The city of Springfield, Massachusetts will begin a new fiscal year on Monday July 1st with a balanced budget. The conclusion this week of the annual budget debate in city hall left unresolved several issues that resonate beyond Springfield.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno praised the city council’s 12 to 2 vote to adopt a $572 million budget. He said it will maintain current municipal employment levels and keep core city services intact.
The city council’s decision not to cut the mayor’s recommended spending plan reflects the financial struggles many municipalities have wrestled with since the “Great Recession”. In Springfield, the municipal workforce is 21.5 percent smaller than it was in 2008.
The foreclosure crisis hammered property values in Springfield. The city is at its tax levy limit under the state’s Proposition 2 ½ tax cap law, which means $12 million in potential tax revenue can’t be collected. The budget includes $5 million in advance payments from MGM Resorts. But only $1 million of it is guaranteed with the rest dependant on MGM getting the approval to build a casino. $7 million is being drawn from the city’s so-called rainy day fund.
More than 60 percent of Springfield’s revenue comes from state aid. Unrestricted local aid to the state’s cities and towns has been slashed by more than a third since 2008. Mayor Sarno and other municipal leaders have continued to lobby for relief from the property tax cap as well as unfunded state mandates, such as school bussing.
Voters in Northampton this week approved an override of Proposition 2 ½ that will add $2.5 million to the city’s property tax bill to avert budget cuts.
Springfield city councilors in a separate vote objected to a plan to close two branch libraries. Councilor Clodo Concepcion said closing the Pine Point library branch hurts one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
Springfield Library Director Molly Fogarty said closing the Pine Point and Liberty Street branches is part of a reorganization plan that will result in expanded hours at the eight remaining branches.
The new budget gives the library system $4.1 million, a substantial increase over the $3.5 million in the current fiscal year. It will allow the libraries to add 14 employees
The budget funds a police academy class of 22 recruits who, when they graduate this fall, will fill vacancies in the police department that have resulted from retirements.
A plan by Springfield City Council President James Ferrera to use the budget as leverage to enforce a residency requirement for municipal workers was rejected by the full council. The city solicitor warned that Ferrera’s plan to cut the salaries of employees who refuse to move to the city could lead to lawsuits with the potential of triple damage awards.
City councilor Michael Fenton said he will continue to work on a new residency ordinance.
Springfield’s current residency ordinance, which was adopted in 1995, has been weakened by numerous waivers and lax oversight. Thousands of employees, including teachers, police and firefighters are exempt from residency requirements either because of state law or union contracts.