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Springfield City Council Will Have Two Months To Review Mayor's Budget Proposal

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WAMC
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Municipal finances in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, which faced bankruptcy a little more than a decade ago, are looking up. Mayor Domenic Sarno has released a recommended budget for the next fiscal year. 

 The mayor’s proposed spending plan keeps city services and programs intact, results in no employee layoffs, and adds more police officers, firefighters and building inspectors in anticipation of hundreds of millions of dollars in construction beginning in the city.

" I am very proud to put this budget forward," said Sarno. " We have come a long way. When I think back on some of the dark days when I had to stand here with others and cuts had to be made."

Sarno said this is the earliest date a municipal budget has ever been presented in Springfield. It gives the city council a full two months to review the spending plan and act on it before the July 1st start of the next fiscal year.

The mayor’s recommended budget totals $616.8 million, a 3.7 percent increase over what the city is expected to spend in the current fiscal year.

Sarno again made public safety a priority in the budget, funding a police academy for 60 new officers.

" We are going to have the largest police academy in 20 years, going back to the President Clinton ' cops program.' And, this is sustainable," said Sarno.

The fire department will gain 12 firefighters.

The proposed budget funds three new inspectors in the city’s building code enforcement department. This is in anticipation of construction getting underway on the MGM casino, a subway car factory, and other projects.   The budget counts $ 4.5 million in building permit fees as expected revenue.

The Parks Department is getting additional money for extended after-school recreation programs. The city will contribute $250,000 to the School Department to help expand pre-kindergarten education. Hours of operation at the main library and neighborhood branches are being increased.

" There are lot of good highlights," said Sarno. " We made  strategic investments in public safety, education, infrastructure, and quality of life."

Budget-writers started out with an estimated deficit of $22.5 million, but were able to close the gap without touching the city’s cash reserves. Keeping the city’s stabilization fund account at $40 million should please the Wall Street rating agencies and help the city maintain its record-high bond ratings.

The city will receive $5.5 million from MGM even though the casino won’t be open for another 2 years. Unrestricted local aid from the state is expected to increase.

The city should collect about $7.5 million more in property taxes next year, as the real estate market continues to improve.  Springfield struggled with the highest home mortgage foreclosure rate in the state during the Great Recession, and has not yet fully recovered, accorded to the city’s chief finance officer T.J. Plante.

" We are heading in the right direction. We still have the challenge of growing the ( property) values  so we remain at our ( tax) levy ceiling," said Plante.

Springfield City Council President Mike Fenton said the city’s finances are not as rosy as painted by the mayor. Fenton points out the city ranks last in the state when it comes to un-funded pension and retiree health care liabilities.

" If you look at budgeting on a month-by-month or year-by-year basis this is a fine budget. There are no layoffs, we don't use stabilization reserves and maintain core city services. If, however, you look at budgeting on a five, ten, twenty-year perspective, the type of perspective that will help with long term strategic planning for the city, it is a disaster," Fenton said in an interview.

Fenton said he will schedule four public hearings on the budget. Under the city charter, the council is only permitted to make cuts to the mayor’s recommended budget and cannot add appropriations.

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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