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Springfield City Council Schedules Budget Debate

It is approaching crunch time for municipal budgets in Massachusetts where the fiscal year ends June 30th.  A new budget to run the state’s third-largest city is expected to be finalized later today.

The Springfield City Council has scheduled a special meeting Monday evening to vote on a budget for fiscal year 2016, which starts on July 1st.

Over the course of the last two weeks, the council has held three public hearings on the $595 million budget proposed by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.  During the hearings the councilors heard from the directors of the city’s 35 municipal departments and agencies. 

It is a budget review process introduced last year at the encouragement of City Council President Mike Fenton.

" To give both department heads and councilors an opportunity to have their voices heard prior to any final deliberation and vote," said Fenton.

Councilors have requested records of each city department’s spending for several fiscal years to help identify possible areas to cut.   The city charter restricts the council to either voting for the mayor’s budget as presented, or cutting spending by line item. The council cannot increase any appropriations proposed by the mayor.

Fenton raised a red flag over the budget plan to further defer payments to the city’s pension and retiree health care funds.

" To the extend this budget kicks that can further down the road that would be something that is extremely concerning to me and should be to anyone with a fiduciary responsibility to city taxpayers," he said.

Sarno said he is proud of the budget he unveiled on May 7.  He said the proposed budget maintains core services, avoid layoffs, hires additional police and firefighters, and does not dip into the city’s cash reserves.

" We have done this by rolling up our sleeves, making difficult decisions, and strategic decisions that make us stronger down the road," said at a May 7 news conference.

It is the first time since 2008 that Sarno did not call for using money from the “rainy day fund” to balance the budget.  The city has $40 million in cash reserves. Sarno said it is an amount considered optimal by Wall Street rating agencies that determine the city’s bond ratings.

" The city has the highest bond ratings in its history from both Standard and Poors and Moody's," he said.

Councilors are not expected to object to expanding the city’s police and fire departments. The mayor’s budget also maintains politically popular items such as library branch hours, street sweeping, and opening swimming pools and water spray parks for the summer.

But, councilors may question the use of one-time revenue for reoccurring expenses.  MGM has agreed to pay the city $7 million as an advance on the revenue due from the casino that is not currently scheduled to open until 2017.  The budget also estimates the city will collect an additional $2.8 million in fees for building permits for the casino and a railroad car factory.

State aid, which accounts for 60 percent of the revenue side of the budget, is expected to increase by $1.2 million.

Last week, the Springfield School Committee approved a new $346 million budget for the city’s public schools

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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