Sunday, January 14, 2007

Exeunt Control Board?...

At this week's Model Congress, hosted by AIC, Lt. Governor Tim Murphy told reporters that Gov. Deval Patrick has no intention of keeping the Springfield Finance Control Board around past its expiration date this June. Indeed, it appears, as City Council President Kateri Walsh predicted, that the board will "die a natural death."

Is this a good thing?

Strictly from a theoretical point of view, absolutely. Those elected are best equipped and rightfully have the prerogative to exercise the people's will. However, any reader of this blog should know that I feel that previous councils were derelict in duty and brought on this situation. Or, under the best of circumstances, merely compounded the issues behind the "Springfield Paradox" (see entry of same name).

While I have faith in Pres. Walsh and newly sworn in Councilor Jimmy Ferrera, I have not met other sitting members and do not know how up to the job they are now. Given that two elections in a row, after the crisis opened up in 2003, all incumbents running for reelection won, its hard to say whether the people will stand up and police the Council electorally. There are some members, who shall remain nameless for now, who have brought nothing to the table but predictability and do little more for the city but make it $14,500 poorer.

While attention will turn to Mayor Ryan and the City Council July 1, this does not take Beacon Hill off the hook. If Gov. Patrick is prepared to restore full power to local government, he must also pursue legislative action that will benefit Springfield, and other cities approaching instability. That action cannot just be money either. Remember, Springfield's crisis is not unique; far from it. I think people were just surprised to see a city as large as Springfield to fall so quickly. However, if voters, the press, and local and state officials, elected and appointed, had done their job, it may not have happened or at least been seen coming.

Patrick needs to aggressively pursue local aid by any means necessary. That will ultimately mean purging state government of unnecessary agencies and jobs. In addition, he needs to consider legislation that calls for municipalities to adopt residency requirements, within reason of course. Economic development cannot be seen as something solved with pork barrel district spending, a one-size fits all statewide bill, or simply tossing commuter rail in a community's direction. Boston's economic sphere is potent, but too many straws slurping at it will only reduce each one's share. Effective economic development requires a separate bill for separate regions of the state. Like the United States at large, Massachusetts is a very diverse place. Thinking that one bill, which treats most of the state the same, and primarily only helps Greater Boston, is as naive as believing Bush's tax cuts have really helped anybody nationwide below the $200,000 mark.

After the Control Board packs up, the debt the City has accumulated will move center stage. While state forgiveness of the loan would be excellent, it is also an invitation make similar mistakes again. Now disgraced Ex-State House Speaker Tom Finneran nixed a $20 million grant, which although it would have been promptly spent, would have been very helpful. Had it come through, its dispersal would have been on the other side of the Control Board's tenure and likely forgotten. Forgiving the loan now may cost the city more than it saves. We may need to give something up in exchange. Such a trade may be unwise. I would call for the state to forgive any part of the loan related to costs of the Control Board itself: Puccia's pay & expenses, other Control Board staff costs, and the studies the Control Board ordered. I frequent hear residents complain about the costs of these studies (I know I was among them, at first); however, they were necessary to update city agencies woefully behind relative to comparable cities. Eating the costs of the studies may be a sort of "You're Welcome" from the state. Extending the payback schedule would be nice, too.

Perhaps my biggest concern in a Post-FCB era is the 2007 election. Whether the office be city councilor or mayor, especially is Ryan decides not to run, I fear a campaign, which essentially runs against the control board. Both incumbents and challengers may run like that and in doing so, will offer promises to the citizens which either cannot be kept or if kept, will only doom us to repeat the past. I want an honest debate of issues. Given that the Control Board, excluding the trash fee, did little to really uproot citizens' lives, it would be irresponsible of candidates to solely focus on the board in their campaigns.

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