Take My Council, Please: Unstoppable Pumpkins Meet Immovable Fiscal Math…
The budget process is always political. This is true whether the context is the hottest set of races Springfield has seen in a decade or not. Yet, on display at the City Council meeting last Monday was proof that chambers had become an area in the city’s political battlefield this cycle. The heat was such that the Council could not complete its agenda before turning into a pumpkin at 10pm.
In addition to a reprise of the controversy around a Student Prince permit, the Council bogged down on fiscal housekeeping for the new budget. Several councilors insisted more leftover cash from prior fiscal years go to reduce the tax burden. No doubt Mayor Domenic Sarno, facing his toughest reelection yet, would also like to dump cash on residents as if from a zeppelin, city financial officials want to play it safe.
Ward 1 Councilor Maria Perez was absent. Councilors Lavar Click-Bruce, Justin Hurst, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield participated virtually.
At the previous meeting, the Student Prince’s request to close Fort Street annually fired a volley of eyebrows into the stratosphere. With them came a rush of commentary among councilors both for and against.
Public Works czar Chris Cignoli again explained, if somewhat more clearly than the week before, why he was asking the Council to approve the Student Prince’s request. His department was trying to avoid setting a precedent to summarily approve summer closures of Fort Street for the restaurant’s outdoor dining. Moreover, he suggested other restaurants may seek street closures elsewhere in the city.
“I do expect there will be more applicants like this in the spring of every year for all of these entities,” he said.
After the shroud of the coronavirus fell upon Massachusetts, municipalities acted under emergency state outdoor dining rules. That authority from on high has expired and now cities and towns must set up their own processes.
In Springfield, the DPW director can approve road closures himself. However, Cignoli said he would be more comfortable with the Council’s blessings for an extended closure.
Councilor Hurst, who is running for mayor, objected to Cignoli’s claim that he could close streets unilaterally while simultaneously seeking Council approval. The DPW director assured the Student Prince—or any future requester of a street closures—would still file all usual permits annually. Taking a different tack, Councilor Whitfield questioned whether the city was missing an opportunity to raise revenue.
While debate went on (and on), it was clear that councilors would approve the item this time. Ward 8 Councilor Zaida Govan, while concerned about bigger streets being closed, said she had heard from some abutters who approved of the closure. Overall, she suggested Fort Street could become a model.
“I would like to see more streets closed so that we could use them for pedestrians,” she said.
Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton rose to clarify that the measure would not discontinue the street, a process that returns the land under it to the abutting property owners. Fenton suggested that while Cignoli had used his power to close roads before, the extended nature of those that the Student Prince sought required Council buy-in. Cignoli concurred.
“One thing I haven’t heard in this debate is any complaint from any of the abutters or anybody who uses the road,” Fenton said.
Despite the apparent support of some abutters, some opponents began to raise the notion that future abutters may disagree with the closure. Cignoli tried to suggest that such opposition could terminate a closure like what the Student Prince sought.
Nevertheless, after a request to call the question, the Council finally voted. The permit passed 9-3. Councilors Click-Bruce, Hurst and Whitfield were in dissent.
Nearly an hour into the meeting, the Council only approved a repeat item and accepted reports of committee. Of note from the committee was an announcement from Hurst, the Audit Committee chair, that the City Auditor would be reviewing the school transportation contract soon.
By contrast, the more typical utility reports, mostly for Eversource in various locations across the city, passed without debate. The exception was a discontinuance for Wilbraham Avenue between Alden and King streets. Springfield College owns both sides of that part of the street and intends to create a pedestrian area. Springfield College officials assured that the public, if not the motoring kind, would still have access. Nonetheless, councilors sent the item to committee for further review. Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen abstained from the vote.
Councilors approved large grants of $6.9 million and 1.8 million for various housing and homeless programs. The were also smaller grants of $833,980 for homeless programs for AIDS patients and $331,925 for emergency shelter programs.
The Council also accepted the city’s annual allotment of Community Development Block Grant funding—nearly $3.8 million this year—from Uncle Sam. The city has also received nearly $1.1 million from the Gaming Commission to finance the police unit that patrols the casino.
Another $966,667 grant from the Gaming Commission will go to traffic work along Dwight Street. A separate $250,000 gaming commission grant will go toward design work at Union and Maple streets. The Council also greenlit the city’s annual allotment of rideshare fees, which amounted to over $58,000 last year. Cignoli said the money would go toward improvements of sidewalks, including handicap accessibility.
Smaller grants for the Fire and Library departments passed the Council in one vote.
All passed without dissent.
Councilors revoted on the appropriation and takings for the St. James Avenue and Tapley Street project. City attorney Robert Shewchuk said a math error on his part resulted in an incorrect order requiring a new Council vote. They approved both the money and the taking without dissent. The Council also approved and easement on Clark Street and the Community Preservation Committee’s annual budget. The votes for individual projects will come later this year.
The Council also had a pair of tax incentives before it last Monday. The first was for the apartment building at 169 Maple Street, which has been vacant since the tornado in 2011. A prior developer had proposed a renovation, but his plans fell through. Davenport Companies is behind the new effort. There was some confusion about what housing tax credit would be. The true cost of the renovation was not fully known, but it did not stop the item.
Davenport had committed to trying to meet the targets in the Responsible Employer Ordinance. The law encourages city contractors to utilize minority, women and/or veteran-owned businesses. That appeared less likely for tax incremental financing Loophole Brewing sought for it new place on Taylor Street. Unlike the Housing Development Incentive Program, TIFs by their nature are built around the jobs they create or retain, not the work put into the property.
Nevertheless, councilors heard form the operators of Loophole, which include Belchertown State Representative Aaron Saunders, before approving the tax break. In addition to a taproom, the facility at 51-59 Taylor Street will include an event space and culinary training areas.
At this point, the Council was nearly smashed by time constraints. It fitfully began consideration of $17.6 million transfer to reserves from the fiscal year that ended last year. The move was part of a more elaborate plan the mayor’s office had hatched to defray the increase in the tax levy, which would overwhelmingly hit residential taxpayers. Another $5 million of free cash would pay for that.
However, $5 million was not enough for some councilors. They questioned why the city could not move more of that $17 million to the tax levy now. Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante resisted. Concerned the economy could still hit a recession, he wants that money put aside. Hypothetically, Plante said, it could be revisited before the city sets the tax rate. At that point, revenue (read: property taxes) is locked in.
Yet, Plante worried that if the city artificially kept the tax levy low and the economy did turn south, taxes might suddenly spring upward suddenly. That would create consternation and chaos of its own.
Councilors pushed back. A motion to committee and nearly a half-hour later, the item had not passed. Council President Jesse Lederman deferred acknowledging that the spell had broken at 10pm until after the Council voted on the motion to committee. Several other financial transfers were among the unfinished business. Lederman (also a mayoral candidate) scheduled for votes the same night as the budget this Tuesday.
As noted, the mayor would gladly pump more money from the past to seemingly lower taxes in the future. Indeed, many of the pending transfers the Council could not get to include funds for neighborhoods and roads. Quite convenient spending for a mayor in a tough race!
However, what the mayor has not acknowledged nor what councilors have focused on is that event tens of millions of dollars is not enough to provide the relief they want for residents. To the extent that tax bills are really becoming a burden, there is no relief in sight. They will continue to rise because the city’s commercial tax base has faltered. Yet, residential property values remain solid, even robust.
Dropping another $8 million from free cash into the budget is no substitute for a stronger economy that would fuel higher commercial property tax revenue.