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Financial power shifted back to the city

Date: 7/7/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor


SPRINGFIELD -- With a vote that came at the end of a meeting that lasted about an hour, the Finance Control Board (FCB) dissolved itself on June 30, returning the city to full and absolute control of the mayor and the City Council -- and therefore the voters.

The occasion was marked with a ceremony on the steps of City Hall that followed the actual FCB meeting at which members of the board were saluted for their service. Gov. Deval Patrick said the state would be still be active in supporting the city.

"The partnership with this governor and administration is unchanged," he told the hundred-plus people who gathered for the ceremony. "We are as interested in the long term success of the city as we ever were."

During the last meeting the FCB approved the budget submitted by Mayor Domenic Sarno and a preview of coming events was presented: the push and pull between the mayor and the City Council. City Council President William Foley tried to change the budget to shift $225,000 to establish a forestry response team to remove trees damaged in storms and other situations.

Foley's measure died without a second, but he said it was something to be considered in the future.

Another preview of the future -- the influence of the chief administrative and finance officer (CAFO) -- was also offered with the reaction of FCB Executive Director Stephen Lisauskas who noted that outsourcing -- a favorite money saving and controversial theme of the board over the past five years -- the forestry service would be less expensive.

Lisauskas is the acting CAFO for the city, a position created by governor and Legislature designed to add greater financial expertise to the city's government. He said a nationwide search for a CAFO will probably begin in the late summer or early fall.

The city's new local meal tax -- .75 percent -- was part of the budget and one of the reasons the City Council did not approve Sarno's budget, Foley explained to FCB Chair Christopher Gabrieli, who wondered why the council didn't approve it.

Gabrieli noted the Springfield budget was "rare" as it did not include any layoffs, despite the tighter economic climate. He added that he would have also enacted the local option for a hotel tax.

The FCB also made final votes to buy two parochial schools that will be the new location for two public schools and gave final approval that will allow the city to begin the work to prepare the renovation of the Forest Park Middle School.

The board also voted to formalize the Springfield Promise Program, which will provide city residents with college scholarships. The remaining $48 million of the $52 million loan granted by the state to the city will be placed in a trust fund. Although the money will be paid back to the state, interest generated by the money will be used to fund the scholarship program.

FCB member James Morton will lead the scholarship advisory board.

The last FCB meeting also marked the last televised speak-out by members of the public. Initiated by City Council Kateri Walsh when she served on the board, the speak-outs gave Springfield residents an opportunity to address the board members directly.

Lois Pines, a resident who has regularly raised a number of issues at the FCB meetings, noted that with the end of the FCB meetings there will be no televised speak-outs of any city meeting. The City Council and School Committee speak-outs are not televised.

"The last vestige of free speech goes with you," Pines said. "Channel 17 has allowed the stakeholders, the voters in Springfield, to be heard. We are blacked out on the School Committee and blacked out on the City Council."

She added, "We will lose free speech when you leaves. This city is bent on obfuscation. The next election should bear fruit."


At the ceremony, Sarno spoke of the deficit that confronted the city at the end of the Albano Administration and through the actions of the FCB a surplus was created. He thanked the board, the governor and the residents of Springfield for their collective effort.

Lisauskas noted that, under the first FCB with Phil Puccia as its executive director and Charles Ryan as mayor, the $41 million deficit that brought the city to the brink of receivership was changed to a $6 million surplus in the first year.

Although Ryan was included on the dais, he did not speak during the program, nor did any member of the first FCB.

It was Ryan, though, saddled with a debt the severity of which was only revealed to him when he took office that forged a working relationship with a group created by Gov. Mitt Romney and the Legislature.

After the ceremony, Ryan characterized the results of the FCB: "A lot of good things were done by a lot of good people who worked hard."

Of the city's future, Gabrieli said, paraphrasing President Bill Clinton, "There is nothing wrong in Springfield that can't be fixed by what is right in Springfield."