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Councilors last-minute bid to block tax hike fails

Date: 6/21/2010

June 21, 2010.

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- For City Councilors Michael Fenton, Tim Allen, John Lysak, Keith Wright, Tim Rooke and E. Henry Twiggs, their effort to reduce the city's fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget enough to prevent an increase in the city's residential tax rate may have failed, but was not in vain.

Fenton, Allen, Lysak, Wright and Twiggs met with reporters on the steps of City Hall just 45 minutes prior to the June 16 City Council meeting -- one which was considered as a last ditch effort before Mayor Domenic Sarno's budget became law at midnight, June 17.

The six councilors had planned to introduce a resolution pointing out the effort to cut $2.5 million at the meeting, but did not as they realized they could not secure a needed seventh vote, Rooke explained to Reminder Publications.

The resolution was "an effort to express what we're trying to do to level fund [property taxes]," Fenton said.

"We don't have the votes. We don't have the cooperation," Allen said. He added, "It is what it is -- democracy in action."

Wright said he believes the "time to affect the tax rate is now, not in November or December [when the rates are set by the mayor and council]."

Lysak said the group "did our best without slashing spending to the bone," while Twiggs expressed his disappointment at the turn of events.

"Are you tightening your belts at home?" he asked. "I've not received one call to increase taxes. We've got to cut spending."

Although the council had voted the previous week to cut $424,000 from the $533 million budget, the group of councilors sought a way to make additional cuts for a total of $2.5 million.

The issue they were trying to avoid was eliminating jobs. Fenton explained they were looking to cut the outsourcing of services and supplies. To reach their goal the councilors had appealed to Sarno to use $1 million from the city's stabilization fund.

Sarno wouldn't budge and assembled his financial team in his office to respond to the statements made by the councilors. He called the budget "solid and lean" and said it buys city residents a lot of services including a new police and fire academy, more barrels for single stream recycling, the upkeep of the city's parks and youth development programs as well as maintaining core services and addressing the city's debts.

He maintained this budget would allow for a 2 percent decrease in the commercial tax rate and that residents will see an increase of less than $1 per week.

Sarno maintained that using more stabilization money would have a negative impact on how bonding agencies, which recently upgraded the city's bond status, look at the city.

He added a jab at the council's intentions to hold in spending by saying three councilors came to him to ask if an expense account could be established for the council's use. Sarno said he explained to them councilors must use campaign money or funds "from out of their pocket" to pay for a variety of things.

He did not name which three councilors came with the request.

The mayor's press conference lasted about 15 minutes and reporters hurried over to the City Council chambers for the meeting. The room was packed with department heads, municipal union representatives and members and city residents.

After accepting a ruling from City Solicitor Edward Pikula on the legal status of the $424,000 in cuts made at the last meeting -- Pikula affirmed the cuts had been legally made and stand as part of the amended budget -- City Council President Jose Tosado called for any motions for any more cuts.

Wright proposed cutting $17,400 from the councilors' salaries, a move that drew a sharp response from Councilor Kateri Walsh who called it "a slap in the face." The motion passed, although Allen, who had been looking for more cuts, did not support it.

Councilor James Ferrera then proposed a cut of $95,000 for a Boston law firm contracted by the city, only to be told that line item was part of the $424,000 that was cut at the previous meeting.

Rooke explained the councilors had not been given a list of the line items they had cut at the previous meeting.

During the deliberations, Sarno stood at the lectern reserved for guest speakers, ready to answer questions. There were none directed to him.

With the vote passing the amended budget, the room broke out in applause and Sarno met personally with several of the councilors.

The meeting had lasted about 20 minutes.

The FY11 tax rate will be set in the fall. To compare the city with the other two larger communities in the state, Springfield's 2010 residential property rate is $19.50 per $1,000 of value, while its commercial/industrial/personal property rate is $39.25 per $1,000 of value. Worcester has rates of $15.15 and $33.28 respectively, while Boston has $11.88 and $29.38.