Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Break the Cycle...

In any number of ways, it seems fitting that the saga over Winn Development's Longhill Gardens should coincide with the State Budget battle and tax hikes. The Compromise Budget put forth by the House and Senate includes the allegedly $1 billion sale tax hike while axing some $2 billion from services.

While some of the money will undoubtedly fall hard on the most vulnerable, there is a sense that part of the problem is a tendency for governments to overspend in their budgets, particularly on the state, but certainly the local and federal levels. Spending is not inherently bad. However, unlike the Feds the State budget must be balanced. As for municipalities, although such moves are devastating, they can fall back to the state and demand help, as Springfield did or more dangerously declare bankruptcy. Still, these are options that the states lack entirely. Just look at California, which some have suggested could walk away from its debts to weather its crisis and some $40 billion deficit.

Massachusetts' spending, however, has increasingly come under close scrutiny. Having already lost billions in sinking capital gains, income, and yes, sales tax revenue, Beacon Hill went into a scramble warning of layoffs, cut programs, and backpedaling on the state's health care reform. Legislators, in a vain attempt--note the double meaning--to gain sympathy said that they would not wish this budget axing job on anyone.

Let's face it. Over $2 billion in cuts is not chump change. However, questions remain over whether enough was cut. Massachusetts Treasurer and potential gubernatorial challenger Tim Cahill suggested today that the legislature DID NOT try hard enough to cut and should have looked to weaken or pull back on the commonwealth's landmark health care reform. Some cuts were made to the program, but not many considering that still a third of the state's budget goes to health care. As the Globe notes in that assessment, it is impossible to discern how much of those costs are because of the 2006 reform.

Part of the reason the legislature may not have tried all that hard may go back to lobbying. Is has been said that the Massachusetts legislature is the most lobbied body in the country, save for the US Congress. Perhaps some of those most frequently lobbying Beacon Hill represent non-profits. True non-profits do include some massive industries like health care, but many also stand in for smaller social services groups and activists.

Here is where the Springfield debacle comes in. As argued to some extent in Bill Dusty's
Springfield Intruder and by Robert Forrant, a former employee at American Bosch who wrote a book about Springfield's industrial decline reviewed by Maureen Turner in the Advocate, Springfield and other places, have become bereft any real industry or commerce. Much, though not all, of the money circulating is either government or otherwise non-profit generated. Again hospitals fall into this group, but they receive a great deal of their revenue from other entities like insurance companies. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these government/non profit moneys, but when they stand on their own, they are a recipe for disaster. It creates an endless cycle of poverty and economic malaise, further complicated by the need to retain high taxes to support the status quo. Equally frustrating, and somewhat anachronistic in this post-Great Society, post-Urban Renewal time is the attempt to race-bait, class-bait, or use whatever other charged accusation to force such projects past the "Hey, wait a sec" stage. Thus Longhill Gardens.

It creates a mindset in politicians and officials, even the best of them, to do whatever is necessary to get money being offered. Ostensibly, part of Mayor Sarno's decision to abandon the Longhill site as a location for a new Forest Park Middle School, came from an impending deadline for education building funds. Moving forward with a Longhill Middle School would take time and cost the city a potential grant. Not wanting to risk money, least of all education money, the city pounced, knocking out the only viable impediment to the Winn Redevelopment.

This same mindset consumes the organization lobbying the legislature for money, perhaps with not the best of intentions and/or results. One legislator described a situation where a group will write a grant proposal for a program that does not even concern them just to get the money. The end results are programs or budget line items being duplicated or inefficiently assigned costing countless dollars across the board. It is probable that the legislature, knowing this and hopefully doing more than just paying lip service to it, did what it could to curb that practice in FY2010.

There are other examples, namely of programs established quickly to address an immediate need, but end up wasting money.
As reported in the Globe today, many families are living in motels at the state's expense after losing their housing. The thinking here is to keep families off the streets is both cheaper and less destructive long term. They are correct, but the urgency to put the program in place has the state footing a bill going for $89 dollars a night or $2550 a month. That is more expensive than an apartment in some of Boston's nicer neighborhoods. In other cities and towns, motel housing seems even more expensive. Meanwhile, incidents of code violations and crime skyrocket around the motels.

Still, social services lobby the legislature relentlessly. Many most assuredly have the best of intentions, but how many also have six-figure directors and leaders? How many use their influence to strong arm the legislature by targeting and guilting the family or friends of those who would theoretically benefit if said institution got said money? How much money do they waste lobbying by pushing for bills and not just educating officials? How many write proposals to grants for which they have no business applying just to get the money?

This is the sad, darker side of social services. We automatically think of them as pure altruistic institutions. In an era, where even under the best of conditions non-profits, namely social service groups and advocates, will play a huge role in the economy it is necessary that we scrutinize them. We must do so as we have come to scrutinize unions: institutions that have done a lot of good, but have their demons as well. Think of how much of a black eye labor has from the Teamsters alone? Just because the leader of a major non-profit did not end up in a hubcap smelter does not mean a similar dark side does not exist.

Scott Lehigh offered some
speculation that if the legislature fails to pass Ethics reform and the Governor then vetoes the tax hike the Senate may not override. Should the governor veto and the General Court overrule, Lehigh explains, Gov. Patrick gets the money and the political points for vetoing a tax hike. If they don't override, both the Senate and the Governor gain political points, but will need to cut another billion from the budget. That seems less likely now as the Legislature has released its compromise ethics package that excludes some of Gov. Patrick's requests, but retains the House's stronger provisions. Still, Patrick should insist on the greater reforms on Ethics, and also Pensions and Transportation, which he also demanded before agreeing to the sales tax hike.

He should also consider a veto so yet another look is taken at the moneys that are funneled into cities like Springfield, but also Holyoke, Pittsfield, Lawrence, Lowell, Fall River and elsewhere. These moneys support failed, self-defeating, or otherwise insufficient social and urban policies. The policies themselves need to be re-worked and reassessed before more money is thrown at them. Indeed, to quote both Senate President Therese Murray and later Gov. Patrick himself, "Reform Before Revenue."

As for Longhill Gardens, barring unforeseen circumstances, it is a done deal. It is not exactly like old massive projects of old, but it will concentrate poverty into the site once again. With any luck, the warehousing of the poor notwithstanding, the worst of its opponents' fears will not come true. In the meantime, it can become, like the felling of Penn Station became to New York and national Historic Preservation movements: a clarion call and a symbol. To quote Ada Louise Huxtable, re Penn Station, "What was gained was more important than what was lost." If that same attitude can be applied to Springfield and its Longhill episode, perhaps the cycle of economic decay and mediocrity can at last be broken.

Forrant, in Turner's article, chastised the Control Board for failing to consider these things during its tenure, more concerned with the political/governing problems at 36 Court St. However, in their defense, they could only do so much with what they had, their tenured framed by not one, but two economic and budgetary crises. A much needed structural house cleaning of government was the priority while doing what it could economically.

The state remains largely disinterested in really stimulating the Springfield area economy, perhaps only seeing linking it to Boston as the solution. Gov. Patrick may try, but he is a man in a position utterly dwarfed by the legislature's power built up over 16 years and longer. Our local legislators may try, too, but they can often only find the same grant money that may complicate the above mentioned problems; other times they can siphon from programs that can benefit the UMASS Life Science partnership with Springfield hospitals, but are really geared for Boston's massive health and medical establishment.

No, economic redemption, sustainability, and ultimately viability can only come from within at this point. Forrant faults city leaders for failing to accept the inevitable about deindustrialization and take necessary action. There is more blame to go around, however. That failure is only compounded by a counterproductive popular nostalgia for the city's industrial past and vibrant exciting downtown. Money alone is hardly the answer. The city and its residents must face reality and reassess their values to truly transform Springfield and its environs economically while investing time, effort, blood, sweat and tears. Indeed much pain, some unfairly born on its most vulnerable. The end result can be no worse the rotten fruit of the current path. Or it may be the start of something new that remakes a city for a new decade and century.

*Cahill Photo from, Longhill Gardens photo from Urban Compass, Jimmy Hoffa & Penn Station photos from wikipedia.

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