Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Debt of Gratitude?...

Today's Republican reported that City Councilor Tim Rooke suggested that the state forgive the loan that came with the arrival of the Springfield Finance Control Board. However, his suggestion was not one made out of a plea for charity. Rather, Rooke said the forgiveness could be seen as a trade for the millions of dollars the state does owe the city for school-related bussing. Estimates in the article put that figure at around $60-70 million dollars.

The proposal is a novel approach and indeed a great way to help the city by both vindicating the city in this dispute with Beacon Hill and saving the city a few pennies. However, Beacon Hill is unlikely to go for it. For the past thirty some odd years it has been unmoved by arguments that the legislature itself passed the law requiring bussing and promising to pay for it. While it is wrong, the legislature as a whole long ago washed its hands of that issue, especially after cutting all bussing money off amidst the financial crisis four years ago. Secondly, the leaders on Beacon Hill are not receptive to Springfield handouts. While the political climate has changed since the FCB was established and leaders in both Houses and the Corner Office have changed, the statewide mood has not. Gov. Deval Patrick can open all the offices he wants in Springfield and it will not heal the divide between east and west.

That does not mean that everybody is opposed to bridging the gap somewhat. Inevitably, though, while Rooke is right about the money, if taken as a trade like that, Eastern Mass legislators will see it as a handout. The answer to the solution may be able to evolve out of Rooke's suggestion.

The first issue with the loan is the repayment timetable. Current legislation calls for full repayment by 2012. That deadline is thought by both Springfield and Beacon Hill officials as being a bit too soon though not impossibly so. Given that a number of municipal employee contracts will be expiring around then, the run up to paying off the debt may end up being a thorn in everybody's side. Bills calling for an extension of about 20 years are circulating on Beacon Hill, but most movement has been halted since area legislators called into question the FCB decision to move the remaining money into a finance stabilization fund. One way or another some kind of extension will happen. When and how long is anybody's guess.

The money itself should be paid back at least in part. A modest suggestion might call for the state to not expect repayment for any cost directly incurred by the Control Board's presence. Salaries and expenses for staff and the costs of the once controversial, but now accepted, reports at the beginning of the FCB's tenure. That figure is likely only about a million or two. From there, the city and state could haggle over some of the nickel and dime stuff ending up at a reasonable figure that the state would forgive.

While the act paying the debt itself seems like a drag, forcing the city to repay the debt will be an important part of disciplining city government. Once the FCB packs up and leaves, it will be up to the mayor and city council to exercise fiscal discipline and it will up to future councils and mayors to do the same. With this load around the city's neck, one which it cannot shirk (as legally, the city must defer to the state except where the Mass. Constitution says otherwise), wasteful spending, handouts to friends, and unaffordable contracts will become that much harder to happen.

On a separate note, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Edward Flynn is a finalist in the search for that city's police chief. This was confirmed by the Republican. Snooping around the Milwaukee's media, it seems that Flynn has been a shadow candidate for sometime and only today came out from behind the curtain. The details also suggest that Flynn was approached; he did not seek it. Flynn has done a great deal of work in Springfield and it would be a tragedy for him to leave only 19 months into his contract, necessitating another search for Springfield's top cop. He is up against 7 other candidates so his selection is not assured, however, given the secrecy, it seems that somebody over there really wants him to lead the Milwaukee PD.

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