With five weeks left before the start of a new fiscal year in the largest city in western Massachusetts, public hearings have been scheduled to dive deep into a proposed budget.
The Springfield City Council will meet over a three-day period with top officials from 33 city departments and agencies to review the $656.2 million budget proposed by Mayor Domenic Sarno.
Hearings are scheduled for May 29, June 6 and 7.
City Council President Orlando Ramos said the budget review schedule, similar to last year, will afford ample time for due diligence before the start of the new fiscal year July 1.
"I am looking forward to a very protective process and hopefully coming to a concensus in a very timely manner," said Ramos.
Under the city charter, the council can approve the mayor’s budget as submitted, or make cuts. The council cannot increase spending on any line item.
During last year’s budget review hearings, councilors pointed out areas in the budget where they believed more money needed to be spent, and the administration responded.
" We were able to come to agreements on most of the things that were on the City Council's priority list and I am hopeful to do the same thing this year," Ramos said.
While Ramos said it is premature to say what this year’s council budget priorities might be, one ongoing concern is the city’s unfunded pension liability. It ranks as the worst of any municipality in the state.
The budget proposed by Sarno includes a $39.5 million payment to the pension fund, which is a 14.6 percent increase over the current year.
"We are being as aggressive as we can and the bond rating agencies appreciate that," said Sarno about the plans to reduce the unfunded pension liability. "People have to realize, the council too, that the more aggressive you are with the pension payoff that means you have to take it away from the bottom line of the budget which means services would have to go, bodies would have to go."
When he revealed the budget at a May 1st news conference, Sarno said it maintained core city services and did not require tapping the city’s cash reserve funds.
"It is a good solid budget and I am hopeful to continue to work with the City Council as we put it forth," said Sarno.
Councilors are not likely to contest the mayor’s proposal to fund training academies for new recruits for the city’s police and fire departments. Officials are particularly concerned about a significant number of looming retirements affecting staffing levels in the police department.
Municipal agency heads can make their cases to councilors for more money, but because most of the city budget is spent on salaries and benefits, there is not a lot of spending wiggle room.
Sarno would likely push back on any call to take money from the city’s $44 million “rainy day” fund.
"This is the fourth consecutive year that we've balanced this budget without using any reserves and that is a tremendous feat our administration has continued to do," said Sarno.
Although the budget hearings are open to the public, Ramos said there will be no public testimony taken. Councilors will be available at the conclusion of each hearing to meet with constituents.
"This is the time to reach out to the city council and tell us what they expect to see from us," said Ramos.
The Springfield School Committee, at a special meeting earlier this month, approved a $420 million budget. In a news release, Superintendent of Schools Dan Warwick said the budget positions the city’s schools to open next fall in good financial health and to continue to build on student-centered improvements.