Mayor's Budget Gambles on Casino Approval

Mayor Domenic Sarno released his proposed fiscal ’14 budget yesterday and—by recent standards, at least—it’s a fairly rosy document.

The $571.8 million spending plan is slightly higher than last year’s budget, with the bulk of the new spending in the School Department. While it calls for the elimination of vacant positions in several departments, including police and parks, plus more savings in the Fire Department through retirements, there is, significantly, no threat of layoffs. Other high notes pointed out in a press release from the mayor’s office: the budget includes a new Police Academy class of 22 recruits and a Fire Academy class of eight and funds existing public safety programs; keeps city pools open next summer; funds 10 new snowplow drivers; and keeps in place curbside trash and recycling collection. Even the news that I find especially sad—the budget calls for the closing of the Pine Point and Liberty Street branch libraries—is at least softened by the increase in hours at the remaining branches.

How did the mayor’s financial team pull off what Sarno called a “hold-the-line” budget? In part on the expectation of a $5 million payment promised the city by MGM, the company vying to build a casino in the South End—something Sarno took pains to point out in his press release.

“Without the strongly negotiated MGM Host Community Agreement which includes a $1 million ‘signing bonus’ and upfront payments of $4 million, over 100 layoffs and service reductions would have occurred,” Sarno said.

That’s a pretty pointed message for the mayor to be sending city residents just about six weeks before they’ll go to the polls to vote on whether to approve the MGM plan. Sarno has promoted aggressively the idea of bringing a casino to Springfield, which he touts as the city’s financial savior. Now, in his budget plan, he seems to be warning voters—the cynical among us might even say “threatening”—that if they don’t approve the plan, they’ll see key city services disappear, along with city jobs that perhaps they or their family depend on.

Of course, even if city voters fall in line, a Springfield casino is not guaranteed. Two other proposals are competing for the sole casino license to be awarded in Western Mass., and the state Gaming Commission will select the ultimate winner. So what happens if the MGM money doesn’t appear? As the Republican’s Pete Goonan reports, Sarno says as-yet unspecified “alternate strategies” will be used to make up the difference.

Author: On Springfield

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