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Sarno and Rooke face off over former Federal Building

Date: 5/26/2010

May 26, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor


SPRINGFIELD - In a game of "Chicken," two people try not to be the one who blinks first.

For months, City Councilor Tim Rooke has tried to persuade Mayor Domenic Sarno to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to ascertain if the former Federal Building on Main Street is the most cost-effective location for the School Department.

Last week, Rooke brought a greater pressure onto the issue by refusing to schedule a meeting of the Finance Committee he chairs a meeting in which financial orders must be approved in order for the city to issue payments to vendors and make other transactions, including some involved with the renovations of the former Federal Building.

Rooke's actions put the city in a procedural bind.

The city signed a 20-year lease with MassDevelopment, which bought the building for space for the School Department. The rental cost of the space is more than $500,000. Rooke believes there might be other office space available in the city at a lower cost

Thomas Walsh, Sarno's communications director explained that because the lease arrangement was government to government - MassDevelopment is a semi-public entity - the former Finance Control Board was not required by law to issue an RFP.

Walsh explained Rooke's actions could put the city's residents into some unexpected situations. He said, for example, that without timely action on a financial order concerning the creation of flood plan maps mandated by federal authorities, residents of the North and South End neighborhoods might be required to buy flood insurance from their properties.

In a letter written May 18 to members of the City Council Sarno said, "Recently several financial orders have been submitted to the City Council that have been referred to the Finance Committee for further review. Unfortunately, the Finance Committee has not held a meeting to discuss the orders in detail. We are writing today to express the importance of the orders and we are looking for your support in favorably releasing these orders timely in an effort to continue to effectively and responsibly manage the city's finances to the best of our collective abilities ...

"During our review of the current year's spending and the development of the FY11 budget, several items have become priorities that assist us in meeting our citywide efforts of strong financial management. The items included in the transfer orders ensure that we continue on a path of responsibly managing the city's budget, demonstrate our commitment to fiscal responsibility to rating agencies (with whom we are meeting this week to discuss our bond rating), ensure the continuation of revenue collections / maximization efforts and meet vendor contractual obligations that will keep the city in good standings with the vendors that serve our departments and citizens. Some examples of the pressing needs included in these orders are:

"• FY08 - 10 District Improvement Fund (DIF) Agreement - DIF is a special financing mechanism authorized through the Municipal Relief Act of 2003. It is a debt service obligation of the city that is reviewed by rating agencies and investors. Lack of payment will have negative impacts on our financial ratings. The FY08 debt service payment is $102,636.94, the FY09 debt service payment is $118,461.73 and the FY10 debt service payment is $125,733.45. The FY11 DIF payment is budgeted in the recommendations submitted to the Council.

"• FY10 Valley Real Estate Contract, FY10 Revenue Services Inc., FY10 Siddall and Siddall Contract - These three contracts are in relation to the city's tax title program and a menu of services provided by these vendors. If the FY10 outstanding bills are not paid, the vendors have indicated that all services will cease, crippling the city's entire tax title program. This item is a priority need and extremely time sensitive, as the city cannot operate without a comprehensive tax title program. The total FY10 amount outstanding is $515,000.

"• Land Takings - This $2 million will be used for proposed land acquisitions associated with the Forest Park Middle School project. This amount is not reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority and is an obligation of the city to move forward with this project. In addition, $127,000 is needed to hire a relocation specialist to help with the land acquisitions needed for the Forest Park Middle School project. This is an integral part of the project and is needed immediately to ensure that land acquisitions are properly addressed ...

"• DPW and Enterprise Fund Rental Equipment - This amount totaling $953,000 across the DPW is the master vehicle lease for DPW vehicles. This is a contractual obligation of the City in the form of a lease that is comparable to a debt service obligation. Defaulting on the leases risks City vehicles being repossessed and DPW operations halting."

In an e-mail sent to Sarno and members of his financial team on May 26, Rooke wrote, "When you get a chance please give me a call. I would like to know where we go from here concerning my request for a public RFP and the Financial Orders that are pending in the Finance Committee.

"I have a simple request. I am asking that the RFP that was suppose to be released over a year ago which is already drafted be legally advertised, accepted and acted upon if it is to the financial benefit to the city. A request that can be easily accomplished in a few hours by the mayor, [School] Superintendent [Dr. Alan] Ingram or [Executive Director of Parks, Buildings & Recreation Management] Pat Sullivan. If the City Council is allowed to request an RFP that would be fine as well. Please let me know if that is an option.

"This simple action will eliminate all of the financial concerns that have been expressed in an e-mail I received signed by each of you. I would expect a 30-day response to be adequate for the RFP. Once advertised, I would be happy to meet on each of the financial orders before the 30-day limit takes place.

"All of my previous requests have been ignored over the last 12 months so I truly hope, if you are concerned with the financial impact the Financial Orders may have that you issue the RFP as soon as possible.

"[I'm] hoping to work this all out so that we can all move forward and continue working together for the best interest of the taxpayers."