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Springfield mayoral forum touches on public safety, trash fee

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Five Springfield mayoral candidates met for an hour-long forum Thursday held at Western New England University and run by Focus Springfield.

Incumbent Mayor Domenic J. Sarno faced off against city councilors Justin Hurst and Jesse Lederman, state Rep. Orlando Ramos, D-Springfield, and newcomer David Ciampi.

With a recent spate of homicides in the city, public safety was a major talking point for all the candidates. The city has had 24 homicides so far this year, according to MassLive — 10 more than in all of last year.

Ramos questioned the current administration's ability to curb violence in the city.

"If you look at the statistics, the city of Springfield was actually safer prior to Domenic Sarno taking office. And we just we just hit a record high for homicides in our city," Ramos said. "We want to be No. 1 in a lot of things. We don't want to be No. 1 in crime."

Sarno countered, saying the problem is a small group of offenders being let back out on the street.

"The issue here is — besides the millions ... of dollars that we invest for youth development in our schools, reentry programs — it's that 2%, the repeat violent criminal offenders. Under my tenure, violent crime has been down. Urban mayors are pulling their hair out right now," he said.

Hurst said barriers in education are a root cause of young people turning to drugs and gang activity while Lederman said he wants to identify people at risk of becoming victims or offenders before crimes are committed. Ciampi, a psychotherapist, cited a need for proper mental health services.

"Policing is certainly a very important element of public safety. But what we also have to deal with is the root causes of what's causing people to hurt other people. And there are a couple of factors here. One is drug use ... and mental illness and poverty," Ciampi said.

The forum was moderated by Michael Dobbs, former executive editor of The Reminder Publications. Questions were asked by a panel of area journalists including Paul Tuthill from WAMC, Chris Pisano of Western Mass News, and Lauren LeBel from The Reminder Publications.

The president of Western New England University's Student Senate, Sean Alvord, also asked questions focused on student life.

Fees and "false promises"

All of the candidates were questioned about the city's trash fee, a point of contention between Sarno and several of the candidates.

Sarno ran his first campaign in 2007 promising to eliminate the trash fee, which is currently $90 for trash and recycling pickup. Seniors pay a reduced fee of $50.

Hurst and Ramos accused Sarno of making false promises regarding the fee. Hurst said, if elected, he would eliminate the trash fee, listing various revenue streams that could pay for the service.

"Right now we have $68 million in surplus funding as of the end of fiscal year 2022. We also have $50.2 million in reserves and we have $41 million from Eversource settlement money. We also have $15 million in MGM funds that we have not touched. And when you couple that with the marijuana money that has yet to be allocated, we have enough revenue coming in to eliminate the trash fee," he said.

Lederman and Ciampi did not commit to eliminating the fee, saying instead they would have to look at the fiscal situation.

"We need to address affordability across the board in the city of Springfield, whether it's property taxes, water rates, rent, every single piece of our budget that impacts working families," Lederman said. "When it comes to assessing whether we need to levy a trash fee or not, I think that we have to look directly at our fiscal condition as a city."

Sarno said the financial control board at the time of his election gave him an option — keep the trash fee or lay off city employees.

"When I took over the city, we were on the brink of bankruptcy and you had to make decisions. The control board at the time, they said, 'Tell me how many cops, firefighters, how many libraries you're going to close.' I wouldn't do that," he said, choosing instead to reduce rather than eliminate the trash fee.

Candidates were also asked where they would like to see the new courthouse built, what they would do to provide more affordable housing and their thoughts on increasing campus safety for students in the city's colleges and universities.

The top two vote getters in the Sept. 12 preliminary will move on to the general election Nov. 7.

Elizabeth Román edits daily news stories at NEPM as managing editor. She is working to expand the diversity of sources in our news coverage and is also exploring ways to create more Spanish-language news content.
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