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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005 07:24 pm

Taxing matters

Mayor’s budget proposal makes temporary hike permanent; hearings begin tonight

Making a half-percent city sales-tax hike permanent isn’t going to make or break the city of Springfield, but Mayor Tim Davlin says that it’s critical to maintaining the status quo, let alone financing new projects. The council voted in 2003 to increase the sales-tax rate to 1.5 percent, from 1 percent, on the condition that the tax would sunset at the end of this year. Now, Davlin has literally pleaded with the council to keep the increase, worth approximately $8 million a year to the city’s bottom line, in place. Davlin last week presented his fiscal year 2007 budget to the City Council. The budget proposal assumes that the council will vote to keep the tax. At $92.9 million, Davlin’s budget is $2.2 million heavier than last year’s because of “unfunded mandates” in employee benefits. The expected closing of the city health department next year frees up money for about 40 new police cars and two new fire rigs. Budget hearings begin tonight, Dec. 1, after the regular meeting of the city’s public-works committee. On Tuesday, Ward 5 Ald. Joe Bartolomucci said that holding hearings on the basis of Davlin’s assumptions that the increase will be made permanent and the health merger will go through would be “ridiculous and fruitless.”
“It’s like buying a mansion based on buying a lottery ticket next year,” Bartolomucci says, although he won’t comment on exactly where cuts should be made. “He’s the mayor,” Bartolomucci says. “He needs to show some leadership and present a balanced budget to the city of Springfield. He’s not going to throw out a half-baked proposal and throw it in our laps and force us to make the hard choices.”
Ward 3 Ald. Frank Kunz, who is chairman of the council’s public-works committee, says that he plans to vote to make the sales-tax rate permanent. As he sees it, the only other way to balance the budget is to eliminate workers, whose salaries and benefits account for three-fourths of the mayor’s proposed budget. “There is no big-ticket item or program we can cut to come up with the money; you’d have to do away with jobs,” says Kunz, who won’t single out anyone, either. But he believes that doing so would not likely have council support. “There are a lot of people I’d like to get rid of, but it’s a moot point because it’s not going to happen, so there’s no sense dwelling on it,” Kunz says, “but I have no problem with doing away with jobs that don’t add to the quality of life in Springfield, jobs that the people of Springfield would not even notice were gone. “In my experience with living in Springfield all my life, it seems like whenever they do away with jobs, it’s always the low people that get it, never the politically connected people.”
Kunz voted against funding for two mayoral aides: executive assistant and educational liaison. Together those two positions draw $93,512 in salary. “Say what you want, but the people are being served a lot better now than have been over the last year and a half,” Davlin says, referring to the recent appointment of Jim Donelan as his executive assistant. “Right now he’s out at the airport at a meeting while I’m sitting here continuing to have these meetings.”
Without Donelan there to fill in for the mayor, Davlin says, “I would have had to just tell those people, ‘No, I can’t go out to your meeting.’
“You can say the same thing about education liaison, but she’s [Sheila Stocks-Smith] certainly shown strength in what she’s been able to do, just in the last few weeks, with the amount of community support in the programs she’s put on.”
In November, Stocks-Smith organized a forum to explore the so-called educational achievement gap. “It’s all about priorities, and I think it’s important to have those kinds of positions filled,” Davlin says. In addition to this evening’s meeting, hearings will be held Dec. 8 and 13 and Jan. 10. A Dec. 15 meeting is also scheduled, just in case it’s needed. The council must vote on a budget before Feb. 28, the end of the current fiscal year.
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