Thursday, November 24, 2011

Take My Council, Please: Council Talks Turkey on Biomass...

With the holidays around the corner, the turkeys of the Springfield City Council gathered Monday for a Thanksgiving week meeting to handle some issues that had been at a simmer for several weeks now.  Some of the hottest items were taken care of before they boiled over.  Others had the heat turned up higher for next week‘s special meeting.

Among the minutiae before the council was a series of utility reports, permit revocations for non-renewal, several property donations and grants.  The revocations were for underground storage tanks and parking lots permits brought up by the City Clerk because the permittees failed to respond to renewal notices.  The city formally accepted some parcels of property for public use and the council accepted grant money for Health & Human Services, Dispatch Services and tornado relief.

Bill Gibson of Springfield Speaks in Opposition to Biomass
Plant Permit (WMassP&I)
A speak-out before the meeting included several opponents of the biomass facility on Page Boulevard, which controversially received a building permit despite the council’s revocation of its special permit.  Among the speakers were local activist Michaelann Bewsee and a representative from the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmentalist group.  Kevin Sears of the Sears Real Estate Company spoke to oppose to the city’s Foreclosure Ordinances adding in an un-sourced claims of retaliation by lenders who would refuse to loan in the city (a legally suspect action, if true).

Budgetary updates showed the city more or less on target, but the monthly reports are off because City Hall was closed at end of the October when the city often receives tax money.  Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen requested more information on the Tornado and now October Snowstorm costs to the city.  Those numbers were not included in officials’ reports because spending for disasters is done in separate emergency accounts.  Budget officials promised a detailed report on disaster spending by the next meeting.  In a pleasant surprise, the city also clocked in a higher than expected surplus last year of $4.7 million.

Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, chairman of the Finance Committee, also announced an end to the city’s budget drama with the transfer of $6.2 million from stabilization reserves to close the city’s budget deficit.  Fenton praised the council reduction to $6.2 million from $10.5 million from stabilization reserves used to balance the city’s budget.  The reduction was made possible through cuts and an increase in local aid to the city.  Fenton called it a “much more reasonable position,” for the city in light of still-unknown disaster costs, union contract negotiations and another deficit expected next year.  Fenton also alluded to using some stabilization to mitigate an increase in the property tax rate for the city.

Councilor Tim Rooke (WMassP&I)
At-large Councilor Tim Rooke wanted to put the measure into committee until the city responded to his call for a bid for health insurance.  The move to committee failed 7-6 and the measure to transfer funds to the budget passed 10-3, meeting the two-thirds threshold needed to move stabilization funds.

Minor changes to the city’s foreclosure ordinances also achieved final passage.  The changes, explained Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera, were primarily a tightening of definitions and terms to allow the ordinance to better withstand legal challenges.  Rivera countered the contention that banks would refuse to lend in the city due to this ordinance by claiming that such a refusal would be illegal.  He also dismissed a letter from the Massachusetts Bankers Association as a scare tactic and noted that the trade association had opposed countless measures proposed on Beacon Hill as well. 

At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, who did vote for the initial ordinance, demanded that the revisions go to committee for further discussion on the ordinance itself.  Fenton replied by noting that doing nothing would not stop or even slow the ordinance and the revisions proposed today were largely administrative in nature.  The final step for the ordinance passed 10-3.  At-large councilor Thomas Ashe, ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, and Walsh were all opposed.

Finally the city council considered two resolves, which though non-binding themselves may have an impact nevertheless.  The first resolve called on the Post Office to keep open the Bulk Mailing Facility in Indian Orchard in addition to countless post offices across the city including, again, Indian Orchard’s branch.  Input from local government and citizens will be considered--supposedly--by the Postal Service when making its final determinations on closures.

PRE Rendering (Springfield Intruder
The final resolves set up a showdown between the Council and the Building Commissioner over the Biomass Plant slated for Page Boulevard in Springfield.  Building Commissioner Desilets, acting on the advice of the City Solicitor, has given an initial building permit to Palmer Renewable Energy for their biomass plant.  Earlier this year the Council revoked the plant’s special permit, but a legal opinion from Solicitor Ed Pikula claims that no permit is needed because PRE changed the plant’s plans.  Others have noted that issuing the permit at all is illegal because construction cannot begin until all air permits have been granted.  The Department of Environmental Protection did grant PRE an air permit, but the Conservation Law Foundation and other groups have appealed that decision.  In the interim, PRE does not actually have its permit.

The council resolve was only a first step to a special meeting called by Council President Jose Tosado for next Monday.  At that point, the Council could vote to appeal the commissioner’s decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals.  If unsuccessful there, the Council can litigate in Court, which it is expected to do.

The first biomass resolves called on the Building Commissioner to not grant a building permit while the second biomass resolve expressed the sense that PRE needs a special permit.  Tosado called a roll call vote for both resolves, which could have theoretically passed on a voice vote.  

The final tally was 10-3 for both resolves.  Councilors Ashe, Tosado, Fenton, Concepcion, Rivera, and Allen joined Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak to support the resolve.  Rooke, Walsh and at-large Councilor James Ferrera were opposed.  All three opposed have received sizable contributions from their Callahan family, who owns PRE, and the family’s lawyer over the years.

All told, the council meeting was fairly productive and stayed civil, despite the possibility for fireworks on some issues.  The meeting was also brief clocking in at just about an hour.  Moreover, loose ends such as the budget and the foreclosure ordinances were at last put to bed.  Some fear that such good days may be numbered with impending transitions coming to the council.  However, for the moment at least, the council adjourned having served the city well and having done so without leaving any apparent black clouds hanging overhead.

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