Springfield leaders still divided on $1.4M budget shortfall

10:28 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 Politics

Springfield leaders remain divided on how the city should balance its budget to deal with a $1.4 million shortfall next year.

Union leaders, supporters of a local tourism agency and other residents spoke against possible budget cuts that could mean less services for Springfield residents.

>>RELATED: Springfield leaders want to cut $451K from municipal court, clerk

The Springfield City Commission heard a first reading of its proposed budget on Tuesday evening. A special meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the city hall forum to discuss and approve the 2017 budget.

City staffers have recommended about $1.5 million in cuts next year including to parks, municipal court, safety services and a local tourism agency. The proposed cuts come after a request to raise the city’s income tax rate from 2 percent to 2.4 percent fell short by 227 votes.

The proposed budget shows the city is projected to generate $38.4 million in general fund revenues next year. However, the city is estimating $39.8 million in spending — leaving a $1.4 million deficit.

If left unresolved, the city will be left with about $470,000 in reserves — or 1.2 percent of its overall budget. Commissioners may approve a temporary budget this month to buy time to discuss possible cuts.

Other cuts have been discussed beyond what was presented during the levy process, City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill said. In previous meetings, he has proposed eliminating $750,000 in longevity pay for employees and reducing the city’s insurance costs.

>>READ MORE: $100K cut to Springfield police, fire OT may mean slower responses

“I think we need to really look at those before the [December] 13th,” O’Neill said. “We’re talking people’s lives here. We’re talking jobs. We’re talking public service people, public safety people at the quality of life in Springfield.”

He’s had a lot of sleepless night the last few weeks, he said.

“There are some things here that this commission is not in agreement on and hopefully by next week we can get in agreement,” O’Neill said.

Longevity pay is designed to retain experience employees and is not a Christmas bonus, Springfield Professional Firefighters Local 333 President Andy Rigsbee said. When experienced workers leave, it takes time to train new employees, he said.

“The way we’re paying now, we’re turning them over as soon as we get them where we need them to be and someone else benefits,” Rigsbee said. “We don’t pay top dollar and we haven’t paid top dollar for years. To say that well we’re not one of the Fortune 500 companies, so we can’t pay like a Fortune 500 company — we’re not paid like a Fortune 500 company and we haven’t (been paid that way).”

Many benefits union employees receive are negotiated through collective bargaining, AFSCME Council 8 regional director Marcia Knox said. She was representing AFSCME Local 1608, which includes Springfield Service Department employees.

The employees have stepped up, agreeing to pay freezes and increases to health insurance, Knox said. They’ve also worked with reduced staffing levels and not missed a beat, the regional director said.

“Some people seem to think public employees have a gold mine, that they make so much money that they don’t need anything else,” the director said. “They have earned benefits.”

The AFSCME official also encouraged commissioners to go back on the ballot in May.

The Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau took to social media last month to ask residents to contact city commissioners about keeping its $417,000 funding in next year’s budget. More residents and state tourism officials came out to support the CVB’s efforts.

This year, the CVB also began operating the Springfield Farmers Market and the Holiday in the City event.

Melissa Clancy said the farmers market helped her get her start in business. She began selling items from her farmers market booth, which led to the opening of her store, Raven Books, at the Upper Valley Mall.

“My bookstore has been open for two years now,” Clancy said, “and it was because of the people at the Springfield Farmers Market that encouraged me to go out and to start something new. It was the dedication of the people who worked there. What a shame it is that government wants to cuts it nose to spite its face. What a shame it is for citizens to look for opportunity and not be able to take a risk like I did.”