Friday, February 17, 2012

Take My Council, Please: Financial Cobwebs...

Under normal circumstances, Monday's meeting of the Springfield City Council would have been a quick one.  There were few controversial items and councilors seemed in agreement about the diciest issues before them.  Rather, since the council had not met since January, a huge amount of dust piled up that needed sweeping.  There were questions about why some expenses magically appeared, but for the most they, and of course a cascade of grants, passed with little complaint.  If there was any passionate moments, it came as the Council passed a home rule petition to change MCAS testing dates in Springfield.

The city financial team told the council that the city's budget is in flux and will require some repair throughout the rest of the year.  Among the measures were additional funds transferred from the last budget's surplus to fund turnover in the city's vehicle fleet, the fire department, the assessors department, veterans affairs, and the election commission.  While the capital budget transfers faced some questions from Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, the others were accepted with minimal complaint.  

Councilor Fenton
The fire department deficit came from an overestimation of retirements and exhaustion of the overtime budget after the October snowstorm.  Leann Pasquini, the city's budget director, said she did expect some amount of that to be recouped from FEMA, however.  The Fire Department's staffing has been a concern for some time, however it has continued to perform, by any measure, very well including a recent year with no fire-related deaths.  Staffing is down to 220 sworn firefighters from 390 in the 1990's.

Other funding transfers included an upfront payment to step-up assessments for next year's tax rate setting and an increase in demands for veteran's benefits.  Veterans Services Commission Thomas Beltan explained that since the city turns away no veterans that request assistance, the added transfer was simply a function of increased need.  The city will received 75% reimbursement from the state in the next fiscal year.  Finally, Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola requested additional funding from the council to pay for the March 6th Presidential Primary.  She said it was an oversight on her part that led to that primary's exclusion from her budget in June.

The council also accepted grants for the Library and Fire Departments.  Helen Caulton-Harris secured another haul for Health and Human Services of over $75,000.  Community Development accepted a grant from the state to design a parking garage for the Court Square Hotel.  The council sent to committee grants from Comcast received as part of a settlement with the city.

C-5B Galaxy (wikipedia)
The Council also passed resolves opposing the reduction of cargo planes at Westover Air Reserve Base; in support of a Molly Bish license plate bill; and in support of allow employees of the city who have health insurance to opt out if their spouse has a health plan that the employee can be on.

The council also approved an order, worked on by the Public Safety Subcommittee to close Worthington Street near several of downtown's bar.  According to at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, the original order would have closed the street from Main to Dwight, but as an accommodation to bar owners, the closure would only be halfway down the street.  The closure would only be in effect Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.  Its intent is to curb violence in the entertainment strip along Worthington Street.  The measure passed on a voice vote with Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak in dissent.  Lysak worried that the measure would harm businesses and he contended that with the closure of Skyplex on Stearn Square, the risk of violence had fallen.

The home rule petition to push the MCAS testing date from March/April into April/May passed on a unanimous council vote, but not before Springfield Education Association President Tim Collins took aim at Mitchell Chester, the Commissioner for Elementary and Secondary Education.  Collins attacks Chester for having "not a single thought for students" in opposing city efforts to push the schedule back.  He further contended that this would not happen if the district were in Eastern Massachusetts.

SEA President Tim Collins (Urban Compass)
Collins further complained that the Education Commission itself at a meeting last month in Malden, did not even put Springfield educators concerns on their agenda, although they did hear educators out.  In response to Chester's contentions that a home rule petition would throw the city out of MCAS compliance and expose students and the district to sanctions, Collins said that his parent union's legal department assured him that nothing of the sort would happen.  A home rule petition can create exceptions to general laws, which would in theory excuse the city from the sanctions Chester warned of.  WMassP&I reported earlier this week that a spokesman for Chester clarified the commissioner's position as the home rule petition may not be practical, even if it solved the exact legal consequences of a later testing schedule.

Councilors traded some banter on the issue, including a statement of opposition to MCAS testing entirely from Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion.  Collins assured Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea that unless this bill becomes law, nothing will jeopardize student's testing schedule.  In other words, there is no risk to students or the district through the council's action.  Testing will remain on schedule unless the legislature approve the petition and the governor signs it.  Councilor Fenton proposed an amendment, accepted by the council, that made the petition effective for this year only.  As previously written, it was possible for the petition to be interpreted to mean every year.

After the vote, Collins said he was "very pleased" adding, "Up to this point, every local official has come out in favor of this."  When asked about the contention from the commissioner's office that pushing these tests forward would leave less room for students between tests, Collins said the shift would still leave students with a break.  Collins also said he would appeal to the SEA's parent union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association for help on Beacon Hill moving the bill.

The council's passage of the home rule petition does not send it to Beacon Hill.  Mayor Domenic Sarno still needs to sign it before it enters the maw of the Legislature.  However, Sarno has yet to make his position known and in a press release dated today, the mayor suggested he was still considering his decision.  If the mayor declines to sign it, there is no mechanism for the council to overturn his rejection.  Still, the meeting overall presented an uncharacteristic amount of unity, perhaps because everybody could agree on paying for the fire department accepted free money.  The home rule petition's success in the council at least was old-fashioned populism, but may still face the hard realities of Beacon Hill political wrangling.

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