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Endeavoring to Plante a Financially & Administratively Stable Springfield…

T.J. Plante

Plante pulling up roots from Springfield City Hall Thursday. (via Springfield City Hall)

Cities in Massachusetts experienced fiscal calamity before the Finance Control Board came to Springfield. Larger communities had turbulence, too, as evidenced by guardrails that lie in their charters. Even Springfield had such language before 2004. Yet, it was not until four years into the Control Board that the legislature created the supra-departmental position of Chief Administrative & Financial Officer.

Timothy “T.J.” Plante is not the first formal CAFO, but he held the position for over a decade after years in the city finance department. Over nearly 17 years of city service, Plante played a key role or presided over the city’s fiscal stability amid escalating retiree obligations, two recessions, and natural disasters including a global pandemic. Indeed, by his own account, the problem was not always staying in the black but steering the green in the right direction.

For example, the city received funds during both the COVID-19 pandemic and to recover from the 2011 tornado. But Uncle Sam couldn’t shovel money out fast enough during a once-in-a-century public health crisis. The feds were pickier about storm-related economic recovery dollars.

“The number of times we had to file appeals for the tornado…it was just a bigger challenge.” Plante said in an interview.

On Monday, Mayor Domenic Sarno’s office announced Plante would resign Friday to enter the private sector. He and his family are not leaving the region, but he explained it was time for a change. Plante told WMP&I that on Monday he will start at a firm that consults on school financing. He will be in their municipal finance wing.

Sarno had nothing but effusive praise for Plante.

“From making sure that our city had a balanced budget without the use of reserves for 9 consecutive years, to overseeing the various finances for our city projects, TJ epitomized a true public servant,” Sarno said Monday in a statement.

T.J. Plante

Plante with Finance staff circa 2014. (WMP&I)

While Plante was undoubtedly in the mayor’s cabinet, he occupied bureaucratic space. The political branches fundamentally made the policy. His role was explain how or if what the electeds wanted was possible. Then, he would execute within the boundaries of best practices.

“I always had a great relationship with him,” said Ward 7 Councilor and current Finance Committee chair Tim Allen. “I understood that he represented the administration, but I always felt he respected my viewpoint.”

Plante’s professional career has been in government. He was a political aide to the late State Senator Fred Berry and later a Ways & Means Committee staffer to then-chairwoman and later Senate President Therese Murray.

Originally from Eastern Mass—a subtle accent still washes over some words—he moved to Springfield with his wife, Katie, a city native. Her father is Philip Contant, a judge and former city councilor. Plante took a gig as budget director under the Control Board. His career turned toward policy and away from raw politics, but Beacon Hill experience was helpful at 36 Court Street.

“My training at the State House under Senator Berry, under Senator Murray, under [former Senate President] Robert Travaglini was the epitome of how to understand how government worked,” Plante said.

At then time, Beacon Hill was preparing to cut the apron strings—or straightjacket—of its 2004 rescue of Springfield. The 2008 legislation made preparations for the Control Board’s 2009 departure. Among them was the CAFO, who would hold the burden of certifying the fiscal impact of nearly every city decision. It put several departments under the CAFO’s purview. Selection of the CAFO was in the mayor’s laps, but subject to a screening committee’s recommendation.

Plante had been the first acting CAFO, but the first formal one was Lee Erdmann.

In an email, Erdmann, now the acting Town Manager of Simsbury, Connecticut said during his three-year term, beginning in 2010, Plante was Finance Director and served “with distinction.”

Lee Erdman

Former Springfield CAFO Lee Erdmann (WMP&I)

“He was very smart, very skilled and very dedicated to the improvement of Springfield. As a relatively young professional at the time, he brought an uncommon sense of maturity and depth of understanding to the Finance Director position,” Erdmann said.

When Erdmann decided to move on, he said Plante was a natural successor.

“He accomplished a lot for the city in the intervening years. The public sector will miss him,” Erdmann continued.

Speaking to WMP&I by phone, Plante discussed Springfield’s financial challenges a and his time in government. The accolades all mention the balanced budgets, the aggressive pursuit of federal and state funds and investment in services. One could construct a college drinking game based on how often Mayor Sarno says “bond rating.” Yet, the city’s sterling borrowing designation is a real city accomplishment Plante oversaw.

Somewhat surprisingly, he said crises the city faced, such as the natural disasters or the pandemic were not themselves the biggest challenges. In the latter’s case, not only were the feds intervening, the fiscal impact on states and municipalities proved less devastating than initially feared.

Rather, it was the aftermath of earlier crises that Plante remembered most.

“One was the 9C cuts that we had to implement in 2008 and 2009,” he said, referring to a gubernatorial power to rescind appropriations.

In the Finance office, Plante had to preside over layoffs as the state cut local aid during the Great Recession. The lingering housing implosion rippled into city finances for years as plummeting home values undercut property taxes.

The other was battling for every penny of relief after the tornado. The city would hire a consultant to maximize its case on every piece of paper it sent to the federal government seeking reimbursement.

Denise Jordan

Denise Jordan in 2017. (via Twitter/@SpfldMACiiyHall)

“TJ directed the financial arm of the City of Springfield during some tumultuous times,” Denise Jordan, Sarno’s chief of staff from 2008 to 2018, said in an email. Wishing him continued success, she also noted the city’s bond rating improvement and its substantial reserves it built up in this period.

Indeed, Plante’s efforts gained professional recognition as recently as 2022.

Much of this came with relatively little budget drama. There have been flare-ups on this item or that and Council-mayor have generally been in decline over the last 15 years.

“He made the annual budget process as a regular thing that we knew what was coming and we worked through it,” Allen said.

However, Jordan also noted another element of Plante’s legacy that was central to the legislature’s intent, but obscured by the fiscal progress.

“In addition to his managing the city’s finances, he was also responsible for mentoring and grooming a number of young professionals, who were able to advance their careers, using the skills obtained under TJ’s tutelage,” she wrote.

The CAFO appoints, with the mayor’s blessing, several department heads, including of human resources, procurement, and capital assets. This list also includes the Treasurer/Collector and Comptroller.

The build-out of these agencies and their leadership were the major administrative and personnel legacies Plante took pride in. Sarno appointed Comptroller Pat Burns as acting CAFO while the screening committee identifies permanent CAFO candidates.

Pat Burns

The acting CAFO Pat Burns (via WAMC/Focus Springfield still)

“You cannot ask for a better person to appoint as acting CAFO,” Plante said. “He has the knowledge and the respect of the City Council to make him tremendously successful.”

For most of those two decades of government work, it was good, Plante said. However, he observed that things have changed in recent years, especially during and after COVID-19.

“It was fun until it wasn’t,” he said.

Pandemic stress has strained electeds and educators. The tone of public debate has shifted, too. Plante emphasized his good relationships with all councilors. Nor was the ongoing mayoral race a factor. Plante assured the prospect of Councilor Justin Hurst unseating Sarno was not on his mind. Still, he struggled to put his finger on what had changed.

“We were able to have debates in the chamber and then get together in meetings after the fact,” Plante said. “Mike Fenton and I have battled. Mike Fenton and I are still close,” he added, referring to Ward 2 Councilor and one-time administration irritant Michael Fenton.

Plante’s exit is not monocausal anyway, though. Allen noted that Plante would take 9pm calls if they couldn’t connect during the day. While willing, even eager to do that—he expects to still hear from City Hall after Friday—Plante intimated that the move was best for his family.

T.J. Plante

Plante in 2014. (WMP&I)

Nevertheless, Plante said he came to love the job and the task, however maddening, of keeping Springfield on fiscal track. He developed relationships here and in Boston crossing the Patrick, Baker and Healey administrations. Coming full circle, he worked under Governor Maura Healey’s Secretary of Administration & Finance Matthew Gorzkowicz at the State House back in the day.

“This has been a dream job. I fell in love with the job,” he said.

Ultimately, it is the people he will miss most, like Burns, Chair of the Board of Assessors Patrick Greenhalgh and others.

“All the people who work for me and help us do what we do,” Plante said.