“I am at a level of frustration that I have never experienced before in all the years that I have been allowed to serve on the City Council,” Tim Rooke wrote in a recent email to a group of reporters who cover Springfield.
That’s saying a lot. Rooke was first elected to the City Council in 1995, and has served through three mayoral administrations. Rooke wasn’t much of a water-roiler during the Albano years, and was a strong supporter of the Ryan administration. But when it comes to frustration, he’s made up for lost time since Domenic Sarno was elected mayor in 2007. Rooke has battled with Sarno over a lengthy list of issues, including but not limited to the budget process, the city towing contract and future of the Mason Square library.
So what’s sent Rooke into these heretofore unexplored depths of despair? His campaign to get City Hall to seek bids for a new site for the School Department headquarters. While the City Council and School Committee have both passed several resolutions asking that bid requests be released, the Finance Control Board—in one of its final acts before its dissolution last summer—opted to move the 150 or so School Department employees to the former federal courthouse building at 1550 Main St., which was left largely vacant when the courts and other offices moved to the new federal building on State Street. While Sarno, in his capacity as School Committee chairman, had earlier voted in support of a bidding process, he’s since come to support the move to Main Street, which he says will introduce much-needed foot traffic and activity to the area and will keep a crucial piece of downtown real estate from “going dark.”
Rooke contends the city will be overpaying for that building. The lease with MassDevelopment (which is in the process of buying the old courthouse from the feds) calls for the city to pay $10.86 per square foot in rent, plus another $2.8 million for improvements to the building—costs, Rooke calculates, that will drive the cost to more than $20 per square foot. The lease is a 10-year agreement, with options to renew for another 10 years.
While the city is not legally bound to seek competing bids from other potential landlords (because the agreement is between two government agencies, it’s exempt from public-bidding laws), Rooke and others, including Chris Collins, chairman of the School Committee’s Buildings and Maintenance Subcommittee, insist it’s the right thing to do, to make sure city taxpayers are getting the best deal.
But so far, the Sarno administration has shown no signs of budging—prompting Rooke’s latest move. “My concerns have been ignored and I have no choice but to challenge Mayor Sarno to a public debate on the gross misuse and abuse of taxpayers dollars,” the councilor wrote to local media. “I hope that by educating the general public it may cause the Mayor to reconsider his decision. … No valid reason has been given to me as to why we are grossly overpaying for office space.”
Rooke went on to describe the MassDevelopment lease as “the most irresponsible and wreckless [sic] act of spending of tax dollars that I have ever encountered. …
“[A request for proposals] should be demanded by anyone who has had their property tax bill increased or who has recently been laid off by the City as an employee within the Engineer Department or the Forestry Division,” he added.
Rooke sent Sarno his invitation to debate on Tuesday. “Sorry to see we are on opposite sides of an issue again,” he wrote to the mayor. “I am so outraged with the complete disregard of taxpayers monies on the 20-year lease that has been signed for  Main Street Federal Building with MassDevelopment that I feel the only option I have left is to ask you to please debate the issue in a public forum.”
Rooke went on to accuse Sarno of failing to live up to his campaign promise to run a transparent and fiscally responsible city government. “This is not an economic development project. There is no new job creation or tax base,” Rooke wrote. “It is a government subsidy and like many government subsidies there was no cost benefit analysis done before it was approved.”
The councilor—who’s vice president at a local insurance agency—also denied rumors he said were circulating that he insures Monarch Place or One Financial Plaza (the old Sovereign bank building), both of which have been discussed as possible alternate sites for the School Department office. (Rooke did receive a $100 campaign contribution from Evan Plotkin, one of the Sovereign building’s owners, several months after the councilor began voicing concerns about the move to 1550 Main. He said that contribution has nothing to do with his interest in the matter.)
“I will debate this issue at any agreed location and on any weekday evening of your choice,” Rooke wrote to Sarno. “Or if you would agree we can debate on Rock 102. I await your reply.”
As of Friday morning, Rooke was still waiting. And he might be waiting for a long time. Mike Dobbs reported in yesterday’s Reminder that Sarno, through his spokesman, Tom Walsh, says he sees no need to debate Rooke.
“Walsh said Rooke’s call for a debate is ‘a quintessential example of election year politics,’” Dobbs reported. “”Councilor Rooke has not shown any interest in hearing the actual facts, but continues promoting speculation that is inaccurate,’ Walsh said.”