The Control Board Should Stay in Control

When news first leaked of planned legislation to extend the Springfield Finance Control Board’s stay in the City of Homes, many people expressed doubts about whether this was the best route for Springfield.

We at BusinessWest don’t have any.

A quick look around would reveal that some measurable progress has been made on a number of fronts, from the city’s fiscal health to the overall climate for economic development. But the work is far from over, and we think it’s not yet time to even think about turning the keys back over to elected city officials.

This is not an indictment of Mayor Charles Ryan or members of the City Council and School Committee. It’s merely an acknowledgement that the City of Homes still has a long way to go in its efforts to convince residents, business owners, the development community, and bond-rating agencies that it is truly ready for prime time. And we believe the control board’s influence will be needed for at least a few more years to ensure that Springfield is on the right road and won’t soon veer back into the breakdown lane.

Suffice to say that no one should feel comfortable when the very people they elect to office are essentially stripped of their authority, and the job of running their municipality is then placed in the hands of appointed officials from Boston.

But for Springfield, it has been a positive experience.

Why? Because recent city administrations — including former mayors and city councils — have shown a propensity for doing what is politically popular, not what is difficult or what makes fiscal sense. And this is exactly how Springfield got in the mess it’s in — by spending beyond its means and living for the present at the expense of the future.

This mindset needed changing, and the control board has done that. It didn’t win any popularity contests while doing so, especially with hard-working city employees who went years without raises, but that wasn’t the objective. The mission was to right the ship, and at the moment, we feel confident when we say that the city is no longer taking on water.

What remains — and it may take several more years to get the job done — is to institutionalize the changes that the control board has made. In short, there must be mechanisms in place, be they policies or new software applications, to ensure that fiscal responsibility does not again lapse into fiscal irresponsibility, the kind made famous, or infamous, by the city’s disgraced former mayor, Michael J. Albano.

Meanwhile, the city has to make real progress on the matters that most affect economic development and the city’s overall health and well-being. These include public safety, education, neighborhoods, and the city’s image. And here again, we believe the control board’s hand, hard as it might be, is necessary to achieve the desired results.

It’s not that we’re afraid to turn the city back over to its elected and appointed officials next June 30 — OK, maybe we are a little afraid. It’s more a case of feeling comfortable with the control board at the helm, as alarming as that might sound from a PR perspective.

And the business community as a whole should feel more comfortable as well.

Some day, the control board will exit stage left and the city will be left to sink or swim — hopefully swim. That day is not here yet, and it won’t be here for some time to come. That’s why the control board needs to stay in control.