Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Year in Springfield, 2009 Edition...

Another year is upon us, which means, quite obviously, that another year has ended in the Pioneer Valley.  The year 2009 has been quite full of news from the Pioneer Valley.  Politically and historically, the City of Springfield has undergone transformation and controversy.  From the budget crisis on Beacon Hill, the Longhill Gardens Debacle to the city's historic return to Ward Representation after over forty years, much has change and/or affected the City of Homes in 2009.

Both the economy and shaky state politics dominated the news at the beginning of 2009. The economy was still foundering, jobs were vanishing, and credit remained frozen. The devastation left after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and AIG only worsened in the initial months of the year. The effect left massive holes in Massachusetts’ state budget (especially on capital gains revenue) and by extension the budgets of municipalities.

At the same time, Beacon Hill was stuck in neutral as charges of corruption swirled around some of its members. Senators Dianne Wilkerson and James Marzilli had already resigned in the face of legal troubles. However, a cloud was forming over House Speaker Sal DiMasi over allegations of corruption. He resigned as Speaker and from the House entirely in January.

Although movement had been underway already to replace DiMasi, the politics and palace intrigue that ensued ground the legislature to a halt. Committee chairs changed hands under DiMasi’s successor Robert DeLeo, furthering retarding progress as legislative staffs literally waited until they could move into their new offices. Full legislative work on the House side would not gear up until months later. DiMasi was later indicted in Federal Court for corruption charges. Should he be convicted, he will join an unfortunately long line of crooked speakers.

More positively, and thankfully before that mess, the legislature passed a bill that would grant Springfield 10 years to repay the state loan it received. Governor Patrick signed the bill in January.

After the successful efforts by members of the Forest Park community to bring the slumlords of Longhill Gardens to justice, the redevelopment plan did anything, but thrill some members of the community. With the support of Concerned Citizens of Springfield, the Forest Park Civic Association, and the Mayor of Springfield, Domenic Sarno, Longhill Gardens was slated to become affordable housing operated by WinnDevelopments of Boston. The group Springfield Forward became the loudest voice in opposition offering objections in the public square and with agency officials.

Springfield Forward argued that the city already had a disproportionate share of low-income housing and that warehousing of the poor would only prove deleterious to the city’s overall health.

The battle to stop Longhill to started in 2008, but came to a head with the final steps for the financing in early Spring. As Sarno engaged in some of his trademark flip-flopping, officials on the state level sought approval from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development without involving city officials. Sarno suggested that the site may be better suited for a new Forest Park Middle School.

The debate fractured the community. Opponents of Winn gained unexpected allies like Cheryl Coakley-Rivera and possibly opportunistic ones like then-mayoral candidate City Councilor Bud Williams.

In the end, Sarno did not choose the school option. In fact he later supported a renovation plan for the middle school on Oakland Street. As had been argued by some, including WMassP&I, Sarno like other politicians in his position, went for the money available now. Had the LongHill been demolished and used as a school site, the city could stand to lose money and time for both housing and schools while the process with the Massachusetts School Building Authority played out. Meanwhile Longhill would sit abandoned. It did not make it the right decision, but it made it understandable.

Construction on the renovated Longhill Gardens began over the summer.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, legislators scrambled to fill a massive budget hole for the new fiscal year. Although some cuts were made, most notably to non-education local aid, the Legislature felt it fit to raise the state’s sales tax by 25% to fill the gap. For the first time, alcohol would be subject to the sales tax and an option would be granted to communities to tax meals, unfairly singling out the restaurant industry. Furthermore, the new budget gave communities the option of adding a meals tax of 0.75%. Low as it is, it gave poorer communities another disadvantage and set the stage for future increases.

Moreover, the increase set Massachusetts further at a disadvantage to New Hampshire and for the first time put it more or less equal to Connecticut in terms of sales tax.
The sales tax increase, although it accomplished some of its goals, failed to account for past drops in sales tax info over the last ten years. For that reason, even if more revenue was necessary, such an increase was bad policy. The legislature may very well be back for more this year. Moreover, as painful as some cuts were, millions of dollars in sacred cows were left untouched.
Springfield’s efforts to encourage buying the city appear to have born fruit. In May the city announced a “Buy Springfield Now” campaign. Sales and median selling process improved over the year with the city even being featured in USA Today.

Springfield was also selected to be the new home of a National Basketball Association Development team, the Springfield Armor. The cleverly, if awkwardly named team, brought professional basketball back to its birthplace and offered another option for entertainment in downtown.


Ward Representation took the first steps toward reality when the city’s preliminary election was held. Although preliminaries were not necessary in all wards, for at-large seats, or the mayor, the election would set the stage for important votes in East Springfield, Forest Park, East Forest Park, and Sixteen Acres. The results from September proved all the more interesting as the top vote-getters in some races would not win the general in November.

Indeed in November, Springfield voted in its first ward councilors in more than two generations. Although the council is more diverse than in previous years, ward elections did fail to drum up significant voter interest. Citywide turnout hovered around 25%. In some of the more affluent wards, turnout was much better.

Mayor Sarno won re-election by a wide margin trouncing Bud Williams campaign. Despite several controversies, false starts and his public hemming and hawing, Sarno has not been entirely bad for Springfield. Overcoming his broken promise on the trash fee and the Longhill controversy, Sarno may be most guilty of doing the best with what he had got. Things are not perfect, but Springfield residents clearly favored his approach to Williams demagogic, sometimes vitriolic campaign.

The at-large seats saw little action with all the incumbents opting to run again winning. The fifth seat left after the incumbents went to Thomas Ashe, no stranger to winning city election having served on the School Committee.

The ward races offered a little more excitement. Zaida Luna’s election from Ward 1 ensured that the ratio of women on the council would not fall as Kateri Walsh was the only other women to win election (Rosemarie Mazza-Moriarty declined to run for reelection). Michael Fenton from Ward 2 became the youngest City Council in Springfield’s history, offering a chance to instill some youth and passion into the body. Melvin Edwards defeated an ostensibly establishment candidate in Ward 3 and strengthened the council’s diversity. In Ward 4, E. Henry Twiggs, was elected bringing with him his experience as a leader in the state Democratic party. Clodo Concepcion won the race in Ward 5, largely on the strength of his status a prominent figure in the neighborhoods there. Keith Wright joined the council from Ward 6, some might say the political heart of Springfield. Tim Allen, a former MassMutual officer, won the seat based in equally important Ward 7. Finally perennial candidate John Lysak, finally found well-earned victory in Ward 8.

Springfield’s old Federal Building was chosen as the new home for the School Department. However, Springfield City Councilor Tim Rooke questioned the lack of a bidding process that might have yielded a less expensive home for the school committee. Despite Rooke's objections, the plan moved forward.

In December, the Springfield community suffered a loss when former Library Director Emily Bader died after a battle with illness.  City Councilor Pat Markey, Mayor Sarno, and former Mayor Charles Ryan all praised Bader's work both before and after the city takeover of the library system.  She was credited with the successful changeover from the private Springfield Library and Museum Association to the city itself.  Mrs. Bader was a friend of the family of WmassP&I's webmaster and she will be deeply missed on a personal level as well.  Bader worked at the library for 36 years.  She was appointed director in 1994 and served until the end of this past July.

The 2009 spelled great change and hope for the city. Even as the good happened, there remained stubbornly high unemployment and crime in reality, but especially in perception. In part because the city assessor must look at 2008 property values (not the best year to measure real estate) to determine what value was in 2009, the City Council ultimately approved an increase in the property tax rates for businesses and residences on December 31st.
On December 8th, either her ties to Western Massachusetts or a political orientation closer to voters here led US Senate Candidate Martha Coakley to win the Democratic Primary in Springfield and many of the surrounding towns.

The affect the increase will have on residents is bad, but the business rate was especially troubling. A token effort was made to reduce the business rate, from the high suggested by the mayor and the board of assessors.

Springfield stands at a crossroads once again. Much good has occurred, but a great deal of troubling events also happened. The new year may or not be a benchmark for change, but it could very easily become another year that Springfield slipped further down the path of decline that characterized the past two decades or the year that it finally began to revive and sustain itself and its people once again.

*DiMasi and Springfield Armor photos from wikipedia, Longhill Gardens photo from Springfield Intruder, New City Council and Federal Building photos from Springfield City website.

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