2017 State of the City Address

2017 State of the City Address

FULL TEXT:

Good evening President Condon, Vice-President Griffin, Members of the Town Council and our West Springfield Residents, thank you for this opportunity to share – what together we have accomplished in the last year along with thoughts on the challenges and opportunities we face in the future.

It was just over a year ago that I was given the privilege to serve as West Springfield’s Mayor by the voters of this great City. As I stand here tonight, I am as appreciative and proud of this privilege as I was when I first took the oath of office.

One of my goals has been continuous improvement of communication and public accessibility. I know you all have busy lives; so over the last year I have made it my mission to attend as many community events as possible, expand community hours and restart the Tour of West Side.

I have seen so many examples of community involvement; they are too many to list here. However, some events stand out in my mind as examples of the caring community we are all a part of. They include:

  • the hundreds of residents that turned out to pay their respects to Prince William County Police Officer Ashley Guindon, who was killed in the line of duty and laid to rest in St. Thomas Cemetery;
  • the support and welcoming to those visiting ‘The Wall that Heals,’ a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.  that drew thousands to the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition
  • the dozens of events including the Taste of the Valley, Earth Day Cleanup, Winter Carnival and the Arts Festival.

It’s no wonder I’m proud to say that I’m the Mayor of West Springfield.  

Our government is not derived from the actions of a single individual. We are fortunate, in that we have  teams of talented people working with one goal in mind – the betterment of our City. These teams include the Town Council, the School Committee, our department heads and employees, and of course, the many citizens who serve on our volunteer boards and committees.  Without all of you our achievements in 2016 would have been difficult, if not impossible. I thank all of you for your cooperation and support in achieving these great outcomes.

When I came into Office I had a five point plan.

  1. The three “A”s –  they include being; Accessible, Approachable and Accountable
  2. To create a safe community
  3. Provide quality education;
  4. Business development;
  5. Fight blight.

 

Underscoring these five points is fiscal responsibility.

Our current budget, for Fiscal Year 2017, had no increase in taxes; a sound fiscal plan we can all be proud of because we worked together. Debt service payments for the new High School and library are being kept low by avoiding additional debt. Instead current capital projects are being paid for with cash on hand, a practice I anticipate will continue into Fiscal Year 2018, as we plan for the reconstruction of Coburn School.

Working with our departments we have looked for ways to stretch local dollars by applying for grants, receiving over $1.8 million dollars since the beginning of my term. These funds will be used to improve our parks, streetscape, older neighborhoods, improve energy efficiency, safety of our streets, historic preservation, and equipment for training in emergency preparedness and public safety.

The full costs of newly created Central Maintenance Department were reflected in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget. I am pleased to report that we have benefited from improved efficiency in management, eliminated duplicate services, improved energy efficiency, and increased maintenance on items often deferred in the past for parks, schools and municipal buildings. I want to take this opportunity to publicly recognize Scott Moore, Director of Central Maintenance and his staff for their good work.

Through our Green Community designation we have worked hard at improving energy efficiency. We have saved over $140,000 this fiscal year alone.  We have updated inefficient energy appliances; and  invested in solar projects in Southwick and Montague, which provide us net metering credits that the City uses to substantially reduce our electric bills.

Not only was this good for the City’s bottom line, it was good for the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to a power plant having to burn approximately 152,000 pounds of coal. These investments will generate a projected $4 Million savings over the next 20 years.

In our search for additional energy savings we have learned about an energy aggregation program that will further reduce the energy costs for the City.  This program has the added benefit of passing savings directly to our residents and businesses.

As I stated in the beginning of this speech, accessibility is important to me.  We have made every effort to give the public full access to information on what is happening both in City government, and in the community at large. In addition to the Town Council meetings that have been televised since 2000, we have begun televising the meetings of our land use boards which include: the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Conservation Commission.  The meetings are streamed live on our community cable access – Channel 15; the City’s Facebook page; and Livestream. Past meetings are archived and available on the these platforms and the City website, which will be updated soon to provide a more user friendly experience.

We have worked to create a safer community by performing traffic signal improvements around the community, including the Common as well as at pedestrian crossing and built better sidewalk ramps that bring them into ADA compliance.  Access to-and-from the Town Common has long been a priority of the Town Council; I am pleased to say this has provided a safer pedestrian access to our town center. These improvements in part grew out of the Complete Streets Ordinance passed by the Council in March of 2016. The Complete Streets program also received grant funding from MassDOT in the amount of $50,000 to study areas that could be improved for motor-vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

We have given our police new tools to assist them in performing their duties including:

  • providing officers with narcan so that tragic deaths from an overdose of narcotics can be avoided in individuals suffering from this insidious addiction
  • obtained new traffic safety equipment through the use grant funds including a new traffic safety vehicle and speed monitoring equipment

I am pleased to report that our efforts to improve the state level rating of our Schools has received a boost, by the movement of Memorial School from a level 3 school to a level 1, joining our other level 1 schools: Coburn, Fausey and Tatham. Mittineague and the Middle School remain designated level two schools. The High School, though making great strides to improve, including an 85.2% graduation rate and 78 students receiving the highly competitive Abigail and John Adams scholarship, is rated a level 3. The state rating system is not always based solely upon student achievement. Nor does the system adequately portray the dramatic improvement our schools have made over the fast few years. I want to take this opportunity to recognize the Superintendent and his team for their efforts to improve the our systems standing in the state’s rating system.

Academic achievement alone does not provide a full view of the West Springfield High School experience, our students also had a good deal of team achievements to be proud of:

  • Boys High School Baseball team who won the Division 1 State Championship
  • Girls Soccer, Boys Cross Country & Cheerleading all won Western Massachusetts Division 1 Championships
  • Wrestling, Swimming & Indoor Track all sent athletes to States

These achievements, as well as countless trophies from our storied past, have led us to create the West Springfield Hall of Fame Committee. I am pleased to announce that they have already begun meeting and we hope to provide a detailed update at this summer’s Champions Parade.

I want to congratulate students receiving scholarships, achieving perfect scores on advanced placement tests, and the teams capturing these coveted titles. All of our students should be proud of their individual and team efforts in attaining these milestones…!

The Library had its grand reopening in April 2016; a resource this community should be proud of. The Library is… as Andrew Carnegie once said: “a never failing spring in the desert.” I want to acknowledge and thank Library Director Toni Golinski-Foisy and her staff for working out the hiccups of a new building and its systems, making the transition appear seamless and easy.  The library is a very important community focal point and I encourage you to utilize all the fine features and modern technology, including several community rooms available for use and rental.

West Springfield has been known as the ‘Crossroads of New England’ – we are the intersection of many transportation routes. In the past, this fact largely helped the community become what it is today: a convenient place to have a business, and a great place to live. However, today West Springfield is at an altogether different crossroad; where past and future are intersecting in ways our ordinances and regulations have not been able to adequately address. This intersection, if not properly managed has the potential to inhibit business growth in unintended ways.

It is important for us to hold onto the things that have shaped our community into the place to raise a family with its good schools and healthy economic sector, but also look to the future by giving the residents and businesses the best chance to succeed in a continuing changing and complex economic environment. The 2008 economic downturn has taught us that our local government can no longer sit passively by on the sidelines hoping that geography alone will attract business to our community. That is why we have been been taking a fresh look at how the city government can help businesses thrive.  We do not want to inadvertently hinder growth and ingenuity by the application of outdated standards serving ethereal goals that are not grounded in community priorities.

My office, in cooperation with the Council, has been taking a fresh look at our ordinances, regulations, and policies; many of these regulations were adopted decades ago. Together, we are working to ensure these rules are consistent with the City’s values, the regional economy, and the opportunities that technology and new ideas have brought to the marketplace of the 21st century. To that end, we have begun a process of revaluation and change where necessary.

In March of 2016, I submitted a draft Zoning Ordinance Reform Package. Since that time, I have been working with the community to put together a ‘blue ribbon committee’ of Councilors, planning staff, planning board members, business representatives, and members of the general public to review these ordinances which have not seen a comprehensive update since 1996.  The review committee has begun meeting and reviewing these changes and I look forward to working with the committee on recommendations for an up-to-date fully re-codified Zoning Ordinance in the near future.

On the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month I, along with department heads hold bi-monthly pre-permitting meetings. The purpose is to help both new and existing businesses navigate our permitting process, or to give an eager entrepreneur feedback on things to consider prior to taking a risk on their business concept.

Our efforts to assist in the permitting process has already paid dividends:

  • the redevelopment of 380 Union Street which has renovated the former Gilbarco property into a regional U-Haul service center creating over 100 new jobs. The property which was previously becoming a blighted hulk has added over $1.5 Million in assessment to the tax roles.
  • Father’s and Son’s Volkswagen and Audi – a Memorial Avenue business since 1974, has reaffirmed its commitment to West Springfield with the recent opening of its newly constructed $6 million showroom and service center.
  • On the small business side, an entrepreneur has recently been approved for an innovative reuse to a property damaged by the 2011 tornado; a 10,000 square foot West Springfield Sportsmen’s Center, which will combine an outdoor sportsmen’s retail store, and a 17 lane firing range for recreational shooting and archery practice.

The Memorial Avenue Corridor is experiencing a rebirth as these and additional businesses including Chipotle, Florence Bank and many others invests in the area ahead of the eventual reconstruction of the entire stretch of Memorial following the completion of the Morgan Sullivan Bridge.

Fighting blight is not just about removing decrepit old buildings or unsightly lots. I believe it’s the introduction of uses that better utilize properties in ways that create a community of users that brings life, activity, and safety to both the property and its neighbors. We have been successful in both the traditional sense of fighting blight, and the active creation process. I’m pleased to say, The Blight Task Force has returned 17 derelict properties to viability and removed four unsalvageable structures.

We’ll be creating a universal access trail on city owned property at 429 Morgan Road, which is the site of the former Agawam-West Springfield Elks and current home of the newly renovated Irish Cultural Center. This is an exciting project that protects from blight and neglect by introducing a positive and active use to the property.

Finally West Springfield’s recent commitment to partner with AARP and become an Age Friendly Community highlights our desire to build a city welcoming to every generation. Strong communities are truly the best defense against blight. I want to thank our Council on Aging Director, Laurie Cassidy, for making this partnership possible.

Looking back on these accomplishments, we must remember that this past year has only been the starting point. Our continued success is going to require a commitment from all of us to do the hard work that lies ahead of us… and I know I can count on you.

As I Look forward, I shall continue to enjoy attending as many events as possible and to stay connected and available to all of you.  As the Federal government changes over the next four years, one thing is clear to me… that is more decisions will need to be made at the state and local level. We all know that local decisions have a more tangible and immediate affect on our daily lives and the lives of our citizens. In considering citizens’ input, I  have developed a program that lays out some goals over the next five years. I call this plan simply T.O.G.E.T.H.E.R. because working together is the only way we can improve our community life.

Our five year “together” plan which you will be hearing more about over the next year, is in summary, one where we will be looking at ways to improve our operations through the use of new technology, organizing and reorganizing local government services in the most flexible fashion that will effectively meet city demands, while continuing to seek grant funding that helps us innovate and improve. Education, will continue to be one of our highest priorities, working to upgrade the rating level of our schools, making our school district one of the best in the Commonwealth.

Planning for our annual spending into fiscal year 2023, we will keep taxes in the forefront of our minds at all times in order to deliver our taxpayers the best value for every dollar that they contribute.  We shall make every effort to avoid raising taxes by being mindful of our spending.

We will continue to create a healthy, and safe environment that respects and protects the quality of life in our community. In 2017, and well into the future, we will work toward creating a culture that reflects community values and allows for innovation and change.

It has been my honor and pleasure to have been your Mayor this past year. I look forward to the future with an eager and open mind; as together we can meet the challenges ahead and seize the many opportunities available to West Springfield.

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