WEST SPRINGFIELD — Businesses will need help bouncing back when the coronavirus pandemic subsides, but the Town Council is split on whether funding a new government office would help.
At their meeting Tuesday, councilors could not reach a consensus on whether to back a proposal by Council President Brian Griffin and Mayor William Reichelt to hire a temporary economic recovery administrator with a $35,000 salary for the five months remaining in the current fiscal year.
“Oftentimes a business just doesn’t know where to turn,” said Griffin. “Having a direct individual for our business community to go to for this technical advisory assistance will go a long way toward us recovering. It’s going to take years for us to recover. This is one of the best hires we could have in this time.”
He said part of the new job would be seeking state and federal grants, and helping businesses apply for grants. He predicted the position would “pay itself 10-fold or 15-fold” by attracting grants.
Councilor Daniel O’Brien said merchants need their government to cut its own red tape, ease COVID-19 restrictions and spend less, not hire more employees at taxpayers’ expense.
“What if we gave the businesses a tax break, wouldn’t that help them?” he asked. “Why don’t we let the businesses open, and stop putting restrictions on them that are killing them.”
He questioned whether the “temporary” hire would turn into a permanent fixture, and why the town’s existing employees are “not capable of doing what this temporary position will do.” Reichelt said town departments are geared to handle business permits and regulations, not to advocate for private businesses or find grants.
Regardless of whether the idea is sound, the proposal needs more specifics, said councilors Anthony DiStefano and Michael Eger. DiStefano said he would need to see a detailed job description before he could support the proposal. Eger said his support would depend on what sort of person the mayor hoped to hire.
“If we vote for the money and we get someone with a government mindset, from a government groupthink, we’re just going to watch that salary go down the tubes,” Eger said. “If we hire somebody with a more out-of-the-box, industry type of thinking, it could be amazing. But I have more questions about who would be amazing (that can be hired) for $35,000, knowing that the job’s going to be temporary. I’ve seen a lot of people come into government as ‘community’ or ‘business development’ people, and I haven’t seen the dividends on their salary.”
In addition to Griffin, councilors Nathan Bech, Brian Clune, George Kelly, Sean Powers and Edward Sullivan said they’d support the hire.
“Businesses are getting killed,” said Clune. “If you have one point person who’s dealing with their concerns every day, it’s a no-brainer.”
The funds would come from the reserve fund, an account set aside every year for emergencies. Sharon Wilcox, the town’s chief financial officer, said the account has not been tapped since the fiscal year began in July, and has $239,000 available.
The proposed position would expire at the end of June. Bech said the council could discuss whether to renew it as part of its review of the mayor’s budget proposal. By then, the economic development director could be judged on his or her performance over several weeks.
Councilors agreed to ask the mayor for more specifics and delay taking a vote until Feb. 1.