Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Great Experiment: From the Council's Mayor's Ear...

Today we debut a new series, "The Great Experiment," a look at the transition that has begun at City Hall since the switch to Ward Representation in the City of Springfield.  In the coming weeks and months, it is our goal to investigate the changes that have occurred within the City Council and city government as a result of the somewhat dramatic change in municipal government.  That investigation will look into how councils work in Springfield's peer cities throughout New England as well.

For today, however, we are staying closer to home.  The City Council Finance Committee met today to discuss the remaining items on the budget that needed passage.  Specifically, there were questions about raising the city's hotel tax, increasing the demand fee charged to late and delinquent taxpayers and furloughs.  On top of that were questions about how much money from reserves would be used to cover the remaining gap in the budget.  The council's reasons for cutting $2.7 million from the budget was to limit the use of those reserves.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Some councilors expected to walk into today's hearing, held in a sweltering council conference room, and find an impasse with Mayor Domenic Sarno over reconsideration of the furloughs enacted by his administration.  At-large councilor Kateri Walsh had put forward a proposal not long after the mayor announced furloughs, that would reduce the number of furlough days for lower paid city employees, mitigating the financial impact on their pay.  While the council did not exactly rally behind her proposal, there was concern among councilors that the lowest paid city employees were sharing a disproportionate level of the furlough's impact.

Instead, however, the city Chief Administrative and Financial Officer, Lee Erdmann told the council that the mayor had accepted the premise of the "tiered" furlough.  Erdmann presented a proposal that would reduce the financial benefit of the furloughs to the tune of $250,000.  Still, the furloughs would be redistributed more equitably.  Councilors in attendance, which included at-large Councilor Tim Rooke, Ward 2 Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman Mike Fenton, Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, received the mayor's proposal positively and were grateful for his decision to respond to their concerns.

Elsewhere, the council discussed raising the so-called demand fee charged to late or delinquent tax for the "demand" letter that politely reminds taxpayers they are either late or dirty rotten scoundrels.  This fee would rise to $12.50 from $5.00.  Councilors discussed the possibility of raising the fee more in order to eliminate the processing fee the city now charges taxpayers who pay their taxes with a credit card.  There were legal questions raised by City Solicitor Ed Pikula, but councilors promised to study it further.
Undated Photo of Sheraton (
Finally, there was the hotel tax.  Earlier in the year its passage seemed like a slam dunk.  However, between the mayor's inclusion of the measure in the budget without notifying the council in advance to the hard sell against the measure from hoteliers and tourism officials, it does not appear bound for passage.

Tourism officials, including the Greater Springfield Visitors and Convention Bureau, the Eastern States Exposition and Paul Picknelly, whose family owns the Sheraton and Hilton Garden Inn, made the case that a rise in the hotel tax would detrimental to efforts to attract conventions to the MassMutual Center.  In particularly, officials from the Visitors and Convention Bureau noted how the MassMutual Center bid for and won the right to host a national convention in 2015.  Typically, Springfield's convention center bids for regional conventions because the renovated former Springfield is consider a "third tier" city (that is not a slight, it is based on hotel rooms/convention center size).  However, 5000 conventioneers will attend the National Square Dancing Convention in Springfield four years from now, in part, because its hotel taxes were more competitive than the likes of Kansas City.

Other opponents of the tax also noted that an increased tax will not show the negative effects for another two or three years after the whole tax has been forgotten by residents, budget makers and politicians.  Additionally it would give Springfield the highest hotel tax in the area.  Already Springfield, West Springfield and Chicopee have a 2.75% higher tax on hotel stays above the state's 5.7%.  Most also already charge the 4% option that existed before 2009.  That year, the legislature raised the local option to 6%, creating the 2% presently under consideration.  Picknelley noted that that 2.75% was part of an agreement in which the civic center was renovated and taken over by the commonwealth saving the city $2 million a year in operating costs.

CAFO Lee Erdmann (left) w/ Mayor Sarno (WMassP&I)
Although the tax plan is unlikely to pass (and another $400,000 will need to be found in the budget), the greater concern for  councilors was the furlough plan and it appears to have come to resolution.  This agreement preempts a wider collapse of the city's budget, but it also represents a willingness, albeit with arm-twisting, on the part of the mayor actually govern by consensus with the council.

For much of the past year and a half, Mayor Domenic Sarno governed the city much as he had for the first two years he was in office.  He did so operating on the assumption that he would get what he needed from the council, when he needed it and then move on.  This has led to situations where councilors complained about not being informed about events held by the mayor in their wards, including after the tornado.  This may seem arrogant, but this is how City Hall operated for some time.  With the exception of Charles Ryan's most recent mayoralty, during which the Control Board's reign had sucked the legal air out of the council anyway, many mayors did the same thing.  There would always be opposition, close votes and some defeats.  But on balance, the mayor, elected by the same voters as the council, got its way.  Ward representation changed the equation.

For much of the first year, at least half the ward councilors along with the at-large councilors probably went along with city hall as they learned the ropes.  The vocal ward councilors that opposed business as usual, often were dismissed by media and the public, if faintly praised, as the same voices ignored in past councils had been.  Now, as the budget gets grimmer and choices tougher, the council does not seem willing to defer to the mayor anymore.

Council in Session Earlier this Year (WMassP&I)
While Mayor Sarno should have recognized that a new day had begun in January 2010, he is fundamentally a product of a system that is no more.  That is a governmental system, not necessarily a political one.  This is not a defense of Sarno, but more of an understanding.  While it would be imprudent to read too much into Sarno's Road to Damascus moment on the furloughs, it could serve as an opening bid from the mayor for an institutional change at 36 Court Street.

Changing the culture at City Hall is important to fixing the city's monumental problems, but it is not the be all and end all.  It does not end the influence of the city's often, out of town, power brokers, but it does change the arithmetic for all involved in the process in Springfield.  Given this awkwardness of the switch, it could be an opportunity for the forces of light and justice to finally right Springfield's policy and political ship.  More importantly it is an opportunity for all voices in the city, including the less virtuous ones, to contribute to and execute policy and progress in the city.


Mo Turner said...

Matt, looking forward to reading more of your thoughts about ward rep. I was just talking to a city councilor this morning about the relative liveliness of the Council since the addition of the ward councilors - but where is that liveliness in the wards when it comes to candidates running, and voters actually showing up to vote (with some obvious exceptions)?

Matt S. said...

I suspect that absence of liveliness is connected to the inertia and atrophy of politics at City Hall itself. Certainly, I want to look into the wards, too, but I think the candidate, politician and voter lethargy are all interrelated.