By G. Michael Dobbs
HOLYOKE – Mayor Alex Morse may have received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his first “State of the City” address on April 1, but not all of his remarks were met with agreement.
Speaking before the City Council, Morse called on their assistance in working on several key issues, including the passing of a local meals tax that could add $500,000 annually to the city; the beginning of a program of universal pre-kindergarten in the city; an examination of sewer and water rates and whether there should be a sewer and water commission; the writing of a “real” city budget that wouldn’t require transfers of cash to departments through the year; the purchase of a new communications system for first responders in the city; and a re-organization of City Hall offices, among other initiatives.
It was the first such address in five years, Morse noted.
Morse cited up-coming economic developments in the city and said, “And speaking of building, we’ll be doing a lot of that this year. From the completion of 250 new parking spaces in downtown, to major intersection improvements at Lower Westfield and Homestead Avenues and a major connector road towards HCC, we’re making the city more accessible to incoming and resident traffic."
He continued, “This spring we will also break ground on the second phase of the CanalWalk, an more than $4 million investment, along with additional improvements along Dwight and Appleton streets. These improvements will also connect to our city’s new passenger rail platform, a $2.5 million investment, to begin construction also later this year. And thanks to the leadership and advocacy of our state delegation, we expect inter-city service to increase in the years ahead, allowing hundreds of travelers to connect with Holyoke every day. In the coming weeks we will need City Council action for the purchase of some land needed to make the project happen for which we have already identified funds.”
He noted another economic development project would be the conversion of the former Holyoke Catholic school site into 55 housing units.
Morse also called for greater cooperation between the council and his office. “We should let Holyoke make Holyoke again. That is what we are called to do. That is what we have been sent here to do. People all across our city are prepared to shape Holyoke’s future. And they are counting on us to do our jobs – to put aside the pettiness that too often afflicts our politics, and to embrace the tasks to which we’ve been charged.”
Listening closely to what the mayor said was City Council President Kevin Jourdain who had areas of both agreement and disagreement with the mayor.
He told Reminder Publications that he is concerned about the cost of a new communications system and is “skeptical” about a city meal tax. Although Morse said the proposed tax would only add about four cents to a $5 purchase, Jourdain is concerned “about another tax on the people of Holyoke.”
He would consider the new tax if there were spending cuts that went with it.
Jourdain expressed concern about how the city was going to accomplish Morse’s agenda.
“Raise the sewer fee. Raise the meal taxes. Increase spending. So how does a community at the levy ceiling [for property taxes] to all that?’ he asked.
He also wondered how the universal pre-kindergarten classes would be funded.
Jourdain said he likes the idea of “real” budgeting” and “strongly supports” the merging of the water and sewer departments. He also approves of Morse’s plan to institute an ordinance enforcement task force to improve the quality of life in Holyoke.
Expressing concern about the future impact of the city’s retirement commitment, the cost of health insurance and the demands of the school district as well as the police and fire departments, Jourdain believes, “Structurally we have to make some real tough choices,” which would involve some major budget cuts.
“We can’t trim around the edges,” he added.