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Councilors react to Sarno's budget

Date: 6/20/2012

June 20, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield city councilors contacted by Reminder Publications uniformly had concerns and criticisms about the municipal budget proposed by Mayor Domenic Sarno.

City Councilor President James Ferrera expressed concerns whether to not the council has enough time to conduct the hearings it needs in order order to pass the budget by June 30.

The budget, which Sarno released last week, would eliminate 29 requested positions on the Police Department as well as 31 previously funded positions that are currently vacant. Ladder 9 Fire Company would be eliminated from the Fire Department by not filling 12 vacant firefighter positions. Three branch libraries would be closed and the remaining branch libraries would be open only 18 hours a week.

Under Sarno's plan, the Department of Parks and Recreation would not maintain 10 city parks, the Department of Public Works (DPW) would no longer repair sidewalks and the street sweeping program would be cut in half.

The DPW would also stop picking up trash and recyclables from any apartment complex with four or more units effective Aug. 1.

Sarno explained that rising costs of mandated expenses coupled with decreased property tax revenue and inadequate state aid has caused a budget gap that must be addressed by use of stabilization funds and cuts to services. When asked about the millions of dollars in reimbursements the city has been expecting from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Sarno said, "They don't play directly into the budget."

He said that about $11 million in FEMA and state funds has been received by the city but the reimbursement has not been "at a quick enough pace." He said that city spend $30 million in cleaning up after the October 2011 Nor'easter and has received no reimbursement in either state or federal funding.

Although the budget doesn't have any line item for additional capital projects, Sarno said any city cost for the construction of a new Elias Brookings Museum Magnet School would be covered.

Sarno has also included in his budget revenues from new increases in fees and taxes. He would like to implement an increase in the trash fee, a local hotel/motel tax. Without passage by the City Council of these increase revenue enhancements, Sarno has said that additional cutbacks would be necessary.

City Councilor Kateri Walsh said the budget was "grim" and that "it doesn't give us many avenues."

She added, "It's been balanced on assumptions ... a foundation built on sand."

The council is facing "difficult choices," Walsh said. She added she wonders if some of the school-related expenses, such as the cost of school busing, could be passed to the school budget.

Councilor John Lysak said he believes the council will not approve the increase on the trash fee, based on the remarks made at public hearings on the fee.

Politically, Lysak observed the mayor is "putting a gun to our heads," because if the council doesn't approve his revenue enhancements, it might be seen as responsible for job loss.

Lysak doesn't understand why Sarno has resisted putting the city's health insurance out to bid, a move that has been championed for months by City Councilor Timothy Rooke and School Committee Vice Chair Christopher Collins.

"I don't know why the mayor is fighting this," Lysak said of the bidding process.

Lysak believes that a re-organization of city services might save money as well as cross-training of employees. He also called for a one-week furlough for any employee making more than $70,000 as a way to save jobs.

Councilor Melvin Edwards said he was "disappointed" and would have rather seen the spending plan presented so councilors could see the impact of each of the mayor's proposed revenue enhancements.

As is, Edwards said he receives complaints from constituents about the lack of city services.

Edwards wondered what the financial impact would be on the city's health plan with fewer funded positions.

He suggested the city set up a program requiring all of the non-profit organizations — ranging from the colleges to Baystate Health Services to houses of worship — to pay 25 percent of the assessed property taxes as a fee in lieu of taxes.

Councilor Tim Allen said he asked Sarno a month ago not to include the anticipated revenue in the budget.

"This isn't transparent," Allen said. "Transparency would be giving you a budget with what you have."

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