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Fee extension trashed

Date: 12/8/2010

Dec. 8, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- For a decision Mayor Domenic Sarno described as non-political, the mayor is finding himself in the middle of a political firestorm.

Sarno's announcement made last week that he intended to seek a two year extension of the trash fee -- currently scheduled to end in July, 2011 -- brought criticism from City Council President Jose Tosado and City Councilor Timothy Rooke.

On Monday night, the council rejected Sarno's proposal.

Last week, Tosado told Reminder Publications that Sarno owes former Mayor Charles Ryan and the city an apology. He added he was "really surprised" by the announcement and he would oppose the request when it came to the City Council.

"Obviously, he made a mistake," Tosado said of Sarno's belief the city could do without the trash fee, a cornerstone of his mayoral campaign against Ryan.

The City Council would have had to approve the home rule legislation, which would then have gone to the Legislature.

In his election against Ryan, Sarno often said he believed Ryan could eliminate the fee by cutting $4 million from the city budget through eliminating waste and finding efficiencies. Tosado used that argument against Sarno.

"The mayor needs to detail his financial team to find it," Tosado said.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the trash fee should not be reduced ... because we need that money," Rooke said.

Rooke said that although residents pay a trash fee -- $75 per bin annually for most and $56.25 for seniors -- the fee doesn't cover the full cost of removing trash. That figure is $200 a household.

Sarno said, "I'm not trying to play politics. I'm trying to be fiscally prudent."

In a written statement, Sarno said, "I am not willing to make a decision that is based on politics instead of good governance; a decision that is sure to hurt the citizens of Springfield in the long run. The city has moved forward on a number of initiatives aimed at reducing the expenses associated with trash disposal including the city-wide single stream recycling program which has been a tremendous success."

Sarno noted the trash fee has been reduced under his administration and the city has benefited financially from increases recycling efforts, including the introduction of single stream recycling.

The mayor said he "doesn't want to go back to the old days" in which the city reacted to financial challenges with layoffs and cutbacks.

Although Sarno said that he is "exploring any or all options," he made several points clear. He would never go to a pay-as-you-throw program as, Worcester has, and he is opposed to seeking savings by going out to bid on the city's health insurance plan.

Rooke said he was going to advance legislation at the City Council to request bids to see if the city is getting the best deal it can.

The city currently has its health insurance through the state's program, which Sarno asserted has saved Springfield millions of dollars.

"We can not jeopardize health insurance on a whim," he said.

Sarno said that no one has "shown concretely" money could be saved by switching to another insurance carrier.

Rooke believes the trash fee could be eliminated, but not without consequences.

"The simple answer is 'yes'," he said. "If someone wanted to get rid of the trash fee it could be done."

What would have to happen is either the $3.7 million would have to be made up through permanent cuts or by the creation of a new revenue stream. As an example, Rooke said the city could realize about $4 million from uncollected excise fees if it invests $60,000 in a license plate recognition program.

Sarno said he would consider revising the trash program so there would be reduced fees based on smaller families or single people using smaller barrels.

He pointed out the city is still recovering from its worst fiscal years that triggered the creation of the Finance Control Board.

"As a result of the city's strong financial practices the City continues to be recognized for our ongoing fiscal management style which has allowed us to produce three consecutive balanced budgets over the past three years and has resulted in three consecutive bond upgrades which will result in savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the debt. Additionally, the city has received recognitions from the Government Finance Officers Association for the city's strong budgeting practices. Moreover, the city currently has $44 million in reserves, which pending the city council's approval will allow my proposal for property tax relief to homeowners and businesses to move forward next fiscal year and provide for a tax rate reduction which is the first reduction since Fiscal Year 1997," he said.

He added, though, that Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Lee Erdmann has warned him the city could "blow through the reserves in a few years" if relied upon.