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Take My Council, Please: Weighing Future Supplements to the Fiscal Diet…


Promising not to shelter department heads from scrutiny (WMP&I and Google images)

The Springfield City Council met for its first regular meeting in several weeks. The meeting also had to incorporate agenda items from a hearings meeting after it failed to go forward as planned. Despite this, the Council hit everything in one meeting with much delay. A few items, including homeless program funding and supplemental budget requests, received scrutiny.

The Council also made the rare confirmation of an executive position and took the first step to revise the city’s tree ordinance. One item that did not move Monday was a home rule petition to waive the police retirement age for Deputy Chief Lawrence Akers. Last month Mayor Domenic Sarno announced he would appoint Akers to succeed Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood.

At-large Councilor Sean Curran and Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown attended virtually.

The meeting began with a bevy of committee updates. The Audit, Finance, General Government, Health & Human Services, Maintenance & Development, Public Safety, and Sustainability & Environment chairs all had reports. Most were about items awaiting Council action Monday—or not, as with the Akers item. Councilors continued it at the request of Ward 5 Councilor Lavar Click-Bruce, the Public Safety chair.

Another highlight was from at-large Councilor Jose Delgado, the Audit chair, who reported on his joint meeting with Maintenance & Development regarding snow plowing and a series of other audits. Delgado said the audits concerned Facilities and Health & Human Services. Both are implementing the Director of Internal Audit’s recommendations.

Finance Chair Timothy Allen, the Ward 7 Councilor, also spoke about his committee’s review of financial items. He had no issue with most of them. However, Allen expressed concerns about a $970,328 transfer to the Parks, Recreation & Facilities Department from free cash.

The item would move monies into various accounts under the department. During consideration of the item itself, Executive Director Patrick Sullivan said it would fund landscaping, additional fungicide for the golf courses and higher water usage costs. Heavy rain last year also prompted an additional fall cleanup, Sullivan explained. The landscaping notably includes terraces, the maintenance of which has attracted attention in the past.

While presenting his report, Allen noted that the city did not use free cash to reduce the property tax levy. Moreover, the city only has $5 million of free cash—unexpended funds from prior fiscal years—for an sudden expenses.

Tim Allen

Allen the last objection standing? Not quite. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

“My sense is that from the tax meetings we had in December, we had several citizens crying at the microphone, that they couldn’t pay their taxes,” he said. “We responded accordingly in a lot of ways.”

Speaking later, Allen acknowledged his pushback in committee surprised some, even Sullivan. However, it was not only the tax question. He asked why this had not been in the department’s budget and worried more asks could be coming.

“I’m also concerned that there may be other departments coming behind him with similar requests,” he said.

Allen signaled he would support the item, but other councilors shared his concerns. At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield, who has also been vocal about rising tax bills, largely concurred with Allen. The parks should receive the money, but councilors need to be vigilant.

“The call is going to come in from Keep Springfield Beautiful,” if maintenance lags. “But,” she continued, “there are going to be additional financial orders that come in.”

The Council approved the transfer without dissent.

The body moved through the special permits that were left over and then returned to regular agenda items. Comptroller Patrick Burns—no longer acting CAFO—presented the revenue and expenditure report. He said revenues are slightly ahead of last year. Burns explained this was due to money from MGM. It was not clear if this was just money received early or something new.

Joseph DeCaro Domenic Sarno

Now-Director DeCaro with Hizzoner in 2021. (via Springfield City Hall)

Health & Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris presented Mayor Sarno’s nomination of Joseph DeCaro’s for director of Veterans Services. Most executive appointments are not subject to Council confirmation. However, the veterans’ office is a creation of state law, which requires city councilors to approve the appointment.

DeCaro, formerly the deputy director, succeeds Thomas Belton who held the role for 13 years. Councilors roundly praised his work and his presence in the community before unanimously greenlighting the nod.

Councilors approved the election warrant for the presidential primary on March 5. City Clerk Gladys Oyola-Lopez, who still formally heads the Election Commission, said no polling places have changed. Mail-in balloting has already begun and early in-person voting will begin February 24, she added.

Eversource received authorization for work for both electrical and gas work at various locations across the city. Most work consists of gas infrastructure modernization.

The Council engaged in a lengthy debate around the annual homelessness care grant. Caulton-Harris explained that the $2,362,888 federal grant funds nursing behavioral health, case management and some dental care for homeless in the city.

Technically, this grant covers homeless services through Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties. The Springfield simply acts as the lead for the grant. The city also pursues reimbursement from health care payors such as Medicaid and, when applicable, Medicare. Including reimbursements, direct health care services to the homeless amount to about $3 million, Caulton-Harris noted.

Some queries were simply about where the city provides services. Others passionately defended services for those without permanent residences. At-large Councilor Brian Santaniello asked if the influx of migrants into Massachusetts would affect the health care services.

As people enter the United States, principally via the southern border, many are finding their way to the Bay State. The commonwealth has an emergency right-to-shelter system for homeless families. It does not serve individuals, who receive services elsewhere. However, the increase in migrant families has stressed an already wobbly system.

Helen Caulton-Harris

Helen Caulton-Harris at Council meeting in 2020. (WMP&I)

Caulton-Harris said Governor Maura Healey has increased the budget for emergency shelter. However, she suggested the growing demand could affect homeless health care services the city provides.

“Will it impact our health services? I assume that it will because we will probably see more unhoused individuals in the commonwealth, particularly Western Massachusetts,” she said. Caulton-Harris added that the state has hotel rooms committed to this use. She invited Santaniello to hold a hearing on the subject. The Council ultimately approved the grant without dissent.

It is unclear how much the migrant uptick has taken a toll on Springfield and Western Massachusetts. It does not appear that the 413 has seen a disproportionate increase in emergency sheltering so far. Moreover, as Caulton-Harris acknowledged responding to an unrelated question, Springfield’s homeless population has trended up for a few years.

The Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which oversees the emergency shelter system, referred a request for comment on the Council discussion to its dashboard that tracks the number of families in each community.

Overall, families in the emergency shelter system, whether in hotel rooms or traditional shelter, are largely in cities. This is true across the commonwealth. No data on the dashboard breaks down whether a family is a new arrival—which would include migrants—or longer-term residents.

As of Tuesday, about 816 families were sheltered in Western Massachusetts. With a little over 7500 families in the system, the 413 does not shelter a disproportionate share. One-third of these were in hotel rooms. About 283 families received shelter in Springfield, although none were in hotel rooms. Historical data parsing any increase in the region’s share was not immediately available.

Another large grant was $538,050 from the state for library services. Library Director Molly Fogarty said the funds go toward several uses including defraying personnel costs. Councilors approved it and a series of smaller grants unanimously. These smaller grants went to the Elder Affairs, Health & Human Services, Library and Police departments.

The Council also approved first step on revisions to the city’s public tree ordinance. The City Forester, Alex Sherman, noted that the city had a long arboreal history. The Forestry Division opened in 1898. The bill recodifies existing rules and adds fines and penalties for violations, such as damaging historic trees.

However, the legislation also cements the city’s commitment to shade trees, established a tree replacement fund, clarifies and revises permitting for work on city trees, and writes regulations for their removal. The Council approved first step without dissent.

The Council also approved the transfer of control of two plots of land from the School Department to the Parks Commission. These will become new park facilities.

The Council’s final action was approving statements of interest for several school projects. The administration wants to submit 12 to the Massachusetts School Building Authority in 2024. They range from door and window replacements to construction of entirely new schools. The Council approved the list without dissent.



On balance, there were few items that dominated this meeting. However, those longer discourses on supplemental appropriations and homelessness could be a signal.

The homelessness issue, to the extent it intersects with migrants matters, could inflame older tensions. Yet, the questions Councilor Allen and others raised about supplemental funding may prove both subtler and more substantive. This area could become the proving ground for the relationship between the City Council and the new Chief Administrative & Financial Officer.