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Springfield’s overseers leave a city in the black

But as state control ends, some fear return of fiscal woes

Hoop at the South End Community Center is among youth programs added in Springfield during the five years the Finance Control Board has managed city books. The state board’s control has ended. Hoop at the South End Community Center is among youth programs added in Springfield during the five years the Finance Control Board has managed city books. The state board’s control has ended. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)
By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / July 1, 2009
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SPRINGFIELD - It got so bad here that even the trees were falling - their dead limbs crashing onto parked cars and into houses, spurring lawsuits against the city that couldn’t afford to cut the trees down.

How bad was it, five years ago? Springfield’s debt was relegated to junk bond status, its budget $41 million in the hole. Street lights were extinguished to save money. Taxes on thousands of properties were left uncollected. When federal agents launched an investigation into public corruption, 33 local officials were eventually convicted.

This was 2004, the nadir for the state’s third-largest city, a once storied manufacturing hub famous as the birthplace of Dr. Seuss and the game of basketball, still home to four colleges, a major hospital, and one of Massachusetts’ largest Fortune 500 companies.

“We had devolved into chaos,’’ said Jim Couture, a project specialist for MassMutual Financial Group.

At the stroke of midnight this morning, a grand experiment in local governance came to an end when the Springfield Finance Control Board, the state-appointed officials who took over the city five years ago to head off bankruptcy, handed the reins back to elected city officials. By many accounts, the city that the state control board returns is a much improved one, on solid financial footing, its operations streamlined, and with checks and balances to prevent another financial crisis.

“Drastic situations call for drastic intervention,’’ said Michael Goodman, director of economic and public policy research for the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute. “Springfield would not be in a position to step forward but for the state’s decision to step in.’’

Even local elected officials who initially chafed under the control board’s authority say the work of the board was needed.

“The control board was able to accomplish a number of things in getting the finances straightened out,’’ said William Foley, the City Council president, who serves on the five-member control board. “I think they did a good job.’’

Around the city, from the gorgeous Victorians in Forest Park to the dilapidated storefronts of the North End, many residents said this week that they feared the control board’s departure. The roster of city officials hasn’t changed dramatically since Springfield’s financial troubles came to a head in 2004, they said, and they worry that old practices will hold sway.

One woman, who declined to give her name as she watered the garden beside her Forest Park home, said some city officials were already backing off the control board’s $90-per-barrel annual trash fee - a sign, she added, of wrongly bowing to popular pressure.

“It’s the same old knuckleheads who are afraid to make the hard decisions,’’ she said.

Philip Tarpey, an attorney and resident for more than half a century, expressed a common sentiment as he lunched with his daughter downtown: “I am sorry to see the board go.’’

Yet, other locals said they were eager to see the out-of-towners return to Boston and elsewhere and leave governance to the officials elected by the people of Springfield. Unions say the five-member control board stripped their workers of fair wages and outsourced jobs in unfairly negotiated contracts.

Still other residents question the long-term effectiveness of the board’s work, saying the board failed to get at the root cause of the financial meltdown - grinding poverty born of decades of economic stagnation.

“They never engaged in a serious conversation about the way to grow jobs,’’ said Robert Forrant, a professor of regional economic development at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who grew up in Springfield and worked at the now-shuttered American Bosch factory, a machine toolmaker.

Control board officials say job creation was a constant current in their discussions. They point to jobs created on their watch - 300 Liberty Mutual call center positions, and 232 jobs at Performance Food Groups, for example - and the tapping of surplus funds for college counseling and financial aid, which they say will expand the educated base of the city and lure employers.

“We need more industry, long-term,’’ said Chris Gabrieli, the former gubernatorial candidate who was named chairman of the control board by Governor Deval Patrick in 2007. “But short-term, we’ve turned the corner from a sense that nothing positive was happening in town.’’

Mayor Domenic Sarno, a control board member, put it this way: “It’s been tough because we were stuck in triage or stabilization and we couldn’t get to that vision part of where you want the city to go. That’s what we are working on now with a good financial base.’’

Located an hour and a half from Boston, Springfield was once an epicenter of manufacturing, turning out machine parts, cars, guns, motorcycles. Its boulevards boasted Queen Anne Victorians, mansions rose on bluffs overlooking the Connecticut River, and the grand, columned Symphony Hall opened.

In the 1960s, the factories began moving to the South and overseas, taking the jobs that had made Springfield a regional powerhouse. Much of the middle class filtered away, leaving behind a population whose poverty grew more entrenched as new jobs failed to take root.

These were daunting challenges for any community. But Springfield was a city whose government had run amuck. When Governor Mitt Romney appointed the control board in 2004, more than 8,000 residents and businesses owed property taxes. The city was on the verge of not being able to make payroll. The Housing Authority’s executive director was under indictment, accused of spending public money on chandeliers, ceramic tile, carpets, and other items for his family’s homes.

When the control board came to power, much of its initial work was basic governance, but tough decisions were less fraught because they didn’t need voter approval. The board collected $31.6 million in outstanding property taxes, including some debts dating to the 1950s. The city began issuing parking tickets more aggressively, then collecting the fines - a novel idea at the time. Board members renegotiated 28 union contracts with city workers. They also changed the city’s health insurance purchasing mechanism, realizing an estimated $96 million savings over five years.

With that foundation, the board embarked on a more sophisticated agenda. It implemented a system that carefully tracks and compares departments and agencies’ performances. It put into place a citizen service line, 311, that uses a computerized tracking mechanism.

Today, the city budget is in the black. Officials report a surplus of $89.3 million, enough to repay the $52 million loan the state made to the city along with the creation of the control board.

Still, more than a third of Springfield’s children live below the poverty line; 9 percent of families rely on public assistance, according to a report by MassINC and UMass Dartmouth’s Urban Initiative, two nonprofit think tanks. The city’s teen pregnancy rate is the second highest in the state and growing, the report says. Shootings and gang violence remain news staples, although FBI statistics show that violent and property crime has dropped in the last five years. The city has an estimated 10.9 percent unemployment rate for May, higher than the statewide rate.

Travis Wray, 39, was laid off from his job in financial services. While he looks for work, he’s been volunteering with groups like the Urban League and helping to launch a group of young Springfield professionals, the sort of effort that he says will bring the city back.

“You have to believe in the city,’’ he said. “I see a foundation being laid for a rebirth.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.