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Analysis: With Budget, the Mayor-in-Council Mixes It up…or Was It a Wash…?

Domenic Sarno

For but a day, the king steps down, like one of his ministers, to take questions from Parliament. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

On June 20, for the first time since the shroud of the coronavirus fell upon Springfield, city councilors confronted Mayor Domenic Sarno, faccie e faccie, in chambers as he presented his budget for new fiscal year. Part oversight, part Festivus, rarely does he subject himself to such intense or even hostile questioning. Adding to the novelty is the top-tier challenges trying to stop the mayor’s reelection this year.

Substantively, little changed last week or this past Monday when the budget process concluded (probably). The budget passed 11-2 vote. No one proposed any cuts, the Council’s principal budget power. Still, the mayoral race seeped in. Sarno can continue to pull levers to help his reelection, but his opponents got their shots in. This Mayor-in-Council encounter could yet ripple further.

The nearly $871 million budget contained few surprises or controversies. Demands for more tax relief, funding the Police Commission and a neighborhood program attracted the most disagreement.

The two dissents were at-large Councilors Justin Hurst and Tracye Whitfield.

While Hurst and Council President Jesse Lederman are challenging the mayor, the most intense questioning came from Whitfield. Her remarks touched multiple subjects and were quite extended. However, she was on her game probing the mayor’s refusal to give the Police Commission its own budget.

The mayor has resisted the panel’s creation at every step of the way. Only a unanimous bench-slapping from the commonwealth’s highest court could force him to implement it. Yet, the road has not been smooth. The consent decree the city and the United States Department of Justice entered into to reform Pearl Street acknowledges the Commission’s place. Yet, the feds have not pressed the issue publicly or privately.

“But I’m asking you where are the line items in the particular budget that support the Board of Police Commissioners,” she said. Whitfield added that not long before Plante had said there was no specific line item.

Sarno rejected claims from Whitfield that the city had an obligation to fund a separate budget for the panel. He and City Solicitor John Payne insisted they met the obligations by allocating existing resources from elsewhere in the budget. Both men also argued giving the panel too many resources would jeopardize investigations. That did not satisfy Whitfield (or anybody else).

Tracye Whitfield

Whitfield of Oz? Except the curtain to pay attention was on the floor behind the podium. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

“It is also my understanding that the Board of Police Commissioners have additional needs that have not been addressed,” Whitfield said, countering the administration’s insistence to the contrary.

Aside from heated exchanges between the mayor at the podium and Whitfield remotely, interrogating almost Wizard of Oz-style, Sarno did not melt down. Before questions, the mayor’s presentation of the budget undulated slowly, but he opened with a bit of back-patting in the fiscal restraint department.

“This is the ninth consecutive budget that has been balanced without the use of reserves. Ninth in a row,” he said.

Sarno has long cloaked himself in the garb of financial responsibility, which was ostensibly why he rejected more funds to defray taxes—for now at least. He invokes rating agencies’ sunny view of the city so often that a cat or dog in Sarno’s house might think “bond rating” was its name. The mayor did not birth Springfield’s relative fiscal calm, even strength. However, he has not upended it either.

His rivals did not agree. Hurst panned the budget in chambers, but advised the mayor he did not need to respond. In an unusual display of restraint, Sarno accepted this recommendation.

However, after the vote, Hurst blasted the budget in statement. For Hurst, not only did it fail to fund the Police Commission, but it ensured tax increases.

Justin Hurst

Hurst at his mayoral campaign kickoff in January. (WMP&I)

Hurst did not limit his criticism to taxes, pointing to utility costs and the trash fee, which he said last December he wanted to end.

“Even more frustrating, is that the administration is not being honest and transparent with tax payers as there is plenty of money in the city coffers to offset the financial hardships that residents have been enduring for years now,” he said.

In a statement, Council President Jesse Lederman said his intention was to keep the budget process “thorough and transparent.” He voted for the budget, pointing to the need to fund city services. While the budget fell short, Lederman argued, the key vote for change was not in Council chambers but in the upcoming election.

“To make real progress in these areas we need a Mayor that is committed to competently implementing, empowering, and allowing the Board of Police Commissioners to do their job, and a Mayor that is committed to an economic development vision that attracts emerging industries to Springfield to revitalize our neighborhood economic centers, lift up working families, and grow our commercial tax base to shift the burden from residential property owners,” he said.

Jesse Lederman

Lederman at his own kickoff in March. (WMP&I)

“The real opportunity for progress does not lie in the FY24 budget vote – it’s at the ballot box this fall,” Lederman concluded.

Some of the drama had unfolded June 12 when the Council failed to transfer $17 million in free cash (unspent funds from prior fiscal years) to reserves. Given that delay, Ramos, a former councilor, while urged the Council to not to allow the levy to increase in a pre-budget vote statement. Ostensibly, he wanted his former colleagues to oppose the transfer to reserves.

“I am concerned that our homeowners and businesses do not realize the November tax surprise that could be in store for them,” he said.

The city is putting $7 million dollars of free cash and savvy plays in Treasury markets to reduce the city’s overall property tax levy. In essence, the city is not raising the full amount it can under Proposition 2 ½. While avoiding Proposition 2 ½’s levy ceiling, they have driven up tax bills.

Why? Property values have not risen uniformly. Commercial values have not kept pace with residential ones. That makes it increasingly untenable to keep shifting the burden onto commercial properties. Councilors had held up a $17 million transfer to free cash to press for more tax relief.

Sarno, backed by Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante, couched this approach as intentionally conservative should a recession. On June 12, Plante plausibly suggested a downturn could cause even larger tax increases. The city may need all the revenue it can raise if the state cut assistance. That would translate into higher bills.

The more compelling argument, however, came from the Chair of the Board of Assessors Patrick Greenhalgh. He told councilors that for every $1 million spent lowering the levy, the average tax bill enjoyed only a $15 break annually. Given Springfield’s fiscal history, $15 in relief per tax year may not be worth the risk of chaos, however remote a recession appears to be today.

Domenic I

“Ah, if I were not king, I should lose my temper” and maybe an election… (created via Business West & Hyacinthe Rigauld’s Louis XIV images)

Nobody in the administration ruled out more relief, though. Indeed, the cynic should assume he will call for extra money to defray property tax bills. Tax rates can be set as early as November. Thus, such a call could easily arrive ahead of the election—or sooner if his polling sours. A skeptic may even wonder about the need for more relief when all residential owners benefit from widows on fixed incomes to slum lords.

In the end, councilors approved the transfer 10-3. Councilors Hurst, Whitfield and Zaida Govan dissented.

Beyond taxes, Sarno deflected the sharper criticisms as well as gentler inquisitions from Councilors Govan and Victor Davila. Govan also asked about eliminating the trash fee, an issue that Sarno had used to defeat the late Charlie Ryan. But times have changed. Public Works czar Chris Cignoli stepped up to defend it. He noted that Springfield’s fee was both less than other communities and bought more.

Another element that seemed primed to benefit the mayor was his Neighborhood Stabilization Fund. Touted on June 12 as a way to pay for neighborhood needs that did not qualify for American Rescue Plan Act funds, critics called it a “slush fund” for the mayor.

Hurst and Whitfield again were at the forefront of this criticism. Others worried it was only a one-off. A motion to committee failed 5-8. Councilors Davila, Hurst, Lederman, Whitfield and Lavar Click-Bruce supported the motion. After some additional questioning, Davila invoked Rule 20, the city’s financial filibuster rule. No further action could occur pending a comptroller’s report on the item’s fiscal impact.

While councilors have reformed Rule 20 to limit dilatory delays, this delay probably benefited everybody. At this Monday’s Council meeting, Finance Committee chair Timothy Allen said after the Comptroller’s brief report, staff from the Finance Department and Neighborhood Services explained the fund’s process.

Chief Development Officer Timothy Sheehan laid out the application process as going through the neighborhood council or other neighborhood grandees. The timelines imply that the mayor may be cutting checks weeks or days before Election Day. Yet, councilors now have de facto commitments to a process that may have to withstand scrutiny or even formalization.

Long gone are the days of the City Council standing nearly united against Sarno. Yet budgets often sailed through during that bygone era, too.. The votes suggest there is anything but consensus among councilors on the need of a new mayor. The mayor may be happy he got his spending plan unmolested if only eventually.

However, the scrutiny of the neighborhood funds and Whitfield’s grilling both exemplify why Sarno does not subject himself to public inquests often. Either it wrests a bit of control from him or worse, it exposes errors his critics—and in 2023, his rivals—can exploit.