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Reps in favor of longer loan payback period

Representatives Benjamin Swan, Sean Curran and Cheryl Coakley-Rivera all agreed on a longer payback period. Angelo Puppolo also sat on the panel but is not pictured. Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs
By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD State Rep. Sean Curran said he doesn't see any roadblocks in the Legislature to approving an extension of the payback time the city has to return the $52 million it was lent by the state.

And his colleagues at a hearing conducted Thursday in City Hall on Gov. Deval Patrick's bill that would lengthen the payback time to 12 years seemed to agree.

However, State Reps. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, Angelo Puppolo, Benjamin Swan and Curran had a problem was with the other provisions in the governor's bill.

A press release from the governor's office on the bill reads in part the provisions noted are "to help the city transition and prepare for the dissolution of the four-year-old Finance Control Board scheduled next year, the legislation enacts the following city governance reforms:

Establishes a Chief Administrative and Financial Officer (CAFO), to supervise all city administrative and financial activities. The Mayor will appoint the CAFO from a search committee's recommendations, subject to the Administration & Finance (A & F) Secretary's approval for the life of the state loan. The CAFO will have a minimum city budget approved by the A & F Secretary;

A new city comptroller, appointed by the CAFO with the Mayor's approval, and a director of internal audit, appointed by the Mayor with the City Council's approval;

A new consolidated Department of Community Development;

Consolidation of city and school administration and financial operations under the CAFO."

The legislation would also put on the November ballot a binding referendum question extending the term of the mayor to four years and the creation of a commission to investigate a pay increase for the mayor.

The extension of the loan agreement would allow the city to pay $4.4 million annual installments over the 12 years. Curran wondered if this amount was too high for the city to handle considering dire forecasts have been made about the state budget for FY10 and its impact on cities and towns.

Swan said he thought the bill was "hastily put together" and lacked "local flavoring." He said he would be interesting in seeing an amendment to the bill that would establish a charter commission.

Coakley-Rivera asked where the input of the residents of Springfield was represented in the bill. Normally the issues changing city government would be handled through a change in the city's charter or through a home rule petition approved by the City Council and mayor and brought to the Legislature.

In a somewhat heated exchange with Mayor Domenic Sarno, Coakley-Rivera said the provisions changing the city's government seemed like "political deals made behind the scenes."

Sarno said, "No political deals were made."

"Of course not," Coakley-Rivera replied.

"Excuse me?" Sarno asked.

"Of course not," Coakley-Rivera said again.

When asked by Puppolo if there were any provisions in place in the city government if the bill does not pass through the Legislature, Sarno replied, "The best thing to move the city forward is to put this thing to bed."

Sarno said his only concerns about the bill was that it allows for an "structured transition" from the Finance Control Board to the city government, achieves an extension of the payback period and maintains the control of the mayor.

He emphasized that he was not concerned over the issues of term of office or pay for the mayor as those are decision that would be made by the voters.

Sarno did not stay for the entire hearing as he had a meeting with representatives of Moody's Investor Service in Boston on possibly upgrading the city's bonding status.

City Councilor Bud Williams was critical of the bill and said, "This legislation is flowing from the top down and not originating from the people."

City Councilor Kateri Walsh, who had worked with State Sen. Stephen Buoniconti on an earlier bill to extend the payback period to 20 years, was asked by Curran why the City Council hadn't worked on a home rule petition on these matters.

Walsh said she was told to halt any City Council action, as the issues would be "settled in Boston." When asked by Coakley-Rivera who told her that, Walsh declined to say.

Daniel Sullivan, general counsel for the Secretary of Administration and Finance, said the governor has no opinion about whether or not the mayor's term should be extended or the pay scale increased. The changes to city government in the bill are "just setting up a process for the decisions to be made."

When asked about the possibility of extending the payback period to 20 years, Sullivan said that might create an opportunity for other cities and towns to be fiscally irresponsible.

Russell Denver, the president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, read a statement from Victor Woolridge, Chairperson of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. The chamber was consulted in the writing of the governor's bill and advocated for a longer term and a larger salary.

"Many of you know, the business community, led by the Chamber of Commerce, has been an advocate of strong, transparent fiscal policies that meet the highest standards of integrity and best practices among municipalities in the Commonwealth," Woolridge wrote. "In addition, we have advocated for an increase in salary and a four-year term for the chief executive officer of the City of Springfield. We believe that if Springfield is to continue on its path of growth, job creation and economic vitality support of this legislation is essential. Also, with the extension of the loan from the state, passage of this legislation will accelerate our path toward independent home rule.

"We believe that the Mayor's salary should be comparable to mayors of similar size cities in this region and similar to the salary of our police chief and school superintendent. We believe that the mayor should have the opportunity to develop a long-term comprehensive strategy for the City of Springfield, rather than being forced by an outdated model to focus on short term gains often aimed towards a re-election strategy. Such shortsightedness mostly benefits the incumbent to the possible disadvantage of the citizens. By extending the term of office, the City's chief executive will have the time and opportunity to develop and implement a much needed long term plan for the City's success which is consistent with the ULI plan that our community broadly supports."