The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The New Crew

Well, the new Springfield Financial Control Board was named yesterday, and there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the appointees are credible people, without anyone chosen from the Springfield Central era, as some had feared. To his credit, Governor Patrick avoided taking the easy path and simply putting in hacks who would have pleased the local power players but done nothing for Springfield as a whole except perhaps send it into another, final downward spiral.

The bad news however, is that nothing in yesterdays announcement, or in the statement by Patrick and new FCB Chairman Chris Gabrielli printed in the Sunday paper, really tells us very much about what direction they are going to go in. There is boilerplate language about improving the schools, but what does that really mean? More funding poured into a system that's not working for reasons having nothing to do with money? A new round of pay raises for everyone with no changes in the status-quo? That is what "improving the schools" has been a buzzword for in the past. If it still means throwing good money after bad, then there is little to get excited about.

More disturbing is the equally vague talk about "economic development." That can mean almost anything, but in Springfield it has traditionally meant boondoggles that fail almost immediately after they are completed, yet are considered a success anyway because all the inside players successfully cashed checks at every step of the process.

Government is by its very nature a poor economic developer. If there are ways to make money, people in the private sector have an unerring ability to step forward and do what needs to be done to pocket the cash. Therefore if there is a proposed project that no private sector person is interested in, that is almost certainly because the private sector can see that the project will fail. Almost by definition any economic development project that requires government (taxpayer) money is a bad project, since if it was likely to succeed the private sector would have gladly funded it on their own.

For example, no one in the private sector was interested in putting condos right in the center of Springfield's ghetto, since commonsense indicates that no one would buy them. Yet that actually happened because government doesn't have to be bound by the laws of economics. Any project, no matter how stupid or destined to fail, can be seen to its conclusion if there's enough government money involved. But once the project is completed and has to stand on its own in the private sector, then they quickly fall flat on their face, usually wiping out millions of dollars of the public's money. For a good example of this kind of farce, which has often been repeated throughout Springfield's history, go here.

I've made no secret of the fact that I think it was a mistake to replace the Control Board members. Yesterday the speakers were full of praise for the work the Romney nominated members have done over the past three years. But of course that praise only begs the question of if they were so good, why replace them? The Boston Globe, in its coverage of the changes, made clear in their first paragraph that this was an entirely political event;

Governor Deval Patrick seized control yesterday of the five-member panel that oversees Springfield's finances, removing Governor Mitt Romney's three appointees and replacing them with his own nominees

I like that phrase, "seized control." Dumping the Romney appointees and putting his own people in charge is the only reason this change is occurring - in other words pure partisan politics. Of course I shouldn't be surprised by that, it's just that one of things that appealed to me about Deval Patrick last year was that he suggested that he was above politics as usual and would do things differently. Oh well, yet another illusion bites the dust.

There is no question that yesterday's events will have an impact on local politics. It now appears that the FCB will be staying for another two full years, instead of the merely one more year Patrick had suggested earlier. That makes winning the mayoralty less valuable this election cycle, since the person elected this Fall will not assume their full powers halfway through their term, as expected under the Governor's prior scenario. While that's fine with Charlie Ryan, who has worked seamlessly with the Control Board, it will be interesting to see if Ryan's challenger Dominic Sarno changes his plans based on the fact that even if he beats Ryan he will only succeed in taking a seat on the Board, a position he already held when he was Council President. Who runs for Council may be affected, since any Councilors elected this year will also not be returned to their full powers during the upcoming term.

What is perhaps the most interesting development in yesterday's changes is the announcement that the Board will consider new forms of governing Springfield, perhaps even abolishing the mayor's office altogether in favor of a city manager hired by the City Council. That was the solution chosen by the Control Board in Chelsea in the 1990's, where there had been (like Springfield) a long history of political corruption. Switching to a manager system was seen as an effective way to help permanently freeze out the old corrupt political machines. It will be interesting to see how the possibility of this and other possible reforms plays out.

But what's really important now is that this new board succeed. Let's give them a honeymoon - not a long one, we can't afford it - but enough time to get their feet on the ground and show us what they can do. There will be time enough to take them to task if they prove unequal to the challenges ahead. But in the meantime let us rally our optimism, raise our hopes and refortify our patience as we move into this uncertain new phase.

I was happy to see when I was in Pine Point last week that there is a new sign on the Pine Point Library!

We Pointers take pleasure in even small improvements.

Finally, here is a video I made yesterday in the Boltwood section of downtown Amherst.

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