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City Council paints grim picture at budget meeting

Date: 6/4/2012

June 4, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — Citing Budget deficits, the inability to raise taxes or substantially use reserves and the probability of no increases in state aid, the city councilors who attended the a Council of the Whole meeting on May 30 painted a grim picture of the city's finances for the next fiscal year and questioned how city would function in the future.

The meeting was designed to raise questions on the financial future of Springfield and was attended by a large number of department heads, but only by City Councilors Timothy Allen, Michael Fenton, Clodo Concepcion, Kenneth Shea and James Ferrera.

Allen explained that meetings such as this one were not mandatory for councilors to attend, although he had hoped that more councilors would have attended.

With information supplied by Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Lee Erdmann and other officials, Allen presented a view of the budget for the next fiscal year. He noted that many of the individual figures and proposals were speculative, as the council has not yet received Mayor Domenic Sarno's budget for fiscal year 2013 (FY13). Allen noted the council would have to amend — they can only make cuts — and approve the budget by the end of June.

The city faces an initial budget gap of $30.12 million Allen explained. After measures that included withdrawal of city funding the Massachusetts Career Development Institute, the sale of city property for a state Fire Training Center, excess money from grants, an early retirement incentive and the use of $10 million from the city's reserves, the gap would be reduced to $12. 55 million.

Then, Allen said if there is an increase in the trash fee, the adoption of a local hotel tax, an increase in fees involving the Thomas J. O'Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center, the City's Clerk's office and building permits, the deficit would then be whittled down to $5.85 million.

Allen stressed that many of these revenue enhancers have not been thoroughly discussed by the City Council. He also noted that by city ordinance, double-digit amounts from the reserves would not be possible.

Looking at budget projections for the next several fiscal years, Shea said the way city officials have handled long-term budgeting is like "continuing to drive a car until the tank is empty and then deal with it."

Shea advocated that decisions to rectify the problem should be made now, rather than initiate two years of budget cuts.

Sarno had visited state officials about a month ago discussing Springfield's budget issues and recommending steps that could be taken by the state to help the city. Erdmann said the council shouldn't "expect a big windfall in FY13 on any of the options [discussed by Sarno]."

"As the state improves, we'll hope to see more [aid]," he added.

Fenton said the city needs to acknowledge it is operating under a structural deficit. The city shouldn't rely on "a hope and a prayer" that the state will increase aid in the future.

He believes the council has the responsibility of telling Sarno to rely less on reserves.

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