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Springfield's budget grows with inflation and pay raises for municipal employees including cops, firefighters

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno holds a copy of his budget recommendation at a news conference in City Hall on May 18th, 2023.
Paul Tuthill
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno holds a copy of his budget recommendation at a news conference in City Hall on May 18th, 2023.

Mayor Domenic Sarno recommends a $878 million budget for FY2024

It is budget season in Springfield, Massachusetts where the mayor has made his budget recommendation and the City Council has announced a schedule of hearings on the spending plans.

Mayor Domenic Sarno’s recommended budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1st totals almost $878 million – a 7 percent increase from this year due largely to price inflation and new union contracts that will give pay raises to hundreds of municipal employees including cops and firefighters.

In unveiling the budget at a City Hall news conference, Sarno described the spending plan as sound and sustainable.

“We’re going to continue to invest in neighborhoods and maintain key city services,” he said.

The budget funds new positions at the city’s health department to address needs identified during the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis. It also adds staff at the city’s emergency services dispatch center and the animal control shelter. There is additional money to increase hours of operation at two busy public library branches – East Forest Park and Mason Square.

An anti-litter program called the “Clean Sweep Initiative” that began last year is funded in the recommended budget.

Sarno said he is also including money in the budget for a police academy for 50 cadets in an effort to sustain a police department of 500 officers and supervisors.

“At one time we were ahead of attrition, now we’re not,” Sarno said. An academy class that is graduating next week is half the number that began the six-month training, he said.

On the revenue side, Sarno said the budget reflects efforts to provide some property tax relief by using $2 million from interest earned by investing a substantial part of the city’s cash reserves in U.S. Treasury Bills.

“Due to the impact of the booming housing market, I am committed to continue providing much-needed tax relief as part of a comprehensive strategic plan that is financially responsible and sustainable,” Sarno said.

This is the ninth consecutive budget Sarno has recommended that does not rely on dipping into the city’s rainy day fund in order to balance spending with revenues.

“We’ve come a long way from being at junk bond status 15 -16 years ago,” Sarno said.

Although the city’s bond rating is now the highest in its history and the cash reserves total about $50 million, Springfield still has the largest unfunded pension liability of any city in the state.

The budget recommends putting $62 million into the pension system – a 9 percent increase.

City Councilor Tim Allen, who chairs the Finance Committee, has been a hawk when it comes to attacking the unfunded pension liability. He praised the mayor and the city’s finance team.

“There’s always challenges in a city. There’s always more things that you’d like to spend money on. We’ve tried to show openness to new ideas but also restraint on holding back when we have to,” Allen said.

City Councilors will begin their budget review at a special meeting on Tuesday, May 23th. That will be followed by a series of public hearings including three that will take place outside of City Hall in June.

Under the city charter, the Council can only cut the spending recommended by the mayor.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.