Wednesday, October 25, 2006

City's Same Sunset or New Dawn? A Control Board Reflection...

I apologize for being AWOL. I hope nobody deserted me in the process.

Little more than eight months from now, the Springfield Finance Control board (FCB) is destined to die. It is important to reflect on this now, as when July 1, 2007 comes along, we would be in the throes of the first municipal Election since the FCB. I guarantee the loudest battle cries of candidates, both incumbent and challenger, will be against the board.

As a citizen of Springfield, who has found some actions dubious, I think we need to look carefully at their work. First the good news. They have given us a balanced, albeit painful, municipal budget. Police and firefighters have received long-deserved, if modest, raises. Street paving is common and features no “crowning” a menace to many of mufflers. A capital maintenance plan is in the works to rehabilitate many of the city’s most troubled structures including the iconic Campanile.

However, to make that little budget sing, citizens must pay that trash fee thing. A feature of living in Springfield, otherwise accursed with high auto insurance rates and (for the middle class, anyway) property taxes on par with wealthier communities, was its free trash pickup. But no more.

Lest we forget, however, that the board, has its strings pulled by out-a-town Romney. Surely this presidential contender will feature his strong-arm tactics against the city’s unions in New Hampshire about a year from now. I would be shocked if he does not take credit for the balanced budget. Perhaps Phil Puccia, the FCB Executive Director, in line to receive a bonus for that work, will split his reward with Romney as proof?

For its work, I give the FCB a “C.”

Candaras D-Wilbraham, currently running for State Senate, once told me that control boards are often only focused on the short-term. In my view, the trash fee is good example. In 2004, the only alternative was receivership, which would have made the FCB look like the Second Coming.

The consensus is that its term should be extended. I don’t disagree, but the time frame for the loan repayment should be extended equally. Any such extension should be incremental and never end on a municipal election year.

City politics are dirty enough, and mudslinging at a defunct agency which did what the city government could not is a waste of voters’ time. Other than the trash fee, it is unlikely that much of the FCB’s work will be undone. Odds are most of the current council will be running again in 2007, including the ones who watched idly as the city’s expenses slowly exceeded its income. Now, in fairness, the entire council did not go along; some current members were not even there through most of it. My concern is that the same councilors who did nothing will win again using popular contempt for the board.

In addition, the Massachusetts legislature should step up…more. It must agree to subtract from the balance of the loan Puccia and his staff’s salary, the cost of the reports, and any other miscellaneous FCB costs. It probably would not add up to much, but it would be a good gesture.

Ultimately, this year’s gubernatorial election will shape the future course of the board. However, only effective leadership on both a state and municipal level, that brings economic development and healthy neighborhoods will assure the future of the City of Springfield, MA.

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