Why the Control Board Should Stay in Control

During a recent appearance at American International College, Lt. Gov. Tim Murphy stated that it’s time for the Finance Control Board that has been managing Springfield for the past 30 months to go. I believe that once he and Gov. Deval Patrick fully understand Springfield’s situation, they’ll come around to my way of thinking — which is that the control board’s work is not finished.

During the FCB’s first two and a half years, I have watched as the city has made steady progress, due in large measure to the board’s undivided efforts. Created by unanimous vote of our legislators, the control board was a thoughtful response to a very complex situation. Rather than impose a single receiver, as was the case in Chelsea in the 1980s, the Legislature created a body that would be reflective of the democratic process. Elected officials — the mayor and the rotating position of City Council president — represent two of the board’s five votes.

Beyond the financial difficulties Springfield experienced prior to the election of Mayor Charles Ryan and the arrival of the FCB, the city was quite literally starving for legitimate attention. Corruption placed a stranglehold on the way Springfield conducted its business.

As a result, very little of the city’s business got done — and not very well.

Thanks to the FCB’s hiring of some effective managers, Springfield’s $41 million budget deficit has been eliminated, and the city now operates with a balanced budget. More than 20 contracts have been negotiated. (It wasn’t that long ago that our police, firefighters, and teachers were working without contracts.) Our resource-deprived departments are now gaining ground on the adoption of 21st-century technology. (It wasn’t long ago that records were kept on index cards and filed in cardboard boxes.)

According to the Finance Control Board, more work needs to be done, particularly in the area of technology: a computerized financial-management system still needs to be implemented. The city should have a centralized payroll system. There is more work to integrate data so that various departments can come to the same conclusions on matters such as permitting and licensing. Zoning reform is still a work in progress.

These critical initiatives — too long neglected — require an effective, non-politicized body in place so that they can move forward in an expeditious manner.

During the receiver’s four-year tenure in Chelsea, citizens were given enough time to lay the groundwork for a new form of government. The charter-review process resulted in the hiring of a city manager. According to my research, two successive city managers have kept Chelsea’s finances in good order for the past 20 years.

I’m not suggesting we need to adopt Chelsea’s solution. Chelsea is a city a fifth the size of Springfield with a land mass about the size of Springfield’s South End. I am advocating for time equivalent to that given Chelsea so that we can conduct a charter review.

Springfield is a complex, $450 million enterprise that gears up for a management change every two years. Can you imagine a private enterprise preparing for a transition in the corner office every 12 months? We need time to review the best practices of other cities our size, facing our urban challenges. Certainly there are ways to combine professional business management with political leadership.

If the Patrick administration is concerned about Springfield, and I have to believe that it is, it needs to keep the Finance Control Board in Springfield for at least two more years. If it’s a simply a matter of semantics, label the next two or three years of the FCB’s tenure transitional. Place the onus on the citizens of Springfield to get their collective act together to lay the groundwork for life after the control board.

In the meantime, allow the FCB to finish what it was created to do.-

Nancy Urbschat is owner of TSM Design in Springfield; (413) 731-7600.