|By G. Michael Dobbs|
CHICOPEE – One might think that deciding what to do with his dozen or so ceremonial shovels hanging in his office, that have broken ground on developments, would be among his biggest decisions during his waning days as mayor.
Although that is a concern – most are being given to the Department of Public Works to be used – Mayor Michael Bissonnette is still addressing issues facing the city.
Bissonnette told Reminder Publications he has agreed with a neighboring community agreement with MGM Resorts International that will give the city $150,000 annually once the casino in Springfield is open for the following 15 years. There will be reviews of the impacts made by the gaming center at the one year and five year anniversaries.
The mayor believed the contract with the annual reviews would prevent the city from having “to pick figures out of the thin air” about the traffic issues caused by the casino.
How the city will use the money will be up to the mayor and City Council at the time. Bissonnette said the soonest he has been told a casino in Springfield may open is the summer of 2016.
The city will also be eligible for funds that will come to the state from the casino for additional mitigation projects. He said a new downtown fire station is at the top of his list. The current Cabot Street station has outlived its usefulness and a new station has an estimated $6 million price tag.
He sees the connection to the casino in terms of the downtown Chicopee station being the closest to the MGM location on Springfield South End for mutual aid calls.
These issues, though, are for a different person and Bissonnette reflected on his eight years as mayor.
He said he knows of one mayor who does his grocery shopping in another community just so he can avoid seeing his constituents, but that wasn’t his view. He said he “drew energy” from talking to city residents,
“Some of the best ideas come from ordinary citizens,” Bissonnette noted.
He said he learned that part of his job was ceremonial and part of managerial, with the managerial side being dominant.
He had thought that he would only serve two terms as he realized that any longer would make the reactivation of his law practice more difficult. The magnitude of several projects – dealing with the brownfield at the Uniroyal/Facemate locations and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) consent degree on combined sewer overflows – required him to stay in office longer as he wanted to see them through.
How Bissonnette was able to reach an accord with the EPA and to find funding for the Uniroyal project came in part from his building relationships with state and federal officials.
“I carved out a role to raise Chicopee’s profile,” he explained.
The work is continuing on brownfield issues with two applications for assistance going into the EPA for the Uniroyal site and one for a brownfield in the West End neighborhood.
Uniroyal has been “a cancer on the city and I hope [the work] continues,” he said.
Bissonnette is also proud of the growth of retail and service businesses along Memorial Drive during his administration – growth that has resulted in “hundreds of jobs.” He said the city’s revised permitting process has helped attract businesses. What makes it unique is how problems are identified and resolved early in permitting.
He noted how the city worked with commercial developers and the state to make Chicopee crossing a reality that faced issues from sewer and storm water problems, electrical lines, the lack of an intersection to wetlands concerns.
“It was an incredibly complex and we worked with the developers every step along the way,” he said.
The fortunes of Memorial Avenue businesses have been tied in his viewpoint to the success of Westover Air Reserve Base and Bissonnette is hopeful the base will endure, although its mission might change.
He is also proud of the city’s the financial stability and is leaving office with about $25 million in reserves in several different accounts and has never had to lay off essential service personnel during his administration.
Bissonnette noted that one of his challenges in the past eight years has been the nature of the city’s government.
“Every mayor who has sat in this office complains about the structure of city government,” he said. He described it as “archaic” and that there is it should be modernized.”
Some positions shouldn’t be elected, but rather hired by the mayor, Bissonnette said. He also expressed his continual support for a four-year term for mayor.
“The mayor shouldn’t have to look at political implications of decisions. There should be room to do planning without feeling hot breath of an election creeping down their necks,” he said.
Much has been made of Bissonnette’s relationship with the City Council and he said, “My relationship with the City Council has been no better or no worse than any other previous mayor.”
The difference ne noted is that some councilors personally attacked him, he added. He chalked up the criticism as “coming with the territory.”
There have been various media reports about what Bissonnette will do next and he said that he would spend January “thinking about the future.” A political set of dominos has been arranged in Hampden County with an open race for district attorney, registrar of probate, several state representative seats and one state senator position.
Bissonnette believes that his experience as a lawyer for 20 years and his eight years as mayor would give him the qualifications to run for district attorney, however he is also considering practicing law again and looking at town manager jobs throughout the state.
“I still feel I have a lot to offer in public service. I’m going to weigh that in the next few weeks,” he said. Bissonnette may have announcement about his future plans on Feb. 1, 2014.
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