we’re making,” said Whitfield, an at-large Councilor. Whitfield chairs the Council’s Finance Committee. “I wish we could do something different.”
Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante appeared ambivalent about it, suggesting the city could swing the annual contribution hike. That was enough for the body. It passed 12-1. Only Fenton was in dissent.
After the meeting, Fenton, a former Council President and Finance Committee chair, explained that he felt the benefit did not outweigh the cost.
“I think it’s a misconception that cola adjustments aren’t built into the system. They are we do call adjustments every year and many years north of 2%,” he said in an interview.
“With the pension obligations that we have currently being the most underfunded pension system in the Commonwealth and one of the most underfunded in the country, I just couldn’t justify tonight, making that problem exacerbated for less than $3 a month for retirees,” he continued.
The Council also authorized an additional state aid. Springfield had passed its budget before the state. The spending plan Beacon Hill eventually adopted included more money for municipalities. Plante said $3.3 million in charter school reimbursement would just grow a school contingencies fund.
The city split $1.1 in additional unrestricted aide between city contingencies and costs for the Police Department monitor. Another $300,000 received approval. The money will pay for mental health programs for children.
Smaller grants for cultural programs and libraries also passed the Council. The body also approved an increase in Retirement Board stipends.
Councilors also approved an amendment to the city’s urban renewal plan. Springfield officials and their consultants presented a plan that would alter which properties in the plan. It also merged and centralized decades of amendments to put them in one place. It adds several more parcels to the plan and recategorizes several buildings as slated for rehabilitation instead of demolition.
The plan also considers long-term parking needs. As downtown is walkable, part of the challenge is encouraging development that would let people park and move around or use transit. The plan would not affect whether the city decides to establish any overlay zoning downtown, such as near the station.
The plan passed unanimously.
Before councilors gave final passage the speed hump ordinance, they approved a special permit for motor vehicle sales.
Councilor Fenton had led the charge on the ordinance. It will establish a process for residents and property owners to petition for a temporary speed hump. After a trial run, the city can make the hump permanent.
He said the ordinance was the product of two years of work, meetings and communications with nearby communities with similar programs.
“It is an ordinance that contemplates reduction of speeding in the city of Springfield, and also does it in a way that will reduce the proliferation of these speed control devices by having neighborhood input, adjacent street input, neighborhood council involvement, and many checks and balances in the process,” he told WMP&I.
Since the meeting last week, Mayor Domenic Sarno has signed the bill according to the Clerk’s office.
While the hump ordinance stands as the most tangible product of this meeting, its goal of less speeding fits with making urban spaces livable. The amendments to the urban renewal plan will not prompt immediate change. Still a sober reassessment of downtown—especially the realization that casino has brought a broader rebirth is important.
Notably, councilors asked if urban renewal plans exist elsewhere in Springfield. They do. Areas like Mason Square and Indian Orchard have them. How to make urban life more attractive in Springfield has confounded city leaders for over half a century.
Maybe limiting the car will be a first, small step.