Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Take My Council, Please: No One Leaves...Not Like That...

In a rare display of expediency (or small agendas) the Springfield City Council breezed through its appointed task Monday night and in the process actually did a few useful things other than the typical housekeeping.  Items on the agenda included resolves opposed to the Federal Government's Secure Communities initiative and home foreclosure ordinances.  Because of those two items in particular the un-air conditioned council chamber was packed with supporters, further exacerbating the room's stuffiness.

Many of the agenda's items consisted of acceptance of funds for various departments within the city including the Library, Elder Affairs and Health and Human Services.  Much of the money accepted Monday for HHS was actually directed at the Thomas J. O'Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center.  Other moneys included an anticipated grant from the Springfield Library Foundation for the Mason Square Branch Library.

The council also granted the mayor authority to sell the School Department Building to a developer for the sale price of one dollar.  The nominal sale price was intended to be the only subsidy to the redevelopment of the school department building, which will otherwise be renovated using private money.  The plan is market rate condos that should yield the city thousands of dollars in tax revenue.  The vote was 10-1, with Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion as the lone no vote.  He told the Republican that the city should have waited for a better price.  At-large councilors Kater Walsh and Tim Rooke were not present.  The latter has made the cost of the school department's lease at the former federal building a crusade of sorts.  His absence kept the temperature on the issue fairly cool.

Another property on Tyler Street was also sold.  The present structure will be demolished and a new one built.

However, all this dry stuff came after the votes on the resolves against Secure Communities and the foreclosure ordinances.  The local branch of the Service Employees International Union had organized a large crowd, likely with the help of the local group "No One Leaves" that assists those facing foreclosure.  Both groups were likely there to support the ordinance, while SEIU, which represents many Hispanic workers, probably was there for the resolve, too.

ICE Badge (Wikipedia)
Secure Communities is an effort by the federal government to detect illegal immigrants, particularly those with a violent history.  This is undertaken by deputizing local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law to the extent that they can ascertain detained individuals legal status.  However, the program has come under fire for encouraging racial profiling and deporting largely non-violent illegal immigrants.  The second point notwithstanding, the initiative has been a band-aid on the broken leg of the nation's immigration laws and a poor substitute for true comprehensive immigration reform.  Moreover, it may have a negative impact on law enforcement.

Governor Deval Patrick, earlier this year announced his intention to withdraw the commonwealth from Secure Communities.  It is unclear whether Massachusetts could be forced to participate anyway or whether this would prohibit local participation.  Alex Goldstein, the governor's Press Secretary told WMassP&I that Boston is the only community that now works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and does so in a pilot program.  He noted that whether the governor's decision prohibits local participation is unclear under the law and a matter for ICE to determine.  The governor's opposition to the plan is reflected in a letter from Mary Heffernan, the Secretary of Public Safety and Security to Secure Communities Director in Washington.  Specifically, the worry is participation will "deter the reporting of criminal activity," and "Others, including mayors, are apprehensive that the program will deteriorate relationships with communities that have been carefully cultivated with years of hard work."

Gov. Patrick last October (WMassP&I)
As such it seems unlikely that the mayor would sign or the council would ever approve participation in Secure Communities.  While there is certainly some who may support it viscerally, they could not bring themselves to support it politically.  On some level, the resolve seemed far more like a statement, which resolves are, than indicative of a real fear the city would join up.  The resolve's passage on a voice vote was met with deafening cheers.

As for the foreclosure ordinances, they received approval on voice votes as well as solid support from the crowd.  However, this was only the first step.  Per state law, ordinances must be voted on three times before codified.  The foreclosure ordinances would, among other things, mandate that banks attempting to foreclose engage in mediation with homeowner.  Sources inside City Hall say that passage of the ordinance was not as much of a slam dunk as it would seem.  The pressure of the crowd demonstrating on the steps and then inside (to the consternation of the council and remaining presenters) contributed to the approval.  

Although foreclosures have leveled off as complaints of illegal activity on the part of banks have mounted, Springfield, particularly its most vulnerable neighborhoods, has often led the commonwealth in foreclosures.  We will have more on the foreclosure ordinance as it works its way through the council.  After the first vote it returns to committee for more debate and tweaking.

The council meeting ended with a resolve brought up by at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera to investigate ways that the city could maximize revenue from cell phone towers.  Essentially, Ferrera called for a change in the calculation of the towers' value from the value of the tower itself to the income its owner receives.  For example, the assessors office can value a commercial building either based on a comparable sale price, similar to residential assessments, or it can look at the building's income.  This second method is often used for property owned by commercial lessors.  Finally, Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton briefed the council on his committee's meeting from last week, which he reported on.  One detail not from that meeting was the note that the city could face face between $12 and $30 million in un-reimbursed tornado costs.  However that number is fluid and remains in flux based on federal reimbursement and other factors.

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